Easing her pain by baring no malice

Special to The Times

In December 2000, Cheri Pugh, a film archivist at Chicago’s WPA Film Library, was looking at Holocaust footage when she came upon a shot of a group of young twins marching out of Auschwitz when it was liberated by the Russians in 1945. At the head of the line were two little girls, who caught her attention. A Google search led to a website for a Holocaust museum in Terre Haute, Ind., founded by Eva Mozes Kor, who turned out to be one of the little girls who so intrigued Pugh.

By June 2001, Pugh had joined forces with documentary filmmaker Bob Hercules to tell Kor’s story, filmed in the course of 4 1/2 years, called “Forgiving Dr. Mengele.” The very title suggests that this compelling and provocative film is going to be different from other Holocaust documentaries.

A vivacious, vigorous dynamo who favors bright shades of blue, Kor is a real-estate agent who loves her work, is married to a Holocaust survivor, has a grown son and daughter, and lives in an unpretentious home. She is a hard-working Midwesterner, but as a Transylvanian Jew, she and her twin, Miriam, and their parents and older siblings ended up in Auschwitz in 1944. Only 10-year-old Eva and Miriam would survive because they were singled out to become part of geneticist Dr. Josef Mengele’s infamous medical experiments on twins that cost 1,400 lives.


Eva was soon injected with a serum, rumored to contain either germs or chemicals, that would make her so ill that she was told she would die within two weeks. But the child willed herself to survive, knowing that if she died, Miriam would be killed so that Mengele could perform comparative autopsies. Miriam would also survive an injection, but it would leave her kidneys atrophied. Years later, Eva would donate one of her kidneys to Miriam, but her sister’s health would continue to fail until her death in 1993.

Eva then embarked upon a search to discover just what was in the serum Mengele had used in his injections, which led her to Dr. Hans Munch, the only SS physician acquitted in the Nazi war trials. He did not participate in the experiments and was in fact credited with saving the lives of many prisoners, but did witness gassings. Munch, who said no one had access to Mengele’s files (which have never been recovered), turned out to be a distinguished-looking silver-haired man so haunted by the Holocaust that Eva found herself forgiving him. She persuaded him to accompany her to the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1995 and read out his confession of guilt, which she saw as a powerful means of confronting Holocaust deniers. Then she added, “In my own name, I forgive all Nazis.”

From that moment on, Eva has been at the center of controversy, even though she has taken pains to make it clear she is speaking only for herself -- not for those who did not survive the Holocaust, not for any religion, not for the perpetrators, not for other surviving twins, some of whom have been horrified by the notion that anyone would or could forgive the Nazis. Above all, she reiterates that forgiving is not the same as forgetting, and to that end established her Holocaust museum in 1995 and started speaking out about the Holocaust, mainly to young people, and about “the huge burden of pain” that has been lifted by her declaration of forgiveness.

Pugh and Hercules’ commitment to Kor for almost five years has paid unexpected dividends. During the week they filmed Kor meeting with six Palestinian teachers in the West Bank, a bus bombing in Jerusalem killed 30 people. Kor found herself telling the teachers that she didn’t want to hear their stories, even though one asked how could they free themselves from their own pain if she did not hear them out.

For once, Kor’s indomitability failed her; she later admitted getting in over her head and decided that forgiveness cannot occur until warfare stops.

In 2003, Kor’s museum was torched, and on one of its walls was scrawled, “Remember Timmy McVeigh.” When TV reporters inevitably asked Kor whether she could forgive the arsonists, who have never been found, she said: “Right now, all I am feeling is a deep sadness, but I’m working on it.” It comes as no surprise that she has already opened a new Holocaust museum.


MPAA rating: Unrated. Adult themes, images of Holocaust atrocities. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. Exclusively at the Grande 4-Plex, Figueroa at 3rd Street, downtown, (213) 617-0268.