Thursday, August 22, 2013

Forgiving the Unforgivable

Eva Kor in 2011
Photo courtesy:
OberRanks via wikipedia
I recently watched an astounding documentary called Forgiving Dr. Mengele.  Eva Kor was a twin.  She and her sister, Miriam, were subject to unspeakable experiments by Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz during 1944 and 1945.  They were liberated in 1945.  After the war, Eva emigrated to Israel where she met and married another Holocaust survivor.  Eventually, they moved to the United States and Eva became a successful realtor in Indiana.

Years after the war, Miriam died due to lasting effects from some of the experiments, particularly the injections, Dr. Mengele performed.  Hoping to find some answers regarding her sister's death, Eva met with Dr. Hans Münch, a German physician who had worked with Mengele at Auschwitz, in 1993.  Dr. Münch had been acquitted of war crimes in 1947, the only one out of 41 staff from Auschwitz who was not convicted, after many prisoners testified that he had saved them from being killed.  He also had refused to participate in the selection process, deciding who would go to the gas chambers, who would be the human lab rats, and who would be put to work.

After their meeting, Eva wrote a letter of forgiveness to Dr. Münch.  Two years later, Eva and Dr. Münch met again in Auschwitz on the fiftieth anniversary of its liberation.  Eva, speaking only for herself and standing on the grounds of that death camp, read a declaration of amnesty and forgiveness for all Nazis.

This was not well-received by every Holocaust survivor.

Even for Eva, it was not a given.  In the documentary, Eva stated that "if you'd told me ten years ago I'd forgive the Nazis, I'd have told you to find a good psychiatrist!" but that for her, "the word is healing more than forgiveness."  She felt it was necessary for her to forgive in order to live her life to the fullest, to remove the last vestiges of power that the Nazis held over her.  Forgiveness empowered her.  In relating the moment when her son suggested that, since she had forgiven Dr. Münch, perhaps she should consider forgiving the rest of the Nazis, she described a feeling of amazement.  The Nazis, and specifically Dr. Mengele, had held such complete power over her, but now she could exercise complete power over them by extending forgiveness.

Other Holocaust survivors objected strenuously.  It is not your place, they said, to offer forgiveness for the crimes committed against millions of people.  You do not have to power or ability to forgive them for what they did to other people, the people they killed.  These actions are beyond forgiveness, especially when those who committed these evil acts are not penitent.  Her response was passionate.  "Forgiveness has nothing to do with the perpetrator.  It has nothing to do with any religion.  It has everything to do with the way the victim is empowering himself or herself in taking back their life."

In a fascinating coda to her story of forgiveness for the Holocaust, the latter portion of the documentary shows Eva traveling back to Israel.  There she agrees to meet with a group of Palestinians who have suffered under Israeli occupation.  Her interactions with them were a startling contrast to her forgiving words about the Nazis.   Eva was obviously uncomfortable in the meeting, fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, stone-faced.  Finally, she said, "I do not want to hear your stories.  I've already heard them and I do not want to hear them again."  One of the Palestinians lamented, "I hoped the Jews would learn from the Holocaust and not let another catastrophe happen."  It must have been so disappointing to them to have this spokesperson for forgiveness refuse to even engage in a conversation, recognizing their humanity.

It seems rather harsh of Eva to extend forgiveness to one group and not the other.  All I could think to explain it is that everyone has blind spots, everyone has a breaking point.  Eva later tangentially commented on the difference when she said, "There must be a space between the action and forgiveness."  She was able to forgive the Nazis 50 years after the fact.  Perhaps it will just take time for her to be able to extend that forgiveness to the Palestinians as well.

Forgiveness was not the only empowering step Eva made.  She describes "using my experiences as a springboard for action."  In 1984, she opened a museum about the Holocaust, particularly to share the story of the Mengele twins, called the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center.  Today, at the age of 79, she still travels around the country and world talking about the Holocaust and about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a powerful tool for healing, as Eva states.  It is about the victim reclaiming power and control, refusing to be held down or limited by anger or fear any longer.  It may take fifty years, it may come instantaneously for some, there can be no schedule imposed upon a victim's intensely personal journey.  But it is an end worth reaching toward in order to become whole again.

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