The Amazing History of Eva Kor’s CANDLES Holocaust Museum

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Eva Kor (photographed by Steve Lipson)


I’ve already written about Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor’s stunning act of forgiveness and her May 2008 commencement address at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana.

I was fortunate enough to spend 90 minutes on the phone with Eva recently to learn more about the CANDLES Holocaust Museum she founded in 1995 in Terra Haute, Indiana. CANDLES is an acronym for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors.

Click here to make a donation to the Museum.




 

THE HISTORY OF THE CANDLES HOLOCAUST MUSEUM

Eva, who began giving lectures on the Holocaust in 1978, was frustrated that she couldn’t answer people’s questions about the gruesome experiments performed on roughly three thousand twins by Dr. Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death.” “I began an extraordinary search for the estimated two hundred individuals who were surviving twins,” Eva told me. “I didn’t have any names, I didn’t have any addresses. I only had the liberation pictures. From 1978 through 1983, I wrote up to 500 letters three or four times a year asking the media to help me locate the surviving twins. It was a very demanding job but I wanted to know how these other twins’ lives turned out.”

In December 1983, Eva had a brainstorm. “I thought, If I formed an organization and made myself the leader, maybe the media would respond to my letters,” she said. That is why I started the CANDLES organization. It was out of sheer despair and an inability to give up.”

Her idea worked. “Once I formed the organization, my thinking changed,” Eva said. “I made my sister Miriam vice president, and since she lived in Israel, I asked her to contact certain people to see if they could publicize the organization and help us in our effort to find the other twins. In February 1984, Miriam and my late brother-in-law, who was a journalist, were able to get publicity on the front page of one of the major newspapers. We received immediately names of eighty Mengele twins and eventually located one hundred twenty-two of them living in ten countries and on four continents. Everybody wanted to talk to us. I flew to Israel and we had our first press conference in Tel Aviv.”

At the press conference, when asked by the media what her plans were, Eva replied that she had always wanted to return to Auschwitz. “It was just accidentally that the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was going to be in January of 1985,” Eva said. “So we embarked on the idea of using that anniversary to return to Auschwitz. The media was very interested in that. By June of 1984, the TV networks had allocated a budget and reporters to cover our return to Auschwitz.”

Ironically, Eva’s efforts to find the lost Mengele twins was so successful that she herself was unable to make the most of the reunion. “I did not get to meet with all the twins and sit down and ask them questions because that first meeting was crazier than crazy,” Eva said. “Everybody was trying to figure out whom they remembered. We hadn’t seen each other in 39 years! I also brought along slides from the liberation film, so they could see how they looked and if they could recognize anyone.”

Over the ensuing years, Eva got to know her fellow Mengele twins better. For a number of years, she flew to Israel once or twice a year, meeting with as many twins as she could while there. As the years went by, the twins’ numbers dwindled due to illness and death. The biggest blow came in 1995 when Eva publicly forgave the Nazis and Mengele at a ceremony at the Auschwitz concentration camp marking the fiftieth anniversary of its liberation. “They are angry with me,” Eva said. “They think that by forgiving the Nazis, I betrayed the survivors.”

It’s instructive to understand the relationship of the Mengele twins during their time at Auschwitz; friendship, was a luxury they could ill afford. “You must understand that we were all fighting for our lives,” Eva explained. “Our mentality was in ‘the here and now’ and we lost our point of reference. I thought that the whole world was a big concentration camp, and I focused on living one more day, surviving one more experiment. There was no room for socializing; the struggle to survive took up every minute of my life. There was very little verbal communication among us; we all turned inward. I might remember six or eight individuals, but there were no friendships in my age group.”

Eva was hopeful that the initial reunion of the twins was a harbinger of good things yet to come. “I thought that once the media and the world was interested in the story we trying to tell, that we would get some help,” she said. “We were hoping that with our return to Auschwitz and all the publicity that we would get help in finding Mengele’s files that had disappeared from the face of this earth.”

Indeed, Eva’s return to Auschwitz was well covered. “We had a mock trial in Jerusalem and the world press was buzzing,” she said. “There were no days that our stories were not in the paper. We were the darlings of the world.”

Then, in June 1985, bones were dug up in Embu, Brazil, that were purportedly Megele’s remains. “With that, all the media attention stopped,” Eva said. “They said they were Mengele’s bones but they were not. No one was interested in the Mengele twins anymore. We felt tremendously let down because our problems had not changed. We were treated like a hot potato.”

