At 10 years old, Eva Mozes did the unthinkable: She survived Auschwitz—along with her identical twin sister Miriam. But even after surviving nine months of hell there as the slave of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, Eva felt she was still in hell after the camp was liberated. The rest of her immediate family had been murdered. Mengele, the man behind her suffering, lived and died a free man, despite all her work to have him caught. After decades of unending rage, she did something else that seemed unthinkable: She forgave Mengele.
Eva Mozes Kor spent a lot of time with me during the last year of her life, as the two of us worked on a children’s book about her true story, published by Little, Brown as I Will Protect You. Though the educational part about the Holocaust and antisemitism is the main purpose of the book, Eva did want to talk about forgiveness in there, and it led to us having conversations about what forgiveness meant to her.
The way she described forgiveness to me was very simple: To her, forgiveness meant you stopped hating someone, because hating them hurt you, not them. Forgiveness was healing for her; it changed her life. Eva said—in a line that went into our book: “I didn’t forgive the Nazis because they deserve it. They don’t. I forgave them because I deserve it.”
There are plenty of articles out there about Eva’s forgiveness, some of them riddled with misunderstandings or outright errors, including ones published by otherwise esteemed places like The Washington Post and Tablet. Many articles have taken a particular tone in response to her forgiveness. In some, there is a tone of the glowing praise, as if Eva did something moral by forgiving; people go as far as to describe her as an angel and talk in fluttery tones about how amazing she was. In other articles, there can be a tone of snide contempt, as if Eva did something immoral and hurtful and should be ashamed of herself because she forgave.
Both of these extremes miss the reality I experienced with Eva. Like many people, her thoughts would evolve over time, and sometimes things she said in the past contradicted the Eva I knew, because she had seen what wasn’t working for her anymore and moved on. Eva wasn’t an angel; she was a person like anyone else, but a person who had survived such extreme childhood trauma it almost feels unbelievable. I survived childhood trauma, too, though nothing to the extreme she did, and when I told her about some of it, she listened with a sympathetic ear and remarked, “So you also know suffering,” and seemed to feel this would enable me to tell her story. She never pushed me to forgive or gave off any I’m-more-moral-than-you vibes. She liked to say to me that she did things in her name alone, because other people might feel differently, and I think this hits it on the head. Eva said forgiveness saved her life. At the end of the day, I believe, Eva’s decision had nothing to do with morality, and everything to do with coping from trauma, and that different things work for different people when it comes to emotional healing.
“Forgiveness” may not even be the best word for what Eva talked about, depending on one’s definition of forgiveness, but it was the word Eva, who spoke several languages before English, chose to use. For many people, forgiveness can have a religious meaning. Eva was brought up in a very devout Jewish household, where she may have learned about the concept of teshuvah, or repentance. After this, there can be forgiveness. But Eva’s form of forgiveness does not fit within this Jewish description; Mengele never regretted what he did or tried to make amends, and, if he had another opportunity, he may have done the same things again.
Many people in America, not versed with Jewish ideas on forgiveness and repentance, will have an idea of Christian forgiveness, whether or not they’re Christian. Forgiveness and morality are tied together in Christianity, and when people are trying to cast what Eva did as moral, I believe they’re usually thinking about the Christian idea of forgiveness, something that might bother Jewish people. Some people have tried to describe Eva’s forgiveness as Christian, but this is incorrect. Christian forgiveness involves Jesus and a belief in washing away sins. Eva didn’t think Mengele’s sins were washed away. When I first saw Eva give a speech, a woman in the audience thought she was being profound by saying something passive-aggressive to Eva about Christ being at Auschwitz, a comment that made some people in the audience groan. Eva said something to the effect of how at Auschwitz she learned she could not count on anyone but herself.
No, there was not a religious aspect to Eva’s forgiveness, and no survivor should be pressured to forgive or not forgive. While Eva may have made forgiveness sound like the easy, clear choice for her, there are some things to keep in mind. Forgiveness is not something that can happen overnight. It took decades before it worked for Eva. One time I asked her how she’d have felt if someone pressured her to forgive before she decided it was right for herself. She, the forgiveness advocate, acknowledged she wouldn’t have liked it pushed on her. Still, she found it so helpful in her life she couldn’t help bringing up the option to other people, wanting in her own way to help them. Some people found this inspiring and some people found it off-putting. One day as we sat side-by-side and she flipped through a children’s Holocaust textbook I had brought over, she paused, commented on how she knew one of the survivors being discussed in the book, and remarked, “She said to me that she wished she could forgive like me, but it was too hard.”
Eva also made it clear that to her, forgiveness could only happen after the danger was over. It made no sense to her to forgive someone who was still actively hurting you. In our private talks, she spoke to me in anger about a person in her life. This person, she said, was incredibly selfish and caused problems for other people, and then blamed others (usually the victim) for the problems this person caused. There was no talk of forgiving this person. I have met people through Eva who appear to have latched onto her fame and who talk the good talk in public about forgiveness and standing up for Jewish people. But get these same people in private and they can be abusive and exploitative. Forgiveness does not mean that an abusive person shouldn’t be outed, or punished. It meant that if all those things were already done—or, if the person had died and could no longer hurt you—you had the right to heal yourself by getting rid of the poison of anger.
At the end of the day, what I have found to be the closest to Eva’s description of forgiveness is not religion or morality. It’s philosophy. It can’t be stressed enough the amount of pain that Eva—or any Holocaust survivor—has had to deal with. Imagine living for decades with the murder of your relatives and the destruction of the world you knew. Imagine feeling, decades after being freed from Auschwitz, that you were still Mengele’s slave. Imagine the sense of anger and powerlessness, especially since Mengele was never found and put on trial.
Stoicism is a form of philosophy about finding inner strength no matter what, no matter how hard life can be, and there is talk that if a person can make you angry, this person is your master. This is what Greek Stoic philosopher Epitectus, who was a slave about 2,000 years ago, said, “No man is free who is not master of himself.”
This, I think, is the core of what helped Eva eventually find peace. From constant hate coloring her existence to moving through life without hate—what a relief that must have been. When she realized she had power over her own mind and Mengele was no longer allowed to torture her in there, suddenly she felt powerful and like her own master. She went from victim to survivor, and when speaking with me, she made it very clear she wanted to be seen as a survivor instead of a victim. For years, Mengele had won. Now, after learning in Auschwitz she could only depend on herself, she found a way where she had power over herself again instead of letting him control her.
She had been a Holocaust educator before finding forgiveness, but afterward she really threw herself into it. When she freed her mind, she could do her actions so much more freely, peacefully and effectively, and those actions were educating on the Holocaust, especially children. That’s what I knew best about Eva—not the forgiveness, but the woman on a mission to teach people about the Holocaust so it wouldn’t happen again. That was how we came to work together on I Will Protect You. Eva said you needed to reach kids before 12, when Holocaust education usually starts in school, because by then the prejudices are already formed. If she hadn’t gotten her life under control, I don’t know that she would have been able to work on this book.
Everyone experiences trauma to some extent. When I was in kindergarten, a close family member was murdered and the murderer escaped any justice in this world. I coped by developing OCD, which didn’t give me any comfort, only the guise of having some control. It wasn’t until I was an adult I could start talking about the murder and the trauma afterward, and I think Eva was right that this early experience helped me write from a traumatic child’s point-of-view for I Will Protect You.
Likewise, it took Eva decades to find any sort of healing, and while it didn’t make life perfect, it made life an actual life. At the end of the day, she did the unthinkable again: She not only saved her life from the Nazis, but she saved her spirit, too.
Danica Davidson is the author of 18 books for young people, ranging from serious nonfiction to novels.