Eva at CANDLES

Eva at CANDLES

Today (6/23/15), I had the rare opportunity to accompany survivor Eva Kor to Birkenau (Auschwitz I).  I first met Eva face to face in her Museum in Terre Haute (CANDLES).  I had previously seen her on You Tube for Forgiving Dr. Mengele and was intrigued by her message of forgiveness. Now, I had the opportunity to step into her story, and as I share, you can too.

We began the hour trip from Kraków to Auschwitz with Eva on our bus.  As we drove, she began to share more of her story. (I had  read much of her life story in her book Surviving the Angel of Death:  The True Story of a Mengele Twin.)  This was the real life edition.

Eva spent nine months in Auschwitz, with testing beginning three days after arrival, and yet it only took a half hour for everything to change.

Platform where Eva was dropped off

Platform where Eva was dropped off

Most Auschwitz survivors share stories of the selection process.  For Eva, that never happened. She never left cattle car site. A Nazi officer walking by noticed Eva and Miriam were twins from their matching burgundy dresses.  He asked her mother, “Are they twins?”  She said, “Is twins good?”  He replied that it was, and she revealed that they were.  The man took the girls.  The last memory Eva has of her mother is being led away while her mother’s arms were outstretched.  She never saw her, her father, or her older sisters again.

One tour member asked her if she made friends. She said, “No. It never even entered my mind. Children are different. It took all my energy to live one more day–Just trying to get food.” Starvation was the most demanding part plus injection.  The testing on Eva and Miriam consisted of putting both arms in restraints.

Blood draw building for Mengele experiments

Blood draw building for Mengele experiments

From one arm, they would extract vials of blood.  Into the other arm, they’d administer around five shots.  Other twins received different treatment.

As we continued, Eva shared about her home. She was born in a village between the Carpathian Mountains in Romania.  The town contained about 100 families, and Eva knew everyone and every dog.  It was mostly Christians except the Moses family.  In 1940, the village was occupied by Hungarian army. Her father had to appear every 2 weeks or face arrest. Then, her one room school house was taken over by Hungarians. They received new books with math problems like the following:  If you have 5 Jews and kill 3, how many are left?  Eva began to notice how much of life was focused on killing Jews. Her parents’ attitude was “We are Jews and have to take it.” She still doesn’t understand why her mom didn’t go to school when kids called them dirty jews, hit them, and spit on them. She told the teacher, who instead punished them by making them kneel on corn kernels while other kids ridiculed them.  She explained that things are different now because of Israel. Early Jewish people wouldn’t stand up.  From when she was six on, she saw people mistreated. Children, even at six, want to know what’s going on. They know what is fair and wrong. This is what helps kids understand Eva’s story because she was a kid when it happened.

Faces of those who lost lives here

Faces of those who lost lives here

Eva then continued on her life message:  Forgiveness.  She shared the thing she’s asked most often is how do you do it. She responds:  It’s not complicated. But, “Forgive and forget” is an incorrect statement. You cannot forget something important. It’s forgive and heal. Then, she asked us to do it. How do we forgive?  She said, “I ask myself this question:  Do I deserve to live free from the pain imposed on me from life or other people?  Yes.  The next question is how.  If I forgive, does it help you? No. I don’t forgive in someone else’s name. You realize you have to do the work. Take a piece of paper. Write a letter to the person who hurt you. Do not mail it!  Write the words I forgive you. At the end, you should feel freedom and empowerment. Before that, you were still a victim which was limiting your ability to be free. Keep trying until you succeed. If there’s animosity within your home, you cannot do it while you are there. You are still living on the battlefield. The wounds are too raw.  You need space.  I am amazed by the families in Charleston who forgave almost immediately. I think you need time to reflect without emotion. But, I am frustrated by the race issues we’re facing.

View of entrance to Birkenau

View of entrance to Birkenau

There are people you won’t like. If you don’t like someone who behaves badly, that’s okay. It’s toxic when you don’t like people because of their race. If we could teach children at a young age to practice respect, we would not need to take these trips to Auschwitz.”  So, why does she do it? “There are valuable lessons in Auschwitz. If you experience it, it becomes part of who you are. You share your own experience which is why it’s important. You teach with your heart better than with your mind. You learn with your emotions better than just your mind. If you can realize how deprived people were in Auschwitz.”  Eva arrived in the U.S. 15 years after Auschwitz. She remembers seeing fundraisers for deprived children. “We didn’t even have a little hut or a family. We were at the mercy of the Nazis.”