In June 1993, Miriam, Eva’s sister, died. It had been nearly six years since Eva had donated a kidney to her sister. In 1944, after injecting Eva with bacteria, Mengele told her she would be dead in two weeks. In Eva’s mind, death was not an option since that meant that Miriam would be killed as well. “When I did not die, my sister was injected with something that stunted the growth of her kidneys,” Eva said. “That is what eventually killed her.”

Eva was devastated by Miriam’s death. “I had tremendous nightmares from her death,” Eva said. “I could almost feel in the middle of the night how she suffocated from her cancer and I would wake up screaming. That went on for months. I knew from my previous experiences and struggles that the best way for me to deal with pain was to do something to honor the memory of that person,” Eva said. “But I did not know what that would be.”

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Eva Kor in front of CANDLES (photographed by Steve Lipson)

The answer came to her soon. In her work as a realtor, Eva found a building for a client who wanted to open a travel agency. When the client couldn’t afford to buy the building on her own, it dawned on Eva that it was an ideal opportunity to start a little museum with the posters and artifacts she had collected. So Eva and her client joined forces to qualify for the mortgage.

Thus was born the CANDLES Holocaust Museum. “We put up a little slogan right below the ceiling all around the museum,” Eva said. “It read, ‘Let’s remove all hatred and prejudice from our world, and let it begin with me.’ Our logo is a Star of David split in two with barbed wire surrounding it, and in the middle there are two candles.”candles-logo

The opening of the museum in 1995 was well attended. Through the years, Eva funded the operation herself. She and her husband, Michael “Mickey” Kor, opened the doors three times a week for two hours at a time, not including group tours. When Eva’s partner had to close her travel business after 9-11, Eva and Mickey bought her out to protect their credit.

On November 14, 2003, Eva displayed the message “Holocaust education promotes peace” in big red letters on the museum wall. “in order to promote peace in the world,” she said, “we need to teach people how to heal themselves because every person who lives at peace with himself or herself is not a person who would want to start a war or kill. By the same token, any person who is angry promotes war. Only angry people start wars.”

Four days later, the museum was burned to the ground by an arsonist who left behind the message, “Remember Timothy McVeigh,” in reference to the architect of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. “As I was standing there at one AM, barely able to absorb what was going on, two reporters shoved a camera and microphones in my face and said, ‘What are you going to do? How do you feel?”” Eva recalled. “And I said,’ Well, I have had better days in my life,’ but then I immediately remembered that I also have had some worse ones, and I stated so. I said, ‘I have got to rebuild. I cannot let hatred destroy what we are trying to do here.’ The idea that I would ever give up just because some hateful person or people did this, that is giving in to hatred.”

Eva assumed she and Mickey would have to finance the rebuilding on their own. “From 1985, when we were shot down like a hot air balloon and nobody cared about our existence, until the fire, I never received any big support from anywhere,” Eva said. “And so I thought it was my headache, my problem.”

She was in for a wonderful surprise. “The next morning, the telephone rang at six AM,” Eva said. “Reporters from everywhere called. That first day, I received a hundred telephone calls. It went on and on, people leaving messages, people stopping me, reporters at the museum. The following day, a group of citizens had a rally at the museum to stop hatred. Two days later, they had a peace walk from the synagogue to the museum and the media was everywhere.”

The public outpouring of support raised more than $300,000, including more than $25,000 raised by area school children. The new mortgage was put in the name of the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center.  “Children were very much attracted to the issues that we presented and were very interested in bring involved,” Eva said. “At one school, a cute little six-year-old girl handed me $1,200. I said, ‘What do you know about the Holocaust?’ She said to me, ‘Well, I know that when you were my age, people were mean to you because you were Jewish, and that was wrong.’  And I said to myself, As long as children can learn these very simple lessons, that is what we want to do.”

Eva was also publicly honored. Joe Kernan, the governor of Indiana, invited Mickey and her to attend his State of the State Address in Indianapolis in January 2004. Later, Eva was presented with the Spirit of Justice award by the Indiana Civil Rights Commission during Martin Luther King Day ceremonies at the State Capitol.

