A few weeks ago, my daughter and I took a road trip and stopped for lunch in Terre Haute, IN. As we drove through town, I noticed a small church-like building with a sign that said CANDLES, Holocaust Museum. Intrigued as to why such a place would be in a dingy town along I-70, I filed it in my head for later exploration.
A day or so later, when we were settled at our destination, I googled the place and found that Eva Kor, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Josef Mengele’s heinous medical experiments, owns and operates that museum. She also gives talks there every Wednesday and Saturday at 1pm.
I’ve nursed an intense fascination with the events of World War II since childhood. Although it has come in phases, I was headlong in the middle of another one when I passed that building. My recent activity had included watching several documentaries, many of which included interviews with Eva Kor herself. Of course I adjusted our travel plans and made sure to hit Terre Haute on the way home on Wednesday, just in time for Ms. Kor’s talk. I was eager to hear what she had to say–a real live survivor!–and for my daughter to hear it, too.
When the time came, we found ourselves face to face with the same diminutive woman I had seen in my living room, courtesy of Netflix. It felt very intimate, almost like a private conversation, as fewer than ten people showed up to hear her. I was crazy with excitement.
And Ms. Kor did not disappoint. We heard what it was like for her to grow up persecuted as a Jew. To be hurt at school. To be rounded up with her family and loaded up in cattle cars. To arrive in Auschwitz for the selection. To have her mother’s outstretched arms reaching for her and her twin sister etched in her brain as the last time she saw her. To endure the unspeakable horrors of being part of Mengele’s experiments on twins. And finally, to be liberated from hell on earth as a ten-year-old girl. It was intense, emotional, and moving.
But there was more.
What Ms. Kor really wanted to talk about was forgiveness. Through a variety of circumstances over the course of her life (read her book, or better yet, go see her in person–PLEASE), she decided she had to forgive the Nazis. Every single one of them. Hate was eating her alive, and forgiveness was her only way out.
Many people can’t understand how or why she did it. They say that there was no repentance, no remorse. They say that the crimes were too huge. They say that her family would be ashamed. After hearing Ms. Kor talk, I respectfully disagree.
Forgiveness, says Ms. Kor, isn’t about the person who did wrong. It’s about freeing oneself from the pain and burden of the transgression and not letting it define your life. It’s about taking away the power it has to control you. Only the forgiver can decide whether to forgive; if she waits for remorse or atonement, then the power still rests with the transgressor. Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning the action or even having a relationship with the person; it means letting it go and moving on.
In Ms. Kor’s words, “From the moment you forgive, they no longer control your life.”
You may not understand how she could forgive, and I’m sure I’ve not done her explanation justice. Go visit her, or at least poke around her website [http://www.candlesholocaustmuseum.org/], to hear it from her point of view.
All I know is this: only days after I heard Ms. Kor speak, I find myself faced with a choice in a painful situation. I can let the anger and hurt take over my being, or I can forgive. I haven’t worked through all of the emotion just yet, but I know what choice I will make as I set my path.
Forgive and heal. Humbling words from someone who has suffered more than most of us–divinely, fortuitously just when I needed to hear them.
Addendum: Here is how Ms. Kor defines forgiveness:
Forgiveness is not a pardon to those who have caused the injury, nor does it excuse the acts they used to cause it. These things are no longer the problem for the person who forgives. Forgiveness is the release of bitterness and indignation for our own personal healing.
Forgiveness does not require forgetting. It only asks that we refuse to accept our pain as a part of ourselves.