Holocaust survivor and forgiveness advocate Eva Kor was kind enough to e-mail me the commencement address she gave in May 2008 at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana. I had written about her stunning act of forgiveness and invited her to share more of her incredible story.
President Behrs, Board of Trustees, Faculty, Staff, Students, and Friends:
I want to thank you for this rare privilege of speaking to you today as your commencement speaker, and for awarding me an honorary doctorate. It is a unique honor and it will solve my problem with my son, Dr. Alex Kor. When I give him my “Dr. Mom” advice, he often says, “Mom, why don’t you get a Dr.’s degree?” From now on I can say to him, “No thanks, I already have one.”
I am so excited to stand before you, the graduates, and congratulate you all, women and men, for your accomplishments. You have come a long way, from near and far, and you have made it! I realize that some of you are young and some of you are more mature, but all of you worked hard, learned many new things, ideas, and skills, which will help you in the future. Just the knowledge that you are graduating is a source of joy, pride, and a sense of accomplishment for you and your families.
You have come a long way, and so have I. Sixty-four years ago at this time, I was a ten-year-old little girl, huddled with my twin sister, Miriam, in our filthy bunk beds, crawling with lice and rats, in the Auschwitz Nazi death camp. We were starved for food, starved for human kindness, and we were starved for the love of the mothers and fathers we once had. I did know then that there was a United States of America. But I knew nothing about the state of Indiana, Terre Haute, Indiana, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, nor did I ever dream of receiving an honorary doctorate. In those days, I dreamed of food and freedom, so all my energies focused on living one more day and surviving one more experiment.
We arrived in Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. Within 30 minutes, my twin sister Miriam and I were ripped apart from our parents and two older sisters on a little strip of land called the selection platform. There is no other strip of land on this earth that has witnessed that many millions of people being ripped apart from their families forever. That first night when I saw the corpses of three children on the filthy latrine floor, I realized that this could happen to Miriam and me unless I did something to prevent it.
So I made a silent pledge to myself that “I will do whatever is within my power to survive with Miriam, and walk out of this camp alive.” I had no idea how to survive Auschwitz, but I never ever gave up on my dream or on myself. Even when Dr. Josef Mengele, the doctor in charge of our experiments, injected me with a deadly germ and said that I would be dead in two weeks, I refused to die, and never ever gave up.
We were liberated on January 27, 1945, and to realize that we were free and alive and that my little dream from the latrine became a reality was an unbelievable experience, a triumph of the human spirit. What an important first life lesson that I learned in Auschwitz—to never, ever give up!
Look around here. This beautiful college campus of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods was created by a little short woman, a French nun who had a dream. She traveled under harsh conditions to reach this untamed land and start her college. She never ever gave up on herself, nor on her dream. Thanks to this one person, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, who never ever gave up, you today are graduating from this wonderful institution, a beautiful example of the power of one person.
Another important life lesson that I have learned in my tragic life is forgiveness. I like to say, “Forgive your worst enemy; it will heal your soul and it will set you free, and forgive everybody who has ever hurt you.” I have forgiven the Nazis and Dr. Mengele, because we all have the power to forgive, and take back control over our lives and feelings. I believe with every ounce of my being that every human being has the human right to live free of the pain of the past that was imposed on us.
In 1993 I met in Germany, at my initiation, with a Nazi doctor by the name of Hans Muench. I was very nervous and scared of him, but I wanted to learn everything I could about Dr. Mengele, and our experiments. Sadly, he knew nothing about our experiments, but when I asked him about the gas chambers at Auschwitz, he became a treasure of information. Then I asked him to join me in Auschwitz at the 50th anniversary of the liberation and sign a document about the operation of the gas chambers, at the ruins of the gas chambers in the presence of witnesses. He accepted my invitation at once.
I came back home to Terre Haute, Indiana, excited to have that document, and I wanted to give Dr. Muench something as a gesture of my thanks. I didn’t know what to give a Nazi doctor, and where does one look for a gift for a Nazi? I even went to the local Hallmark card shop, read many cards, but I could not find any card appropriate for a Nazi doctor, so I went back to lesson number one: “Never ever give up!”
For ten months while cleaning, cooking, doing the laundry, and driving, when my mind was free to think, I kept asking myself, “What do I give this Nazi doctor? How can I thank this Nazi doctor?” After 10 months the following thought came into my mind: “How about a little letter of forgiveness from me to Dr. Muench?” I knew immediately that he would like it, but I also discovered an unbelievable thing for myself: that I, the little victim of 50 years, had the power to forgive. No one could give me that power and no one could take it away. It was all mine to use it as I pleased. All of you here have that same power and I am asking you to use it to heal yourselves and set yourselves free of any pain from your past.
We arrived in Auschwitz on January 27, 1995, Dr. Hans Muench came with his children, and I came with my children; Alex and Rina. Dr. Muench signed his document, then I read and signed mine. I immediately felt that a burden of pain was lifted from my shoulders, that I was no longer a victim and a prisoner of my tragic past, that I was finally free. The day I forgave Dr. Muench, I forgave Dr. Mengele, I forgave the Nazis, and I forgave my parents whom I hated all my life. I hated them because they did not save me from the destiny of Auschwitz, and of growing up an orphan, but I finally realized that they did the best that they could, then I forgave myself for hating my parents.
I have asked the faculty, staff, and students here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College to sign an addendum to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We plan to send a copy of this addendum to the United Nations, to the President of the United States, and to the Helsinki Human Rights Commission. I have a feeling that Saint Mother Theodore Guerin is smiling down on us with joy and approval. I want every human being to know that they have the human right to live free of emotional pain, and they can accomplish this by taking back control over their lives by forgiving their enemies, and even forgiving themselves for their past mistakes, which is the hardest thing to do.
I would like to conclude my remarks with the following words: When facing hardship and darkness, remember that “The light of one single candle can illuminate the darkness of the entire universe.” I challenge every single one of you to live your life in such a way that you will illuminate some dark corner of this universe or some dark human mind. As I look at you, I can see a big beam of light going out of here to every corner of the world.
Click here to donate to Eva Kor’s CANDLES Holocaust Museum.
Click here to read Chris Doyle’s review of Eva’s book, Echoes from Auschwitz: Dr. Mengele’s Twins, The Story of Eva and Miriam Mozes.
Click here to view all my posts about Eva Kor as well as posts about other concentration camp survivors.
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