SPEARFISH — “I thought when I was in Auschwitz that the whole world was a big concentration camp. That everybody lived like I did: in miserable conditions, without parents, starving to death, guarded by the Nazi guards,” Holocaust survivor Eva Kor said to a beyond capacity crowd at Black Hills State University's Clare and Josef Meier Recital Hall.
Kor spoke at BHSU Thursday afternoon as part of the Madeline A. Young Distinguished Speaker Series. She brought so many to the recital hall that people were sitting on the stage behind the 78-year-old Auschwitz survivor.
Kor was 10 years old when she and her family were brought to Auschwitz by train in a cattle car in 1944. She and her twin sister Miriam were separated from the rest of their family by a Nazi guard searching for twins for the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele to experiment on. Mengele performed many horrific experiments on inmates at Auschwitz, but he was particularly interested in twins. Kor feels that being selected for Mengele's twin experimentations contributed greatly to her and Miriam's survival.
Kor recalled encountering the corpses of three children scattered on the floor of a camp latrine on her first day in Auschwitz. This moment proved to be integral to survival as well.
“At that moment I made a promise to myself that no matter what I'd make sure that Miriam and I would not end up on that filthy latrine floor,” Kor said. “From the moment I left the latrine I did everything instinctively, and I did everything instinctively right. I never let any doubt or fear enter my mind. I had an image in my mind: Miriam and me walking out of this camp alive.”
Kor shared the details of her daily life in Auschwitz in great detail, visibly moving many in the audience. She recalled Mengele's daily experimentations — including daily measurements, comparisons to her sister and an array of mysterious injections — her against-all-odds survival of a serious fever and infection as a result of the experimentation, and her work as an “organizer,” an inmate that stole from the Nazis. Her specialty was stealing potatoes, which gave her, Miriam and many others in her barracks the will to survive such a nightmare ordeal.
“Dying at Auschwitz was the easiest thing in the world,” she said. “Surviving was a full-time job.”
A major turning point came for Kor in August of 1944: She saw a U.S. bomber fly low over camp. Air raids came soon afterward and increased in frequency. Mengele's experimentation decreased in correlation with the increase in air raids, she recalled, until four air raids a day became the norm. At that point the experimentation ceased completely.
In January of 1944 the Nazis came to Kor's barracks and asked all the residents to come out, saying that they were going to take them into Germany to protect them from the war. Kor, her sister and many others stayed behind.
“How many of you would believe that the Nazis wanted to protect us,” she asked the audience.
“The next morning we woke up it wasn't morning, it was noon. And when we opened the barracks door all the guard towers were empty, all the lights had been turned out,” Kor recalled. “We were on our own. Of the 150,000 inmates in Auschwitz only 8,700 stayed behind.”
Kor and others were then free to walk from one camp complex to the next in the massive Auschwitz compound, free to gather food, blankets and other necessary supplies for survival.
A group of Nazis that arrived in a military vehicle one day cut short the lives of many of the hopeful holdouts, though. Kor survived only by virtue of an occurrence she considers a miracle: She fainted seconds before machine gun bullets tore by her as the Nazis sprayed fire at a group she was standing in.
Shortly thereafter Auschwitz was liberated.
“For me to realize that Miriam and I were alive, that we had triumphed over unbelievable evil, that my little promise to myself that first night in the latrine become a reality — that was an unbelievable experience,” Kor said.
This was not the end of Kor's battle with the Nazis, however.
“I was a very good victim,” she said. “I hated everyone.”
In 1993 Kor made a life changing decision. She decided to forgive the Nazis. This came after a meeting with a former Nazi aid to Dr. Mengele, Dr. Hans Munch. Kor met with Munch at his home in 1993. He was infinitely apologetic and polite, feeling horrible about his part in the unbelievable atrocities of the holocaust. Kor first decided to forgive Munch. Then Mengele. And eventually all the Nazis.
In 1995 Kor and Munch met at Auschwitz. Munch signed a document containing written documentation of his grizzly descriptions of the Auschwitz gas chambers. Kor signed a letter of amnesty to all Nazis.
“When I signed that document I was no longer a victim of Auschwitz,” she said. “Some people are afraid to give up their pain, to give up their anger. But pain and anger create revenge. Forgiveness is an act of self healing and self improvement.”
That was one of the life lessons Kor bestowed upon the audience — one of three she specifically named as such, but one of hundreds that came throughout her lecture.
The ubiquitous “never give up on yourself and your dreams,” gained unparalleled strength and vigor when delivered by Kor. But her most moving life lesson came with an anecdote on how the Nazis came to power in the first place.
“Hitler and the Nazis rose to power because of prejudice. It's still alive today and it's rampant. It's the cancer of the human soul,” Kor said. “I was called a 'dirty Jew' in my school classroom as a child. The other kids laughed at me. That laughter turned into the death of 11 million people. When you witness another person being called a name stand up to that.”
Kor told the audience to imagine dropping a stone into a lake and watching the ripple spread out across the water, then imagine dropping many stones and watching the ripples crash into other ripples, covering much more water space.
“Everything we do in daily life touches other people,” she said. “Do not forget that.”