Her face peered out from an iconic image taken on the liberation of the Nazi death camp. Now, six decades on, one survivor tells David Smith her compassion extends even to the most infamous of her torturers
Sunday January 9, 2005
Eva Mozes Kor learnt on her first night at Auschwitz what the smoke billowing from the chimneys meant: that most of her family had been killed.
Later she and her twin sister were subjected to biological experiments by the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Yet 60 years after the unprecedented crimes of the Holocaust, she has reached a conclusion: 'If I could meet Dr Mengele today, I would say to him: "I have forgiven you".'
A rare image published in The Observer today shows Eva as a girl at Auschwitz. It is from a film made by Soviet troops after they liberated the camp 60 years ago this month. Not surprisingly, Eva's forgiveness for the people who murdered her family is not shared by all the survivors of Auschwitz and other concentration and extermination camps who will mark the anniversary.
In Posen, Poland, in 1943, Heinrich Himmler told senior members of the SS: 'I want to speak to you frankly about a very grave matter. We can talk about it among ourselves, yet we will never speak about it in public... I am referring to the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. Most of you will know what it means when a hundred bodies lie together, when five hundred lie there, or when there lie a thousand. And... to have seen this through... with just a few exceptions of human weakness... to have remained decent, that has made us tough. It is a page of glory in our history that has never been written and is never to be written.'
Two years later, his Führer dead, the war lost and the camps' murderous work finally halted, Himmler killed himself. By then the Holocaust had claimed the lives of an estimated 6 million Jews, between 200,000 and 800,000 gyp sies, 200,000-300,000 disabled people, 10,000-25,000 homosexuals, 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, up to 3.5 million non-Jewish Poles, between 3.5 million and 6 million other Slavic civilians, as many as 4 million Soviet prisoners of war and up to 1.5 million political dissidents.
Of all the systematic killing factories, it was a dilapidated former army barracks near a town in south-west Poland which became the scene of the greatest mass murder in history. The camp complex built at Auschwitz, including Birkenau with its infamous railway track, witnessed the deaths of an estimated 1.1 million men, women and children - more than the combined British and American losses in the Second World War. One million of the dead were Jews. Anxious to hide their crimes, the SS blew up the chambers into which the lethal Zyklon B gas had been dispersed before taking flight from the advancing Red Army.
The anniversary on 27 January will be observed at a reception for survivors and liberators with the Queen at St James's Palace, followed by a national event in Westminster Hall, first in a sequence of Second World War commemorations this year. New books, television and radio programmes are also telling a history which becomes more, rather than less, compelling and horrifying every time it is heard. Many of the estimated 500 survivors of the death camps or ghettos who live in Britain have never felt able to share their experiences, but others are, six decades later, defying Himmler by telling their stories.
Among the most notorious Auschwitz atrocities were the medical experiments carried out by Mengele, who took particular interest in twins. If one twin died, he would immediately kill the other and carry out comparative post mortems. Eva Mozes Kor and her sister Miriam, aged 10, were two of his subjects. They arrived with their family at Auschwitz in 1944 at the end of a four-day journey after being deported in cattle carts from a Romanian ghetto.
'It was early morning and still dark outside,' Eva, 70, recalled in an interview with The Observer . 'There were a lot of German voices yelling orders outside and then finally the cattle cart doors slid open. They were yelling throughout: "Raus! Raus! Schnell! Schnell!" Within 10 minutes I realised that my father and my two older sisters had disappeared into the crowd. Miriam and I were pulled away from my mother, who was pulled by SS in the opposite direction. We were crying and she was crying: I remember looking back as we were pulled away and seeing my mother's arms stretched out in despair towards us. That was the last time I saw her.
'My sister and I were all alone. We were put in a transport with 16 sets of twins and taken off for pro cessing. We were tattooed, our hair was cut and our dresses marked with a red star. We were taken to barracks filled with twins aged from one to 13.'
The frightened 10-year-old girls soon discovered they were on their own. 'That first night I learnt that probably most of my family was being burnt in these huge chimneys belching smoke and flames. It was just impossible to comprehend. Later that evening Miriam and I went to the latrine and there were the scattered corpses of three children - naked, their bodies shrivelled and their eyes wide open. It was then I made a solemn pledge that I would do everything in my power for Miriam and I not to end up on the latrine floor. I lived up to it and never let it out of my mind for one single moment.'
The daily routine of the 'Mengele twins' was dehumanising. 'We got up every morning at 5am, and by 6am we were outside for roll call, after which we would go back to the barracks for Dr Mengele's daily inspection. After breakfast we would be taken for experiments. Three times a week we would be put naked in a room for six to eight hours where every part of my body was studied compared to my twin sister and compared to charts.
'Once a week we would be taken to the shower room in the afternoon and given a bar of soap. I washed with that soap from 1944 until May 1946 but of course we didn't know what kind of soap it was. When I found out it was made of human fat it gave me severe nightmares and for years and I couldn't wash with soap.