Eva admits she was angry at her parents because after the war, they never really had a home. Her aunt was a home, but not a replacement for mom. She wondered how her parents couldn’t respond to the injustice around them. Because life was so hard, she hated her parents for not surviving. Then, she felt guilty. When she forgave the Nazis, she forgave parents as well. Two years ago, she wrote letter of forgiveness and goodbye to her mother and father. You can read both on the Candles website CANDLES in the section entitled Eva chats.

Ruins of a gas chamber

Ruins of a gas chamber

When Hungarian Jews arrived, they moved the platform. In 56 days, they murdered almost 500,000 people. Even in the barracks, some of the twins told her what was going on:  Birkinau was a killing center. A set of fourteen year old twins told her they were gassing people and burning people. She was startled that people were being burned. “Yes,” the girls said, “Jews, old people, and children.”  Eva said, “That’s not true.  We’re children, and we’re alive.”  The girl assured her it was only twins who were allowed to live. They told her to go to the back of the barracks. From there, she saw flames shooting up from the crematorium.  The girl asked, “What do you think that smell is?”  Eva had tried to dispute it, but the evidence was convincing that it was the truth.   She never learned for sure what happened to her parents. Even today, she wonders how people just disappeared. In a half hour, they were all gone.

The ruins of Eva's barracks, and the flowers we left for remeberance

The ruins of Eva’s barracks, and the flowers we left for remebrance

Eva lives with Auschwitz looming in her childhood as a big atrocity. At one point, she wondered if she made it up–a professor had told her there was no Birkenau. At that time, she was planning to attend events for the 40 anniversary. She came by herself, though she had been corresponding with museum executives for months. She went from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II (Birkenau). As they were walking between 2 railroad tracks on a mossy road, she came to a monument at the end of camp. She asked the museum guide where the selection platform was. They replied, “You walked on it.”  When she had first walked on it, it had been new cement. The next day, she came alone and walked around recording her thoughts. As she was walking around, she saw cement poking through the grass. She took a picture of cement poking through the grass as proof that her horrific memories were really true.  The concrete was there.  She had wanted to understand if by walking it, she could figure out what happened to her parents, but she couldn’t figure out.   As a child, she had thought the whole world was death camps.

Brick barracks built from local houses.

Brick barracks built from local houses.

After inviting us into her world, Eva had a presentation to give in another location, so we headed to the bus for lunch, then back out to tour the same areas with a guide.  Symon was our guide.  The Holocaust is a personal issue for him as well because his great uncle was in Auschwitz.  But, unlike Eva, he did not survive.  He shared that there were over 400,000 registered prisoners here (not counting the ones who were “liquidated.”) He assured us that Poland never cooperated with Nazis whose first target was the intelligentsia. If you want to control a nation, kill the intelligent. Twenty barracks were already in Auschwitz 1 from a military garrison there. Auschwitz was initially for Polish prisoners. But, they knew each other, and were able to form resistance easier.  Symon’s great uncle was in for smuggling something. When the Germans built Birkenau, they made the local people move. Bricks from the village were used to build barracks. Parts of Birkenau were under construction until the end.

Prisoner bunks in Birkenau

Prisoner bunks in Birkenau

Symon shared some interesting points about the camps and timing.  No one was registered in Treblinka, another camp.  They were all liquidated. But, in Auschwitz, people worked until they died initially. That time might be from one day to five  years. Dr. Mengele came in 1943. What would have happened if Eva had arrived in 1942?  She would have been killed immediately. Birkenau is 25 times bigger than Auschwitz I. It was a permanent rotation. First, prisoners went to quarantine to adjust. Then, they were moved to other part if they survived.

Symon then took us to the shower areas.  Incoming prisoners had to line up baggage, then wash up.  As a joke, the water was either ice cold or hot. Hitler told the Nazis to have no mercy for women or children. Jews were to be annihilated. The wooden barracks used to be used for 52 horses.

Toilets

Toilets

Now, they held 700 prisoners. At times, there were as many as 90,000 in one square mile. We often ask why more people didn’t resist.  Some didn’t think how to escape because they were too weak to think.

