INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The day the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz in Poland during the winter of 1945, a cameraman shot film of rescued children walking hand-in-hand out through the gate and past the barbed wire.
That the children survived the nightmare of Dr. Josef Mengele’s medical house of horrors was miracle enough, but that one little girl at the front of the line, captured on film, would come to Indiana, raise a family in Terre Haute, forgive her Nazi tormentors and be awarded the state’s highest honor is beyond comprehension.
Eva Kor received the Sachem by Governor Eric Holcomb during a ceremony at the Indiana War Museum, an award handed out to Hoosiers who combine, “a lifetime of accomplishment with moral virtue that has brought credit and honor to Indiana.”
By every conceivable benchmark, Eva Kor qualifies.
In 1944, Eva, twin sister Miriam and their entire family arrived on a train in Auschwitz in southern Poland. Immediately, the twins were separated from their mother, never to be seen again, and housed in a barracks full of identically paired children as Dr. Mengele’s victims in medical experiments designed to prove the genetic superiority of the Germanic people and their Thousand Year Reich.
“I was a human guinea pig in Auschwitz,” Eva told biographers Bob Hercules and Cheryl Pugh in the award winning 2006 documentary, “Forgiving Dr. Mengele.”
“I myself was injected with a deadly germ,” Eva said, recalling that she lie deathly ill in her bunk at the camp. “Mengele came in with four other doctors looked at my fever chart and walked away and said, ‘She only has two weeks left to live.’
“I refused to die.”
Eva’s will to live was surpassed only by the fear of what would happen to Miriam, knowing that when one twin died, Mengele would kill the other in order to conduct comparative autopsies.
When Eva and Miriam walked out of the camp at the age of ten, their lives began again, first in Israel and then, for Eva, in Terre Haute.
Married to a fellow Holocaust survivor, Eva set about raising a son and daughter, fighting prejudice in Vigo County because of her thick accent and eventually finding success in selling real estate.
Still, she was plagued by the depression, anger and mistrust that found its roots in Auschwitz.
In the early 1990s, Eva returned the Germany for the first time since the aftermath of World War II and convinced a former German Army doctor, Hans Munch, to accompany her to Auschwitz and admit what Mengele had done.
Then Eva decided to forgive the chief Nazi medical torturer.
“Nobody ever wants to be a victim but there are victims in the world and if I can give them one gift they can use is to try to forgive and heal themselves,” said Eva after she accepted the Sachem. “That to me is the greatest gift I can give anybody to how to deal with their pain and liberate themselves.”
Not all Holocaust survivors agreed, claiming Eva’s forgiveness would give the Nazis a free pass and be a betrayal of the six million who died.
“There is a lot more to life than just Auschwitz,” said Eva in the documentary by Media Process Group. “Forgiveness has nothing to do with the perpetrator. It has nothing to do with religion. It has only everything to do with the way the victim is empowering himself or herself and taking back their life.”
If forgiveness is a central tenet of the meaning of Easter, a small Jewish woman who survived seven decades of Nazi atrocities and their memories and attempts to kill her has shown all Hoosiers the power of overcoming to rise victoriously past the murderous bullies whose terror tore apart her family and the world.
“What a wonderful way to live my life at age 83,” said Eva backstage at the Indiana War Memorial. “People are interested in what I have to say. That’s pretty neat.”
In 1995, Eva opened the Candles Holocaust Museum and Education Center.
Ten years later, the museum was gutted by an arsonist’s torch, the hate crime punctuated by the graffiti, “Free Timmy McVeigh,” painted on the ruins, calling for the release of the Oklahoma City bomber serving time before he was executed inside the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute.
The museum reopened in 2005, to serve as Eva’s base as she travels throughout Indiana, the U.S. and the world spreading her message as a Warrior for Forgiveness.
Next month, in an honor almost as improbable as the Sachem, Eva will ride high atop a float through the streets of downtown Indianapolis as the Grand Marshal of the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade, a long way and time away from the little girl who grasped her sister’s hand and walked out of Auschwitz, besting the Third Reich thugs who could not destroy her body or spirit or commitment to rise above.