Nine-year-old Eva Mozes and her identical twin sister Miriam, their two older sisters, mother and father, along with thousands of other Romanians, were relocated by railroad cattle car from their home in Transylvania to Auschwitz II - Birkenau. Once the door of the transport was opened at the Poland extermination camp, the people were unloaded, stepping out onto the infamous “selection ramp.” There, Nazi SS officers determined if the new arrivals were to be exterminated immediately or registered as prisoners and assigned work detail.
In most instances, all children and women with children were marked for the gas chambers. However, the “angel of death,”Dr. Josef Mengele, was interested in performing experiments on twins and SS officers were instructed to seek them out and bring them to him for research purposes. Young Miriam and Eva, dressed alike, were identified as twins, pulled away from their mother's embrace without explanation and taken to Mengele. They would never see their parents or sisters again.
Mengele's experiments consisted of watching what happened after injecting one twin with mysterious and potentially lethal bacterial substances that caused fevers, convulsions and often death. When the experimental twin died, he would then kill the other and autopsy the twins together for comparison. It is estimated that Mengele experimented on over 3,000 twins and less than 200 survived. Little Eva, who would turn ten but not celebrate her birthday during the nine months she was imprisoned at Auschwitz, was determined not to die.
During the first visit to her barrack's latrine, she stumbled upon the corpses of children lying dead on the filthy floor. She made up her mind right then to survive for both her and her sister's sake. No matter what Mengele injected her with, she fought for her life. And in January of 1945, when Russian forces liberated the camp, she walked out of Auschwitz, hand-in-hand with Miriam.
Eva grew up angry and resentful of the horror inflicted upon her and her family by the Nazi regime and regularly spoke to audiences about her experience as a “Mengele Twin.” She was also driven to find out what chemicals she and her sister had been injected with. They both suffered from diseases that physicians were unable to diagnose and despite Eva's gift of one of her kidneys to her twin sister, Miriam's health deteriorated. In the search for any information Eva could find about Mengele's experiments, she met another Auschwitz doctor who, though acquitted during the Nuremberg trials, was deeply remorseful. Thankful for the information she learned, Eva would eventually find within her the power to forgive and freedom from the emotional pain she had carried since her childhood.
Eva then became even more outspoken, but now about the power of forgiveness. Yet, blanket amnesty of those who participated in the WWII genocide of almost eleven million people (of whom approximately six million were Jews), is still considered blasphemous for many within the Jewish faith. This highly charged controversy has been documented by Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh in the award winning film Forgiving Dr. Mengele.
Despite considerable criticism, Eva has persevered. She speaks regularly at schools, universities, and to audiences at her C.A.N.D.L.E.S. Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, telling the story of the ordeal she endured as well as the wisdom gained during her personal journey of healing.
SC: You are one of the rare people who have survived the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and have found the ability to forgive.
EK: It’s really sad that I am among the very few. In my opinion, forgiveness is actually the best and almost only way to help the victims heal themselves. And by healing themselves, they no longer want to hurt anybody else.
Many people will say that their perpetrator doesn’t deserve their forgiveness. That may be so, but the victim surely does. In the current system, the focus is always on the perpetrator and very little attention has been paid to the victim. That is a tragedy because history shows that victims are potential perpetrators.
Look at Hitler. He was a vengeful person. He felt he was wronged even if it was an imagined wrong. If he would have had the ability or the knowledge of how to forgive, he would have empowered himself in another way and not created the tragedies that he created. I think that society and human kind is doing very poorly when they do not teach forgiveness in schools along with the reading, writing and arithmetic.
SC: You perceive that forgiveness is a skill that can and should be taught….
EK: Yes. And we are not teaching that skill.
"Forgiveness is a skill. It has nothing to do with any religion. It does not have to do with anything else but the ability of the human being to develop the skill to deal with emotional pain"
The Amish know this skill. After the school children in Pennsylvania were murdered, the families immediately forgave the murderer the next day. I understood, not because the murderer deserved forgiveness, but the victims definitely did. They became free of their anger and their pain. They knew how to forgive and they meant it when they forgave him.