The barracks were divided into three parts:  the Kapos or Jewish leaders (The Germans didn’t contact with the Jews) prisoners in the middle, then latrines. In the triple wooden bunks, prisoners wanted to be on the top, which had better heat, air, etc. Additionally, Symon reminded us that people with dysentery couldn’t get out of the bunks, so they soiled themselves.  Also, prisoners had to deal with lice and rats, which made things way worse for the prisoners on bottom, who had it rough.  Yet, despite the smell, people still wanted a job in the latrines.  Smell doesn’t kill.  Being inside was warmer than outside work, and much of survival depended on who you worked for. Prisoners working outside tried to steal something to burn in stove for a little heat. Birkenau was located on the outskirts of the most industrial area in Poland, so labor didn’t pose much of a problem.  When the Russians arrived, they found 300 wooden barracks. However much of Birkenau was dismantled to help rebuild the capital.

Ash pit where bodies were burned

Ash pit where bodies were burned

Outside, there was barbed wire which was electrocuted. According to Symon, only 144 prisoners ever escaped.  While the Nazi’s tried to hide what was going on here, the prisoners weren’t stupid.  They saw thousands of prisoners arrive, walk over to the gas chambers.  None came back. The Greek prisoners had traveled two weeks on cattle cars before arriving to the horrors.

Symon reminded us that Mengele was one of many SS doctors in Auschwitz. They wanted to find the best methods of sterilization.  Several photographs around the camp came from a camera a prisoner had used or an album a Jewish woman had found showing the atrocities of Auschwitz.  It’s estimated that the doctor who assessed who was capable of work  typically killed 80% and allowed 20% to live. The Nazi’s used cremation because with ashes, you can’t tell how many died. The sonderkommando’s burned bodies in pits first, and then ground and remaining bones. But, we as humans like a black and white world. The Nazis had to kill both normalcy and kindness and then explain to people why they needed to kill. If you see people, it’s harder to kill. That’s why the Nazi’s end up using Zyklon B in the evolution of killing. Soldiers didn’t have to come face to face with their victims.

Monument recognizing the Sonderkommandos who blew up a crematorium

Monument recognizing the Sonderkommandos who blew up a crematorium

But, many Jews didn’t want to believe that the Germans wanted to kill them, despite the evidence. They didn’t want to believe the rumors. When they started to believe, the Warsaw uprising happened.  They wanted to go down fighting, not in the gas chambers.  Symon also referenced the Polish guard who let himself get captured (Covered in Auschwitz Escape, which I just finished reading.)  I was disappointed to learn that he had survived Auschwitz, only to be shot by communists as betrayer after the war. The gas chambers consisted of three parts:  an Undressing room, the gas chamber, and crematorium. Because of their work, sonderkommandos were isolated because they knew too much. Some lived in attics over the crematorium. I can’t even imagine.  They usually cremated 4,000 corpses a day, with totals up to 9,000.  Ashes were placed in Ash pits like those above, or were used for fertilizers in area farms. They refuse to do archaeology any more here because these are open graves. This is one meaning in living stones.

Remnants of "Canada"

Remnants of “Canada”

Finally, we went to “Canada,” so called because of its wealth. Four hundred trains per month were sent from a Auschwitz with valuables collected from arriving Jews. Diamonds were traded to get food. Food and medicine were the currency of the camps. When asked how to survive, the answers usually given were that you had to have age, health, good psyche, and  physical fitness.  When the sonderkommandos tried to revolt, they smuggled gun powder etc. from Canada and exploded the Crematorium.  One group escaped, but were returned, and on Oct 7,1944, about 450 sonderkommandos were executed. In November, the Nazis stopped executing because they needed to destroy evidence. The sonderkommandos knew they were going to be eliminated as well.  The Germans organized the last roll call, then 56,000 prisoners were evacuated 30 km. The Germans destroyed the names of the prisoners, which allowed the sonderkommandos to try to join prisoners. Though they had to pretend to be weak, they made it out.  The Germans tried to find them in other camps, but a few survived–one still lives in Israel. One Polish man escaped the death march by wearing two sets of clothes. Still, only Only 20-25 sonderkommandos survived. They testified after the war. One SS man said they shouldn’t have survived.

Reflections of the people

Reflections of the people

Finally, Symon shared with us that the narration of Birkenau has changed since Communist rule. Polish students learned the real history from their grandparents who had lived through it.   He also shared that Hugo Boss had designed the SS uniforms, and Alliance was the company who insured the Nazis.

As we headed back home, many discussions turned to the need for connections, and that these stories become so much more than just history and empty buildings because we knew someone who had experienced it and shared her stories with us.  In a world of increasing individualism, the connections we forge are the most important we can have.

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