It’s cold tonight. It’s easily low 20’s with the wind chill, and I’m headed home from work.
I’m not really so much in the mood to get back on my bike shortly after getting home to head to Rhode Island College, but it’s an important event:
Eva Mozes Kor is speaking. I couldn’t believe it when I read it. And I knew there was no way I was going to miss it.
I had heard of Eva Kor a few years earlier in her documentary entitled, “Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” which, if you’re aware of who Dr. Mengele was, is a pretty audacious title. Dr. Mengele was the infamous Nazi doctor of Auschwitz concentration/death camp during the Holocaust. His name rose to prominence because of the grotesque experiments he would perform on the prisoners at the camp. His favorite subject was twins. He is also known as the Angel of Death.
Eva Mozes Kor was one of them. She survived the Holocaust, and so did her sister. She now runs a small Holocaust Museum, called CANDLES Holocaust Museum in Terra Haute, Indiana, and travels the world telling her incredible life story, and sharing her philosophy on hope and forgiveness.
I knew I wasn’t going to miss it.
I got home and still hadn’t yet succeeded in convincing myself not to go. So this was so far boding well.
I got into the shower and immediately realized the mistake I had made–I had to leave almost immediately thereafter, with wet hair (my hair is ridiculously thick), and it was 28 degrees out.
I almost decided against going, but my fiance reminded me that Mrs. Kor is 84, and that there wouldn’t likely be another opportunity like this. I dried all 43lbs of my hair and put on my balaclava for extra insulation.
I was going.
The drivers are very…driver-ish tonight. The rapidly-failing sunlight doesn’t help matters. But I’ve got excellent lighting, my bike is fluorescent green, and I’ve been riding in city traffic for a decade. Despite the cranky drivers who dweebily harass me and try to run stop signs/red lights/me over, I’m unfazed.
About halfway down Broadway, something feels off. Like my bike is sinking? Or something?
I go a bit farther and decide I’m definitely not imagining it, and assume that one of my wheels had come a bit loose and the wobble is what’s making the ride feel mushy. Doesn’t seem it, but I tighten the front wheel just in case. And decide to check the back.
My wheel isn’t loose–my tire is leaking.
Ok. So I’m 3 miles from home, but also 3 miles from my destination. My fiance works near the college, and gets out shortly before the event, so I know I have a ride. I know from experience that this is a slow leak. I also know from experience that if I get to the Woonasquatucket Bike Path, there’s a public repair stand that’s probably pretty well lit. And that public repair stand has a public pump.My tire isn’t dangerously low, it’s just soft.
I decide that risking the 1 mile ride for a speeding-traffic free and secluded area to change my tube or fill my tire is worth it.
I get to the repair stand, and was very, very wrong about the lighting. It’s pitch dark, but I have an excellent headlight. I sort out the pump and get going.
Wait. No, I don’t. The pump head won’t seal on the valve stem. I check. It’s worn completely. Fortunately I have a frame pump (a compact pump that mounts to the frame of a bike–a pain to use as a main pump, but a lifesaver on the side of the road). I get the tire inflated enough to be comfortable riding on it.
It’s about now that a woman comes up to me. I apparently woke her up, and my flashing tail light (it’s red) made her think I was a police officer. She’s clearly not doing so well, and our conversation is brief because we both want to get back to warmer activities. I told her I hope she stays warm. It’s now 23 degrees and probably dropping, but she has a small dog zipped into her jacket, so I’m hoping they both made the frigid night more bearable.
Back in the saddle, my bike feels much better. No more mushy feel. And my tire hadn’t lost any more air since I first noticed, so now that it’s topped off, I know I’m all set. Worried my numerous setbacks will make me late to meet my fiance, I start spinning a bit harder.
The drivers aren’t so awful now, but it’s so dark that my lights are definitely clearly visible–as are the ghostly reflective bits of my jacket. Maybe 10 minutes later, I’m pulling into the animal hospital where she works.
And…so is she? What?
Apparently she got out a few minutes early, and thinking that I’d have been long at the venue, she decided to meet me there instead. Fortunately, she saw me hauling ass down Woonasquatucket Ave., and turned around to meet me.
The effort has me soaked with sweat despite it pushing 20 degrees now, and it’s hard to cool down now that I have to immediately get into a warm car.
It’s ok. We’re almost there, and there’s still at least 50 minutes till showtime.
We park, I make sure my bike is locked to the car, and we make our way to the Nazarian Center and it’s…oddly quiet. We’re early. Maybe doors are open half an hour before. We walk around inside a bit and start feeling a little out of place.
We can’t be the only ones who think this is a big deal. Where is everyone?
Maybe I was wrong about where on campus it was? Maybe it’s had a last minute change?
I’m definitely correct. Thursday, February 15th, 7pm. It’s February 8th, and we’re a week early.
I laugh at myself, and all the dumb mishaps that happened along the way here. I’m glad I got the extra 7 miles of riding in, and glad that dinner is early.
A week goes by, and now campus looks a bit more like it. The Nazarian Center is lit out front, although the building itself is a bit ominous-looking in the light. We check the time, and make our way to the campus cafe to get a bit to eat before settling in line.
As I stand on line and eat my cookie, my gratefulness for this opportunity is palpable. A Holocaust Survivor. Right at Rhode Island College. With WWII ending over 70 years ago, opportunities like this are certainly becoming once in a lifetime.