'Three times a week we were taken to the blood lab and they would tie both my arms, and take a lot of blood from my left arm and, on occasion, so much that I fainted. They wanted to know how much blood a person can lose and still live. At the same time they would give injections: a minimum of five in my right arm. Those were the deadly ones, the content of which I still don't know today.'
Another victim of experiments was Leon Greenman, sent to Auschwitz in 1943 with his wife and infant son. He recalled: 'I was a guinea pig for Horst Schumann, the medical professor. One doctor strapped my arms to the chair, parted my legs and strapped them to the chair. I could not move. The lights were dimmed and a rubber tube attached to a large glass bottle filled with liquid was placed into my penis. I never found out what this experiment was for. Probably sterilisation. I don't think I could make a baby again.'
Now 94 and still campaigning against fascism, Greenman was, almost exceptionally at Auschwitz, British. He explained: 'I ought not to have been there, but the people in Rotterdam looking after our passports became frightened and burnt them. As soon as we arrived in Birkenau the women and men were separated. I found out later my wife and child and most of those people had been gassed within two and a half hours. I didn't know that then. I thought they were still somewhere and that kept me alive until the end.'
The BBC begins a major six-part series this week - Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution , written and produced by Laurence Rees. One of the most sensitive subjects he explores is the camp's brothel, which Himmler believed would increase productivity by offering 'hard-working' prisoners - excluding Jews - an incentive to work even harder. Ryszard Dacko, a former prisoner, recalls spending time with a girl called Alinka: 'I wanted to be as close as possible to her, to embrace her. It was three and a half years since I was arrested; three and a half years without a woman.'
One day in early January 1945, Eva Mozes Kor went outside to find the Germans had apparently vanished and she could search for food. But two weeks later she heard a car outside the kitchen. 'It looked like an army jeep. Four SS were there with machine guns and they jumped up and began spraying bullets in every direction. The last thing I remember was the barrel of the machine gun pointing at my head and then I faded away.
'I don't know how long I was out but then I woke up, the Nazis were gone and I thought I was in the other world. I tried to feel my arms and legs and couldn't and I thought: "That's the way it is in the other world." But I looked around and saw a lot of people lying on the ground. I reached out and touched one and she was ice cold. I realised that I must have fainted just before a bullet hit me.'
Eva heard explosions as the retreating Germans blew up the gas chambers, and finally they were gone. 'One woman went to the front of the barracks and started yelling: "We are free, we are free, we are free." We all raced to the front. It was a cloudy day, snowing heavily, the visibility was extremely poor. I stood there for about half an hour until I could make out the faces of the people coming. They were in camouflage clothes. They didn't look like Nazis so we ran to them and they gave us hugs and cookies and chocolate. Then they came into our barracks and drank a lot of vodka and there was Russian dancing and everyone seemed to be happy.
'Next day the Russians started registration and told us to put on striped uniforms and march between barbed wire. They had huge cameras and I was fascinated they were making us into movie stars - when I was very young I had been to see a movie of Shirley Temple. Today I am grateful they did that - at least I have a picture of how I looked then.'
After the war Eva and Miriam emigrated to Israel and served in the army. In 1960 Eva married an American and moved to the US, where she had two children and now lives in Terre Haute, Indiana. Miriam died from cancer in 1993. Eva is the founder of Candles (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiment Survivors) but a rift has developed between her and some other twins because of her willingness to forgive the perpetrators of the crimes.
'In 1993 I met Hans Münch, a Nazi doctor from Auschwitz and a friend of Mengele. I found out that he was a real human being and a very nice man. I really liked him and that was a very strange feeling. He said the nightmare he lived with every single day of his life was watching the people dying in the gas chambers - he had to sign the death certificates when everybody stopped moving.
'I asked if he would go with me to Auschwitz in 1995 to sign a document saying what he did at the ruin of the gas chamber in the company of witnesses, and he said yes. Afterwards I decided to give him a letter of forgiveness. I thought maybe he would like it, but I also discovered that I had the power to forgive, and it was a tremendously empowering and interesting feel ing. So I began writing my letter which ended with a declaration of me forgiving everybody.
'If I could meet Dr Mengele today, I would say to him: "I have forgiven you." Forgiveness has nothing to do with the perpetrator. Forgiveness has everything to do with the victim taking back their life. I don't have to deal with the whole issue of who did what to me and how on earth am I going to punish them and make them pay for it. I am free of all that baggage.'
For thousands of other survivors, however, the search goes on and the questions remain. Sixty years on, the schoolchildren, tourists and researchers who visit Auschwitz, which is remarkably well preserved, find a desolate and cumulatively shattering place, devoid of hope or redemption - and a sense that all of us were diminished on the tracks to Birkenau.
www.auschwitz-muzeum. oswiecim. pl Auschwitz-Birkenau museum and visitor information.
www.ushmm.org/wlc/en Holocaust Encyclopedia run by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
www.candles-museum.com Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiment Survivors Holocaust Museum.
www.holocaustmemorialday.gov.uk Home Office guide to 27 January.
www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/genocide/holocaust_overview_01.shtml BBC articles and background.
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