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Ideas | Tony Rehagen

A Holocaust survivor built a remarkable monument to hope and memory. Now that she’s gone, who will remind us?

Eva Kor, at a candlelight vigil in 2003, after an arsonist firebombed her Holocaust museum.AP/FILE via AP

AT AGE 10, Eva Mozes Kor was a prisoner in Auschwitz, subjected to the biological experiments of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, one of which had made her critically ill. The doctor left her in the hospital for dead.

But Eva lived. She married a fellow Holocaust survivor, moved to Terre Haute, Ind., and, after three decades of trying to forget, decided it was time to speak out and share her experience to ensure the world would always remember.

She started an organization to help locate and connect other victims of Mengele’s tortures. She built the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center along US Highway 41, Terre Haute’s main drag, from which she could tell her Midwestern neighbors her story and the stories of millions of other people who lived through and died in the Shoah. And for those Americans willing to follow, Kor led yearly trips to Poland, where she would give personalized tours of the infamous Nazi death camp she had escaped all those years ago.

It was while on one of these trips to Krakow, on July 4, that Kor died of natural causes, mere miles from the place where she’d once been condemned to die. She was 85.


Though no one could rightfully ask any more of Kor, her death comes at a time when the world might need her more than ever. In 2017, there were more than 7,100 reported hate crimes, a 17 percent jump from 2016 and the third consecutive year with an increase. According to the Anti-Defamation League, in 2018, there were 1,879 reported attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions — 99 percent more than in 2015 and the third highest tally since the ADL began tracking incidents in the 1970s. There were twice as many anti-Semitic assaults in 2018 than in 2017, including the deadliest in US history — the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which killed 11.


A recent study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 22 percent of American millennials said they have either never heard of the Holocaust or that they are unsure whether they’ve heard of it. Almost two-thirds of the millennials polled, and 41 percent of respondents of any age, were unable to identify what Auschwitz was. Combine those results with the latest rise in prominence and rhetoric of white nationalists, many of whom generally downplay the pogrom’s death toll or deny the event happened at all, and a troubling correlation is easy to see.

These developments were not lost on Kor. She built a Holocaust museum in the middle of a small Midwestern city with fewer than 100 Jewish residents, the lone Shoah monument or memorial in Indiana, where only 0.4 percent of residents are Jews and which passed hate crime legislation only this past April, the 46th state to do so. Kor did it because Terre Haute was her home, but also because she knew that the evil at the root of the Holocaust didn’t die with the end of World War II and the hate it spawned was not contained to one place and time.

Kor believed the best way to fight hate was by sharing her story, testifying time and again about all she had seen and experienced — and not just during her nine months in Auschwitz. Surviving that ordeal as a child colored the way she saw the next 75 years of her life, and provided a stark and sobering mirror on the parts of ourselves that we too often overlook or ignore.


Now that Kor is gone, as are so many of her generation, the last to bear witness to these historic events, who will preserve these memories? Who will warn us of our past, lest we repeat it? Who will keep Kor’s story, and the story of the Holocaust, alive?

THE LAST TIME Kor told me her story in person was Jan. 18, 2017. I was on assignment for a social justice magazine, looking to write about the CANDLES museum and its unique place in the community. I had interviewed her once before, back in 2005, as a 20-something rookie mag writer at the Indianapolis city magazine. She had gently chided me for my untucked T-shirt and tattered jeans (“A man who doesn’t respect his appearance doesn’t respect himself,” she told me). For this second meeting, I arrived in a tie.

Kor, as always, was dressed for business. She wore a bright blue pant suit with a scarf tied around her neck. She rolled into the museum’s foyer behind a wheeled walker. She had recently injured her leg, the latest in a litany of health issues, but she never complained and certainly never let it stop her from doing her work. Kor, then 82, spun her walker around, sat down, propped up her injured leg on a folding metal chair, and launched into her story — a recitation she performed 400 to 500 times each year.


“But I cannot lecture without feeling some of it,” she told me in her thick Romanian accent. “Because I want the lectures to be genuine. I want to take my audience on a journey of what happened. I want to touch their hearts.”

The journey begins in Transylvania in the spring of 1944, with Hungarian soldiers loading Kor, her parents, her two older sisters, and her twin sister, Miriam, on a cattle car. None of the 70 passengers crammed in the conveyance knew where they were going. After the passengers had gone four days without food, the doors slid open and the people spilled out onto the platform. Kor and Miriam lost their mother’s hand. They never saw any of their family again.

The Auschwitz concentration camp gate and railways after its liberation by Soviet troops in Oswiecim, Poland.AFP/Getty Images/file 1945/AFP/Getty Images

THE FIRST THING Kor noticed was the smokestacks of the Auschwitz crematoriums, ceaselessly billowing black smoke into the sky. The first night, Kor left the rat-infested barracks to go to the latrine, where she found the corpses of three children, naked and wilted. That’s when she truly realized the severity of her situation and where she promised herself that she would not suffer the same fate.