SC: You found, through the process of forgiveness, your internal power and that you realized you had that power within you: No one else could give it to you nor take it away.
EK: Absolutely. They cannot. It is an amazing thing and that’s why it is so important. All victims, it doesn’t matter how small the crime or victimization, feel tremendous anger, feel hurt, feel hopeless, feel helpless and definitely powerless. And they do not know what to do.
But by doing so, number one, you remove the burden, and number two, you feel you are in charge of your own feelings, which is really what victimization is. After the crime is done, all that’s left are the feelings, and these feelings need to be addressed. When we do so, it is empowering.
SC: You travel widely to schools and universities to share your story.
EK: Yes, I just attended a conference a month ago in San Francisco and four women spoke about how they had all forgiven for different reasons and in different ways. One of them was raped repeatedly when she was nine.
Her parents were not very supportive and she had a lot of emotional problems. One day she realized she had dealt so poorly with it that she wanted her family to forgive her for what a pain she was for them. Then she thought, "How can I ask them to forgive me when I haven’t forgiven those who have victimized me?" The realization was that she had that power and it was tremendously empowering for her. Whatever has happened to us, once it is done, it is done. You cannot reverse it. The only power the victim has is in forgiving.
I often talk with the young people when I lecture in schools. There is a lot of bullying there, a lot of victimization at bigger and smaller levels. I say to them, "You can go to the kids who call you names, who harass you, who bully you. You can call them a name if that makes you feel good, but say, ‘I forgive you.’” The minute you can really say that and mean it, whatever they have done to you or want to do to you, they have lost their power over you. You have taken power back over your own life. That’s very important.
SC: What advice can you give to someone just beginning the process of forgiveness?
EK: I would ask myself, "Do I want to get rid of the pain that I feel? The anger? The inability to go beyond that event that I feel stuck in?"
Many victims of the Holocaust want to learn all the details of who did it, why did they do it, and what was the reason, but that is an emotional trap. It doesn’t matter how many details you will find out and why the perpetrators did what they did. It's just pulling you back into that event in a way that you cannot let go of it. If you want to be free from the pain of the past then start asking yourself, "How can I forgive this person that did this to me?"
I actually did not go on a journey of forgiveness at all. I just stumbled onto it. I did. I was holding on to all the pain and all the anger. There was not even the slightest intention in my mind to forgive.
What happened for me was that I was looking for information about Mengele's experiments and I am still looking for information about all the experiments: Not because I need to know why, but because I would like to know the scope of the experiments. Is there any information that could help some of the survivors of the experiments deal with physical problems or illnesses? And second, we are entitled to know exactly what were we injected with.
So I went to meet with this Nazi doctor, Dr. Munch. I did not know much about him. I knew that he knew Mengele and that he was found innocent of crimes during the Krakow trials because many people testified that he had helped them, but I wasn’t familiar with the details. I also knew that he was visited by the US Justice Department in 1982 because a stepson and attorney for the Mengele family had visited Munch to ask what would happen to Josef Mengele if he gave himself up and whether Munch thought Mengele would be found guilty for his human experiments. I was curious to find out why the family of Mengele would go and ask such a question of Dr. Munch if Mengele was already dead. That just didn’t make sense.
I was of course very nervous in meeting a Nazi doctor face to face. But because of all these reasons, I was eager to talk to him. And he was willing to talk to me. I was curious about why a Nazi would want to talk to me to begin with.
He was amiable and polite and even kind, so I felt comfortable in his company, which was obviously very important for me. I felt comfortable enough to ask him if he by any chance knew anything about the gas chambers at Auschwitz. And his response immediately was that this was the nightmare that he was living with every single day of his life. He went on to describe in detail the operations of the gas chambers.
I have never known these things before. In none of the films or reading materials had the gas chambers operated the way he described. He said he was stationed at the peephole outside the door and when the bodies stopped moving he would sign their death certificates. I thought that was tremendously important information. I wanted this information placed on paper and I wanted it signed by him and I wanted it done in the company of witnesses.
