For a Holocaust survivor, meeting the offspring of one’s tormenters would be difficult enough. The prospect of developing a close friendship with them, even familial warmth, would seem utterly impossible.
Yet this is just the sort of unlikely relationship struck between a woman who was subjected to horrific Nazi medical experiments at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, and the very grandson of that camp’s notorious commander, according to the Vice news website.
In 1944, at the age of ten, Romanian-born Eva Mozes Kor was captured by the Nazis and — along with her twin sister — was subjected to savage medical experiments at Auschwitz carried out by Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele. Mengele, who had a particular interest in twins in his work, is believed to have victimized approximately 1,500 pairs throughout the war. Only around 200 of those pairs survived.
“Throughout the week, the doctors would be giving me a minimum of five injections into my arm. I became very ill,” Kor recently recounted to high school students at a lecture in Casper, Wyoming, according to Oil City.
At one point Mengele told her, laughing, that she had only two weeks to live. Her sister, too, was very sick, but both knew that if one died, the other would likely be killed as well.
“I remember going back to the camp where I remember crawling and fading in and out of consciousness, crawling to get to a water fountain, telling myself, ‘I must survive, I must survive,'” she said.
And, miraculously, they did.
In 1995, Kor founded the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, a small city in western Indiana where she has lived since the 1950s, with the aim of sharing her story with her neighbors. But instead of speaking in anger of her captors, Kor has preached forgiveness.
“I had the power to forgive. No one could give me the power, or take it away from me,” Kor, now 80, told Vice last week. “I refused to be a victim, and now I am free.”
In 2013, Kor first met Rainer Höss, whose grandfather Rudolf Höss commanded Auschwitz for much of the war and is identified with the decision to use pesticide Zyklon B to kill prisoners in the camp’s gas chambers.
Many families of former Nazi war criminals have avoided their past. Some have attempted to bury it, while others deny that any evil was perpetrated at all. But not Rainer Höss. Since finding out the truth of his grandfather’s actions, he has become a fierce and vocal critic of his forebear and has sought to learn all that he could of his dark roots.
When his family criticized his choices, Höss cut his ties with them. He has devoted recent years to educating schoolchildren about the dangers of right-wing extremism. What began when his children’s teachers asked him to share his story with pupils at their school has now become a full-time job that saw him visit more than 70 schools in Germany in 2013 alone.
After hearing of Kor’s story, Höss, 49, contacted her and asked to meet her. He also asked her if she would agree to become his adoptive grandmother. After meeting him, Kor consented.
“I’m proud to be his grandmother,” she told Vice. “I admire and love him. He had the need of love from a family he never had.”
One million Jews were killed at Auschwitz from 1940 to 1945 along with more than 100,000 non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals and anti-Nazi partisans before the camp was liberated on January 27, 1945.
Rudolf Höss went into hiding after World War II but was captured by the Allies in 1946 and hanged the year after near the infamous Auschwitz crematorium.
Rainer has said in the past that if he knew where his grandfather was buried, he would go to his grave in order to urinate or spit on it. Kor says she has urged him to forgive his grandfather as well as the rest of his family. Only by forgiving your worst enemies can you be truly free, she contends.
“I do argue with him, as I don’t always agree with everything he does. But I definitely love him,” she said. “There is a real camaraderie and emotional understanding. People from different places who call each other grandma and grandson can give a sign of hope.”
Lazar Berman and AFP contributed to this report.