Because they were twins, Kor and her sister were of special interest to Mengele and his experiments, so they received preferential treatment. They were allowed to keep their hair and civilian clothes. In exchange, they were constantly stripped, prodded, measured, and, at least five times a week, injected with a mysterious substance. Eventually, Kor fell ill. Kor later remembered Mengele standing over her hospital bed and laughing as he told she had just two weeks to live. But days later, her fever broke, she was reunited with Miriam, and together, the two endured for months until Jan. 27, 1945, when a Ukrainian unit of the Soviet Army liberated the camp.


But that’s not where Kor’s story, or its lessons, end. After the war, the Kor twins moved back to Romania to live with an aunt until 1950, when the 16-year-olds were given permission to immigrate to the newly formed Israel. Kor served in the Israeli Army, studied agriculture, and eventually became a nurse. Ten years later, she met and married Michael Kor, a Buchenwald survivor who had moved to Terre Haute to be near the Indiana-born Army officer who had helped liberate him. Kor adopted her new husband’s home.

Kor came to America intent on putting her past completely behind her. But even here, even in the 1960 and 1970s, there were echoes everywhere. Neighbors who had little to no idea of Kor’s past bullied and taunted her and her family. At Halloween, kids soaped her windows and littered her porch with corn (a prank popular among rural Midwestern youths). Someone else once spray-painted a swastika on her house. It reminded her of the abuse and harassment her family had faced in their Romanian village before the Nazis came to take them away.

In 1978, she reluctantly agreed to an interview about her experience with a local NBC affiliate. As she spoke to the reporter, she felt liberated, as if telling her story finally gave her control over her past. Six years later, she and her twin, Miriam Mozes, founded CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments) as an organization that searched for other “Mengele twins” who had survived. The first museum was built in 1995, two years after Miriam died of kidney cancer.

Even then, the CANDLES museum was little more than a rundown building with leaky pipes and homespun posters and black-and-white photographs enlarged almost beyond recognition. Then in November 2003, an arsonist firebombed the building, reducing it to a charred brick shell. On one wall, in black spray paint, was scrawled “Remember Timmy McVeigh,” referring to the admitted anti-Semite behind the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Kor was characteristically undeterred.

“As strange as it might sound, the world has learned about our little museum,” she told The New York Times two days later. “If he was trying to destroy the message we were trying to teach, he has accomplished exactly the opposite.”

A picture taken just after the liberation by the Soviet army in January, 1945, shows a group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms. AP/CAF PAP via AP

KOR RAISED MORE than $500,000 to rebuild. Today CANDLES is a polished production, replete with authentic artifacts and professionally fabricated exhibits that run from the early Nazi propaganda through Kristallnacht and the war to liberation. There’s even a corner dedicated to the museum’s own resurrection from the ashes in 2003. Everywhere, there are docents and staffers engaging guests, breaking the somber stillness that hangs over most Holocaust memorials and striking up lively dialogue about what it means.

But one key piece of the museum, its founder, is now missing. And more survivors and first-hand witnesses like Kor are disappearing with each passing year. In 2010, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims counted only 127,300 Holocaust victims living in the United States. By 2020, they estimate that number will be closer to 67,000.

“The opportunity to hear the first-hand account of a survivor’s experience during the Holocaust has a profound impact on students and adults,” says Kristine Donly, deputy chief program officer for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “It is critical for us to find ways to keep the lessons of the Holocaust relevant for new generations, and one of the ways we must do this is to continue to include the voices of survivors, to keep the memory of the victims alive.”

To accomplish this, Donly and other historians, journalists, and archivists are scrambling to record as many testimonials as possible. In just the last three years of her life, Kor was the subject of two separate documentaries. She was also one of 13 survivors who traveled to the University of Southern California to sit for its New Dimensions in Testimony project, a revolutionary technology that produces a 3-dimensional holographic image of the survivor and uses natural language processing so that visitors can ask questions and receive answers from the survivor’s image in their own words.

The next step is getting these collected remembrances and artifacts in front of the general public, young students in particular. While there has been movement toward increasing Holocaust education in schools, to date only 11 states have made it mandatory, only two of which (Illinois and Kentucky) are located in the Midwest.

“Our challenge is to find ways to bring the history and lesson of the Holocaust to the entire country,” Donly says.

In the meantime, CANDLES is doing its part to fill the gap. Museum director Leah Simpson says that half of the museum’s 150,000 yearly visitors are school-age children, many of whom come from as far away as St. Louis, three hours west. The museum hosts teacher workshops and is working to establish a separate Indiana state Holocaust museum in Indianapolis. And Simpson says the museum even had the foresight to make audio recordings of Kor’s tours of Auschwitz that can be played as the museum continues to host trips abroad to visit the camp — which will soon be the only tangible remnant of this history that remains.

Even as CANDLES moves into its next life, establishing an identity increasingly separate from the voice of its founder, Kor will always be at the heart of its mission. The museum will point not only to her personal story, but also to her example.

“She never wanted you to walk out feeling sad,” says Simpson. “She wanted you to walk out feeling empowered to make a difference.”

Eva Kor believed the best way to fight hate was by sharing her story, testifying time and again about all she had seen and experienced — and not just during her nine months in Auschwitz.

Tony Rehagen is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter @trehagen.