And during World Anthropology Month at that.
The place is packed. I’m so happy that so many made it. Not an empty seat. And it would turn out that hundreds more were in the next building over, watching the live stream of the event. Mrs. Kor is a big deal. Her story is a big deal.
She was born in Romania in 1934, and already by her early life, anti Jewish sentiment was on the rise. Jews could only hire other Jews. And be hired by other Jews. School children were taught basic arithmetic with equations like “If you have 5 Jews and you kill 3, how many are left?” It’s a shocking notion to wrap your head around, but she was able to draw some parallels to today.
By the time she was 6, a Hungarian Nazis guarded her village. She was moved (with her family) to a ghetto at 10. From there, they were moved to Auschwitz. She described being packed into the cattle cars and the intense dread that was felt by everyone on board.
Immediately after getting off the train, sorting began. And she was identified as a twin with her sister. She describes places and procedures with names that she gave them, things like the “sorting platform” and the “blood room.” She describes the tattooing process. Some children received clearer ones, some children less so. She noticed that the children who gave the Nazis more trouble would receive messier tattoos and she wondered if this was a way to clue them in to people who were more likely to be subservient.
Her number was A-7063.
Given countless injections and subject to hours of tedious examinations, neither she, nor her sister, ever found out what they were injected with. At one point, she fell extremely ill and was put into a separate facility, essentially where the children would go to die.
However, she survived and she regained what little health could be regained in a place like that. In her absence, her sister’s will was broken and Eva became determined to keep them both alive.
And they did survive. Her sister passed away years ago. She had lived a full life, but after falling dramatically ill after birthing two children, it was discovered that her kidneys had never developed past the stage of a 10 year old child.
Whatever they had injected her sister with, it had stopped her kidneys from developing.
She wound up developing cancer, and with all likely causes eliminated, it was determined that whatever had been injected into her decades earlier was still taking its toll.
Some 50 years later, the experiments she suffered at the hands of Josef Mengele had killed her sister.
But Eva had begun a transformation. She had met a former Nazi doctor, and he agreed to meet with her. She had no idea what to expect, and as the days grew closer she began feeling her trauma once again. She was traveling to Germany to meet with a Nazi doctor. She reflected on her peculiar life.
She asked him to sign documentation of what went on in the camps. She said that it was to show any Holocaust-denying revisionists she would meet. They met, and they talked, and they kept in touch.
After their meeting, she struggled for a long time with how to thank him for agreeing to meet, and allowing her access into another part of her own story. She had some odd feelings about even having the need to thank him. No, he didn’t conduct experiments on her, personally. But obviously he was part of something much bigger, and that something had tried–and came nauseatingly close to succeeding–in exterminating Eva and people like her.
Finally it dawned on her. She would forgive him. She spent a lot time writing the letter, and realized how incredible it made her feel. She felt a power in the face of the evil she experienced that’d she’d never had before.
But then…her suffering wasn’t directly at the hands of this man. He was a representation of it. So she thought about Josef Mengele, and what it would take to forgive him, and those others who directly tortured and exterminated her family and the countless thousands of others who came through Auschwitz while she was there.
And she did. She forgave him.
It wasn’t for him, though. It was for her. It wasn’t a decision that the perpetrators of the Holocaust deserved to be absolved of the weight of their crimes; rather, it was the realization that cutting the emotional ties to them freed her. They were as good as irrelevant to her life. They had no more power.
And it was freeing beyond her wildest dreams.
She now travels the world sharing her incredible life story and her message of hope and forgiveness. For some, the forgiveness is a bit too far. Other survivors of the Holocaust and their families sometimes don’t think it’s her place. She has, in many ways, become a spokesperson, and her words in a sense become the words of Holocaust survivors as a group.
She makes it clear that that’s not her intention. She says they can hold on to their hatred, but she’s chosen to move on. In some ways, I agree with her. In other ways, I see reflections of those who tell victims of all manner of abuse to get past it on terms that aren’t necessarily their own.
That’s not her intention either. She is good-humored about it all. She has a lightning-quick wit and the demeanor of someone who has experienced and been subjected to more than almost anyone else on earth can claim to rival. And she is untouchable because of it. She simply offers her approach to others who want it.
She says to forgive. For survivors of any crime or hurtful act to write a letter to the perpetrator. Address them directly, and forgive them explicitly.
But don’t send it. It’s for you, not them.
They don’t need to know you forgive them; it’s you, who needs to know that they have no power over you anymore. And from there, you can move on. Tethers cut and free from the pain they’ve caused you.
She also sees that in the horrible indoctrination into hatred that began in the earliest stages of public education lies another answer. In changing the way we approach children, in pointing education towards compassion and individual strengths, we can combat so much hatred before it can take root.
It’s hard to find fault in what she says, and she isn’t wrong. There is nothing to lose in building compassion and denying those who’ve hurt you to continue to hold power over your life.
Her talk ends with a standing ovation as Rhode Island College’s president comes on stage to awkwardly thank her while sharing RIC’s goals in a way that sounded uncomfortably like a used-car salesman-turned politician trying to hijack the evening and make it about himself and how great Rhode Island College is.
Through that she still remained good humored and cut through the awkwardness with her unceasing wit.
Days and weeks later it still feels fresh and on a nearly daily basis we are all reminded of why it’s more important than ever.
I don’t think a single person left her talk with quite the same outlook as they had going in.