Less than a year and a half after the fire, the CANDLES Holocaust Museum reopened for business. And, oh, by the way, Eva forgave the arsonist just as she forgave the Nazis who had terrorized and murdered her family members. “I forgave everybody and I still forgive everybody and I might even forgive people who are hurting me today or tomorrow,” she said. “The idea of forgiveness is a very important one, but not because the arsonist, not because Mengele, not because the Nazis deserve to be forgiven. I deserve to live without that pain.”

As far as Eva is concerned, hatred and resentment are a mental trap. “Once you realize that you can free yourself from trying to figure out who did what and why, because you can never figure that out, then you have to forgive them because otherwise you keep going back to trying to analyze it,” she explained. “I am not in any way endorsing or saying that what happened in any of these situations was okay; it was not okay.”

Eva embraces forgiveness as a personal act of empowerment. “I’m hoping that the perpetrators take responsibility for their own actions,” she said. “But I cannot make them do that. And why should that be my responsibility? I am only responsible for my actions. If I free myself from that burden, I can teach my children to do the same. I can be a fully functioning human being who has no anger, no resentment. It is like a breath of fresh air, the freedom that goes throughout one’s body. Forgiveness actually improves one’s health.”

Eva believes that only forgiveness can break the cycle of hatred so prevalent in the world. “Every ethnic group has been victimized at one time or another,” she said. This is why the world is filled with people with a victim mentality who say, ‘Poor me, poor me, poor me.’ And the ‘poor me’s’ raise children who are becoming very good at avenging the crimes or injustices perpetrated against their parents. It’s a vicious cycle. Forgiveness is good for the human soul. It’s a human need rather than a religious dogma.”

An interesting side note: Eva’s volunteers were puzzled that so many of the donations that poured in after the fire were in multiples of $18.  “They said, ‘How come $18? Why not $20 or $25?'” Eva said. “I had to educate them. In Hebrew, each latter has a numerical value. The tenth letter is ‘yod’ and the eighth letter is ‘heth.’ The Hebrew word for ‘life’ is written first ‘heth’ and then ‘yod,’ so eighteen means ‘life.’

Eva smiled when recalling the reaction of one of her Christian friends to this explanation. “She said to me, ‘Boy, oh boy, that stupid guy did not know that he burned down the museum on November 18. That means he just gave us new life!'”

The CANDLES Holocaust Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from one to four PM. Appointments can be made for groups during other hours as needed. The museum can handle two groups simultaneously—one in the big lecture hall (up to 150 people) and one in the library (up to 50 people). 

For more information, visit the CANDLES Holocaust Museum website, email candles@candlesholocaustmuseum.org, or call  (812) 234-7881.


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 Moze’s.





Click here to view all my posts about Eva Kor as well as posts about other concentration camp survivors.






ABOUT PHIL BOLSTA

Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World, is a road map for living a more peaceful, beautiful life. It’s the one book that explains how dozens of spiritual principles interact, how to weave them together into a cohesive worldview, and how to practically apply this spiritual wisdom to daily life.

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SiSe_fullcover_final.inddPhil is also the author of Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything, a collection of 45 inspiring, life-changing stories from prominent authors and thought leaders he interviewed. The roster of storytellers includes Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Neale Donald Walsch, Caroline Myss, Larry Dossey, Rachel Naomi Remen, Bernie Siegel, Dean Ornish, and Christiane Northrup. Sixty Seconds has been translated into four languages: Italian, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. Reading this book is like spending a few minutes face to face with each of the contributors and listening to their personal stories.

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7 Responses to “The Amazing History of Eva Kor’s CANDLES Holocaust Museum”

  1. Brittany Boland Says:

    you are a really strong woman.

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Indeed she is, Brittany.

  3. indyretreats Says:

    have you met her, phil? she is truly an amazing woman and the inspiration behind my new blog…i featured the story of her experiences on it today…stop by and leave me a comment!

  4. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Your site is terrific, indyretreats! I hadn’t known that Eva had written a book! Love the photo of her and her sister as well. I will link all my Eva Kor posts to your site. Thanks so much!

    I haven’t met Eva but I did interview her on the phone for about an hour. What a terrific loving yet fighting spirit she has!

  5. Kaylee Says:

    She came and spoke at my school and was great!

  6. Phil Bolsta Says:

    That’s wonderful, Kaylee! What grade were you in at the time? It’s important for young people to know the history of what happened.

  7. Barb Says:

    POWERFUL AND PROFOUND

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