Last Thursday, 81-year-old Holocaust survivor Eva Kor approached Oskar Groening, a former member of the SS at Auschwitz-Birkenau who is on trial for 300,000 counts of accessory to murder, and offered her hand.
Groening took it, brought her in close, and kissed her on the cheek.
“Why forgiveness is the best revenge of all” — Eva Kor http://t.co/Z8gypgx8Fd pic.twitter.com/LLrbw29U5N
— The Times of London (@thetimes) April 25, 2015
But this was not the first time that Kor had shaken Groening’s hand, which Kor recalled for website, Quora:
On the first day of the trial, I introduced myself and reached out to shake his hand. The strangest thing happened. He was trying to say something as he was sitting sideways in his chair. He turned white and fell backwards, not saying a word. He was holding onto my arm so he did not hit the floor. At that moment he was not a Nazi but an old man who fainted and I was trying to save him from falling. I screamed, “He is falling and I can’t hold onto him – he is a big old guy!” This was not the interaction I was hoping for. I knocked out an old Nazi.
A self-described “forgiveness advocate,” Kor, one of the Holocaust survivors testifying at the trial, said to him: “I appreciate the fact that you are willing to come here and face us.”
“I know many people will criticize me for this photo,” Kor wrote on Facebook, “but so be it.”
Two days prior, on the first day of the trial, Groening told the judge “it is beyond question that I am morally complicit. This moral guilt I acknowledge here, before the victims, with regret and humility.”
He described an account of the “atrocities” he witnessed, the New York Times reported:
…one night in December 1942 when he said he was rousted from bed to help hunt down fleeing prisoners. In the process, he told the court, he saw prisoners herded into a building and an SS superior tip gas out of a can into an opening. The screams of the prisoners inside “grew louder and more desperate, and after a short time became quieter and then stopped completely,” Mr. Gröning said.
“That was the only time I saw a complete gassing,” he said, emphasizing that “I did not take part.”
But Kor experienced first-hand the atrocities that Groening facilitated, which she recounted in a letter to Groening:
In May 1944, when we were taken to Auschwitz, my name was Eva Mozes. My family and I were part of the Hungarian transport. My family included my father Alexander Mozes, 44 years old; my mother Jaffa Mozes, 38 years old; my older sister Edit, 14 years old; my middle sister Aliz, 12 years old; and my twin sister, Miriam, 10 years old. Within thirty minutes after arriving on the selection platform, Miriam and I were ripped apart from our family forever. Only she and I survived, because we were used in experiments conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele.
Within half an hour we became part of a group of twin girls aged two to sixteen: thirteen sets of little girls and one mother. We were taken to a processing center where they cut our hair short and took our clothes away. That evening they returned them with a red cross at the backs. Then they lined us up for tattooing. When my turn came, I decided to cause them as much trouble as a tenyear-old could. Two Nazis and two women prisoners restrained me with all their force. They began by heating a needle. When the needle got hot, they dipped it into ink and burned into my left arm, dot by dot, the capital letter A-7063. Miriam became A-7064…
For the next two weeks I only have one clear memory: I was crawling on the floor because I could no longer walk. I was crawling to reach a faucet with water because they did not even give us water anymore.
In 1960, Kor’s sister Miriam developed kidney infections while she was pregnant with her first child. These infections worsened during her second pregnancy 13 years later. In fact, tests revealed that Miriam’s kidneys hadn’t grown larger than those of a 10-year-old.
I begged her not to become pregnant a third time, but she refused to listen to me. After the birth of her third child, her kidneys started to deteriorate and no medicine would work. So she needed to have a kidney transplant. I donated my kidney in 1987. We were a perfect match. But one year later, she developed cancer. The doctors were very surprised because they had at least 50 different patients who had kidney transplants and none of them were sick or developed cancer. The doctors asked me what was injected into our bodies in Auschwitz. We never found our Auschwitz files from Mengele’s experiments, so we never found out what they were injecting in our bodies. Miriam died June 6, 1993.
In 1984, Kor founded CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors), in an effort to locate other surviving Mengele twins; and in 1995 she opened the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terra Haute, Indiana.
In her letter to Groening (well worth a read on its own), released a day before she met him, Kor writes about the three life lessons she extends to youths:
1. Never give up on yourself or your dreams. I did not know how to survive Auschwitz, but I was determined to do it. Here I am 70 years later because I never gave up.
2. Treat people with respect and fairness to eliminate prejudice from your life.
3. Forgive your worst enemy and forgive anybody who [h]as ever hurt you. I forgave the Nazis and I forgave everybody who hurt me.
In September 2014, Tablet contributor Alexander Aciman described a dilemma that is arises in trying Groening:
…there’s something fundamentally problematic about how rare it is that a Nazi finally be charged with a crime. In fact, Groening has been under investigation for quite some time, and was even interviewed by Der Spiegel in 2005 about his various jobs at the camp. He’s been a controversial figure—comfortably living in Germany for the past few decades.
The fact is that very few high-level guards and officers ever stand trial. Often, they end up dying before their trial dates… The question, of course, is why it takes more than half a century to bring war criminals and murderers to trial.
“I am probably the only survivor who has forgiven all the Nazis, including you, in my name alone,” Kor wrote to Groening. “My forgiveness does not absolve the perpetrators from taking responsibility for their actions, nor does it diminish my need and right to ask questions about what happened at Auschwitz.”
“I told the media that he was a small screw in a big killing machine, and the machine cannot function without the small screws,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “But obviously he is a human being. His response to me is exactly what I was talking about when I said you cannot predict what will happen when someone from the victims’ side and someone from the perpetrators’ side meet in a spirit of humanity.”
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Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.