So, as I was talking to him I asked, "Dr. Munch, would you be willing to sign a document about what you told me?" He said yes. I told him that I would be going to Auschwitz in 1995 to celebrate 50 years since the liberation. I asked him to come with me and that I would like him to sign the document at the ruins of the gas chamber where it happened. I thought that was the right place to testify to what happened. And he immediately said yes. I was very surprised that he was that willing.
I came back to my home in Terra Haute, Indiana and I thought to myself that I wanted to thank this Nazi doctor for his willingness to document the operation and the history of the gas chamber. I wanted to give him something, but where does one look for a gift for a Nazi? I didn’t know where to look. I went to the local Hallmark shop for a card but I couldn’t find anything. It wasn’t that funny then. It’s funny now because I didn’t know where to look.
I had already learned a life lesson that when you have something you want to do, not to give up on it. So I kept looking for a gift to give him while I was driving, cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, and I really didn't want to keep that in my mind. I kept asking myself, what do I give this Nazi doctor? How do I thank this Nazi doctor? The question kept nagging in my head. After ten months, the thought came into my mind: How about a simple letter of forgiveness from me to him, which I knew immediately that he would like.
"What I discovered for myself was that I had the power to forgive; it was within me. No one could give me that power and no one could take it away"
And that was to me a tremendously big discovery. I started writing my letter to Dr. Munch and began to work through a lot of my pain.
I wrote actually five versions and then it occurred to me that somebody might read it some day. My English spelling is not so good. English is a beautiful language, very rich, but very difficult for a naturalized citizen like me. I didn’t want to get too embarrassed so I called my former English professor and asked her to correct my spelling. She was very interested.
After talking and meeting with her she told me, "Eva, that’s very nice that you are forgiving this Dr. Munch, but you really need to forgive Dr. Mengele." I had never even thought about it. I was just giving Dr. Munch a gift, my personal gesture of thanks. And she insisted that I really needed to think about forgiving Dr. Mengele. I promised her that I would think about it and said okay.
When I got home, I realized WOW. To me it was a big WOW. I actually have the power to even forgive Dr. Mengele. I would not be hurting anybody if I did, so why couldn’t I forgive Dr. Mengele? That was a good decision because a person might forgive someone but they might also have a lot of other people that they are angry with.
"Once I realized I had the power to forgive Mengele, I decided to forgive everybody who has ever hurt me"
SC: What have you ultimately realized?
EK: Anger and revenge clutter people’s minds; clutter their lives. Cleanse your heart, cleanse your mind.
"Unclutter by forgiving those who have hurt you, not because they deserve it, but because you deserve it"
I have also seen that I can become a victim again. I was invited by Dr. Dan Bar-On to visit a group of Israeli teachers and Palestinian teachers that had designed a new book to be taught in both Israeli and Palestinian schools. The book had three columns on every page. The Palestinian version in Arabic, the Israeli version in Hebrew and the middle column was blank so the student could write their own understanding or conclusions. I thought that was interesting.
We went to Jerusalem but I didn't know we were going to cross the border into Palestine. When we finally met, the Palestinian teachers complained for almost four hours and wouldn’t talk about the book.
Later, when I watched the film of the trip, I did not understand why I didn’t stop them. I did not understand it. I think I watched the film five or six times before I understood that I had became a victim again. I was no longer functioning as a free person, meaning that I did not have the courage to say what I really wanted to say. I had felt my life was in jeopardy there. I measured every single word I said so I wouldn’t upset them.
I understand how it feels to become a victim that fast. It was only later that I realized the Palestinians were saying that they deserved to be free too. But, I cannot make them free. They have to take the initiative and it is not anything you can teach unless a person is ready. You cannot force it on anybody. But, if we taught children forgiveness from kindergarten on as a way of life, we would give them the skills to make different decisions.
Who is forgiveness ultimately for?