Movie review: Forgiving Dr. Mengele (2006)

I was expecting a movie on forgiveness. I was half right. To discuss forgiveness, the movie needed to discuss the reasons for the forgiveness.

The first half of Forgiving Dr. Mengele introduces Eva Kor and tells her story, interweaving bits of her past with bits of her present. Eva Kor is a twin survivor of Dr. Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz. As a child, she suffered through medical experiments that almost killed her and, if she died, would have cost her sister her own life.

They both survived to live out lives that, like other survivors, were technically free. Eva got on with her life, eventually moving to Terre Haute with her husband. She raised children. She became a real estate agent. She tried to fit into the US, despite being a minority in Terre Haute (not really a Mecca for Holocaust survivors).

Like other immigrant parents, she didn’t always know how things were done in the US. Her children wanted the grilled cheese sandwiches that they had at friends’ houses. So she improvised. She laid buttered bread with cheese on a layer of tin foil, wrapped another layer on top, and then ironed the sandwiches. Voila! Grilled cheese sandwiches. Or what the Kor family calls them, iron sandwiches.

She planned a 1984 trip back to Auschwitz but found herself paralyzed with fear on her German flight. She hadn’t heard this much German since being on the cattle cars to Auschwitz. In 1985, she and her twin Miriam spoke to each other for the first time about what they experienced in Auschwitz.

Miriam had been injected with something by Dr. Mengele that stunted the growth of her kidneys. Her kidneys remained fixed in time—when she was 10—while the rest of her moved on. Eventually, Miriam’s kidneys stopped working. Eva gave Miriam one of her own kidneys. This started Eva on a quest that unknowingly led to forgiveness: if the doctors knew what Miriam had been injected with, perhaps they could do something to help her.

So Eva started trying to find anyone who might know of Dr. Mengele’s files or what experiments he conducted. She founded CANDLES, meant to bring together surviving Mengele twins.

Eva continued her quest even after Miriam’s death on June 6, 1993. She saw a Nazi doctor in a documentary. Perhaps he might know something. Dr. Hans Munch was the only SS officer who was acquitted after the war. In August 1993, Eva went to Bavaria to meet him. Alas, he knew of no records but expressed how secretive Mengele was about his experiment. He explained in detail, the first time this was known, exactly how people died in the gas chambers.

Eva took a risk, asking Dr. Munch if he would accompany her to Auschwitz on the 50th anniversary of liberation and sign his description of how exactly people were killed in the gas chambers. He agreed. As thanks, Eva wrote a letter of forgiveness—not just forgiving Dr. Munch but forgiving Dr. Mengele and all Nazis—that she read at Auschwitz on that trip.

Eva realized that she had the power to forgive, a power that no one gave her and no one could take away. The Declaration of Amnesty that she read lifted the burden of hatred that she had been carrying most of her life and ultimately changed her.

Many other twin survivors could not understand or accept what Eva did. The movie shows the various sides of the argument—a curious glimpse into understanding different people. People grappled with what forgiveness really means. Most seemed focused on forgiveness needing a prerequisite, an action on the part of the perpetrator. Like Yom Kippur, they felt, there has to be regret or atonement for forgiveness.

Others seemed to see forgiveness as being a collective task. They couldn’t forgive just on behalf of themselves. If they were to forgive, they would be forgiving on behalf of all survivors and those killed by the Nazis. Since forgiving means that you forgive on behalf of everyone affected and you cannot forgive on behalf of another person, they couldn’t forgive. It’s not their power, not their right to forgive.

Others seemed to equate forgiveness with forgetting. If you forgive, it is as if you are saying that the act didn’t happen. It is wiped away from the past, from memory.

All of these views of forgiveness trap the survivor. The focus is on something external. Instead, Eva’s view of forgiveness is focused on the survivor. Forgiveness was never about the perpetrator for her, not on their views, their actions, their words. It was about empowering herself and taking back her life. The others who could not forgive were still trapped, still imprisoned in the past that was Auschwitz.

The second half of the movie focuses on forgiveness and Eva’s post-conversion life. She founded a Holocaust museum (CANDLES) in Terre Haute that has seen so many visitors and classes of students walk through its doors. Eva has talked at different schools (including a school in my hometown!). Afterwards, she met with the students, comforting them in the difficulties and pain that they are experiencing. In the midst of hugs, she spoke words of encouragement, understanding, and inspiration to them. Her talks clearly touched many. (And she continues to talk and give lectures, at CANDLES in Terre Haute and elsewhere.)

The documentary also covered several interesting meetings that she had, which were a bit of a challenge in different ways. In June 2001, she and other survivors attended a meeting at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. Historically, the Institute was in charge of Dr. Mengele’s experiments. The current Institute issued an in-person apology for what had been done to the survivors of Dr. Mengele’s experiments and asked for forgiveness. Eva reiterated that she had already forgiven all Nazis and urged others to do so for self-healing. Others at the meeting were not so accommodating. Forgiveness was not forthcoming.

In another case, at some urging, Eva went to the West Bank to meet with Palestinians to discuss what she thought would be forgiveness. Instead, in what was a clearly uncomfortable scenario for Eva, she listened to personal story after personal story of what the Palestinians in the meeting had suffered—another case of people needing different things, coming from different places, and talking past each other. The Palestinians needed to be heard. Eva wasn’t there to listen to pain. She was there to talk about healing. But forgiveness can’t happen when people are fighting for their lives, fighting for their survival.

The movie covers the bombing of the museum in Terre Haute on November 19, 2003. All was destroyed but the mug that Eva used in the concentration camp. I was struck by the image of the firefighters on scene picking up penny after penny from the wreckage. These were pennies that schoolchildren had collected for each person killed in the Holocaust. The jar holding the pennies was broken in the fire. The firefighters, after the fire was out, collectively squatted down searching for these pennies in the debris.

Of course, Eva is a fighter. The museum reopened April 20, 2005. It still exists today and Eva still gives lectures there—about her past and about forgiveness. The museum is definitively worth a visit. Be sure to time your visit when Eva is there giving a talk.

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