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Forgiveness is the central teaching of A Course in Miracles. The Course tells us that "forgiveness is the only sane response" (T-30.VI.2:8) to apparent attack, "the key to happiness" (W-pI.121.Heading), and "the way in which your only hope of freedom lies" (S-2.I.6:1). The Course calls us to forgive everyone and everything without exception, yet this seems to be such a daunting task. Can we really forgive everyone and everything? One way to bolster our conviction that we can is to learn from the example of people who have forgiven the seemingly unforgivable. This week, PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly program profiled one such person: a woman named Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor who forgave Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor known as the "angel of death."
The story begins when Kor was ten years old. (My account includes material from sources other than the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly piece.) Along with her parents, her two older sisters, and her twin sister Miriam, she was herded into a cattle car for Auschwitz. An SS officer yelled "twins!" and another SS officer separated her and Miriam from the rest of the family (I'm assuming because twins are especially useful in medical experiments). On her first night at the camp, Kor saw the corpses of three children, and made a vow then and there that she would do everything in her power to ensure that she and her sister survived.
Thus began a nightmare in which Eva and Miriam were human guinea pigs in Dr. Mengele's cruel experiments. They spent hours naked in a room, being measured and studied. They were given injections of unknown substances, one of which gave Kor a fever which prompted Mengele to declare that she only had two weeks to live. She says that if she had died, Miriam would have gotten a lethal injection so a double autopsy could be done. As a result of these experiments, Miriam suffered permanent kidney damage. But both managed to survive until the camp was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27, 1945.
For decades afterward, Kor struggled with what happened. To this day, she is an agnostic, saying, "I don't know if there is a God or not. And if there is, I want a debate when I go up there." But then, a remarkable encounter set into motion a dramatic change in her. After Miriam died in 1993, Kor wanted to know what kind of experiments had been performed on them. She was advised to seek out former Nazi doctors, and this led her to Dr. Hans Munch, who had worked at Auschwitz. In July 1993, she arranged a meeting with Munch. Needless to say, she was terrified as this encounter approached.
But the encounter was not at all what she had expected. To her great surprise, Munch treated her with deep respect and expressed great remorse for what he had done. "He said this was a nightmare he dealt with every day of his life. I was surprised that Nazis had nightmares too and asked him if he would come with me to Auschwitz to sign a document at the ruins of the gas chambers. He said that he would love to do it."
After this encounter, she wanted to write a forgiveness letter to Munch, and a friend challenged her to forgive Dr. Mengele as well. She resisted at first, but eventually came to a wonderful realization. "I realized then that I even had the power to forgive the god of Auschwitz—this angel of death. And I said, 'Yes, I do. Wow.' And it made me really feel good to realize that I have that power."
Finally, the meeting at Auschwitz came: January 27, 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of its liberation. Munch signed his document at the ruins of the gas chambers, apologizing to the victims. Kor, accompanied by her children, read and signed a statement of forgiveness that said the following: "I, Eva Mozes Kor, a twin who survived as a child of Josef Mengele's experiments at Auschwitz 50 years ago, hereby give amnesty to all Nazis who participated directly or indirectly in the murder of my family and millions of others." Reading this statement had a powerful effect on her: "As I did that I felt a burden of pain was lifted from me. I was no longer in the grip of pain and hate; I was finally free."
This experience changed her life forever. She says today, "Forgiveness is nothing more and nothing less but an act of self-healing—an act of self-empowerment." She says that when she forgave her Nazi tormenters, she knew that "I was no longer a victim of Auschwitz, that I was no longer a prisoner of my tragic past, that I was finally free." This freedom from the past has enabled her to reach her full potential as a human being; forgiveness means "that whatever was done to me, it's no longer causing me such pain that I cannot be the person that I want to be."
From that day on, Kor has devoted her life to spreading the message of the healing power of forgiveness. She has spoken to audiences around the world. She has led eleven tours of Auschwitz. She founded a Holocaust museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she lives. Many are inspired by her work, but she is not without her critics; other Holocaust survivors have called her to task for (in their view) letting the Nazis off the hook and dishonoring the victims.
But despite her critics, she is determined to continue her work. At age 73, she feels a sense of mission to spread the message of forgiveness to the next generation before she passes on: "I know that I won't live forever. So in order to continue the lessons that I have learned, I must have young teachers carry on. Giving up in Auschwitz for one single moment would have meant for me to die. And that feeling is always with me. When I am working on something important, I cannot give up."
With a touch of humor, Kor summarizes her view of forgiveness this way:
I call forgiveness the modern miracle medicine. You don't have to belong to an HMO. There is no co-pay, therefore, everybody can afford it. There are no side effects. And if you don't like the way you feel without the pain of the past, you can always go and take your pain back.
A Course in Miracles speaks in similar terms. It tells us that "forgiveness is the home of miracles" (W-pII.13.3:1), the one true remedy for all that ails us, a remedy with no downside, a remedy that is freely available to anyone who wants it. Eva Kor's extreme example gives hope and inspiration to all of us who struggle with forgiveness. If Dr. Mengele can be forgiven by one of his victims, who can't be forgiven? What can keep us from forgiving everyone and everything, just as the Course calls us to do? What's to stop any of us from taking the "modern miracle medicine" and setting ourselves free?