A Letter to My Spiritual Director
Last week I saw a remarkable documentary called “Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” featuring a Holocaust survivor from Terre Haute, Indiana named Eva Kor.
I knew of her work prior to seeing the movie. Several years ago she started a small museum in a strip mall, devoted to documenting Mengele’s so-called medical experiments on 1400 groups of identical twins at Auschwitz. Eva and her sister Miriam were among his victims.
They both survived and were liberated by the Russians in 1945. But they lost every other member of their family.
Other museums, the big famous ones, try to be comprehensive in telling the whole story of the Holocaust. Mrs. Kor’s CANDLES Museum in Terre Haute focuses on the twins.
CANDLES stands for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors.
I found it so remarkable that someone would start a Holocaust Museum in a small Indiana city like Terre Haute that I’ve made a couple of small donations over the years. I don’t care if it is in a strip mall, it’s an important witness right where it is. It’s one thing to know there’s a big, prestigious museum in Washington, D.C., which you can visit while you’re taking in all the other national monuments. It’s another thing to go out of your way to an obscure town where there’s a real live survivor who tells her story and others’.
One could say that because Eva and Miriam were twins, they were kept alive for Mengele’s experiments instead of put to death immediately. But the experiments in fact were forms of torture. Miriam was injected with something that eventually killed her in middle age. Eva was also sickened to the point of death while still in the camp.
However, even as a child she was incredibly strong-willed, and stayed alive to protect her sister. She utterly refused to die.
Another Holocaust survivor who later became famous wrote that the decision to survive at all costs is what made the difference between living and dying. Dr. Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who wrote of his Auschwitz experience in Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s considered one of the most important books of the 20th century.
I read it a few years ago; it’s very moving. Part of its enormous value derives from the fact that it was published in 1946 right after the war, while his memories were most acute – not that he ever forgot what happened to him. How could a person forget?
But I also felt, reading it decades later, that the publication date was almost a shortcoming, because he hadn’t had time to reflect on his experience. The memoir portion of the book is less than a hundred pages, then he goes on to expound about a psychotherapeutic approach he termed logotherapy, “of the word.”
Sixty-five years later in 2010, Eva Kor has had time to reflect; to build a life, marry a fellow Holocaust survivor, settle with him in Indiana, raise two great kids, earn her own money as a real estate agent (that’s how she knew when the strip mall space became vacant) and establish her small unique museum. She hasn’t forgotten a thing.
While Dr. Frankl focused in later years on the healing of others as his work, Mrs. Kor wondered how to heal herself.
That is the point at which her story and mine begin to overlap; at which her story and that of millions of others begin to overlap.
We have, nearly all of us, experienced huge trauma in our lives. True, this “does not compare” with being a victim of Mengele at Auschwitz; nothing compares to that. No one gives prizes to the most traumatized among us. But if they did, Auschwitz survivors would win.
USA Today had an article the other day reporting that 60% of American adults say they had a “troubled” childhood. This was defined as having experienced physical or sexual abuse, or suffering parental separation such as divorce. (I kind of snort at the last one, but okay, it’s not up to me to define what’s traumatic for a kid. I was glad when my parents were divorced.)
I’m not sure how to take that 60% figure; is it high or low? What about the traumas of adulthood – war in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan? What about parents whose children are murdered, or otherwise die young?
Trauma is the human condition, but it’s especially devastating when it happens to children. They are powerless. Their minds form vivid impressions. They never forget.
They spend the rest of their lives trying to make sense of what happened to them – trying to overcome it somehow. A few manage this, but most don’t.
I haven’t either, until now, thanks to Eva Kor.
As you know my particular trauma was domestic violence committed by my father. I’m not going to detail it here but it was terrifying; my father tried to kill us several times. I feel like I spent my whole childhood trying to talk him down. Later I became a social worker, talking other people down.
We know about child sexual abuse that it warps a kid for life. The same is true of violence. The experience takes root in the soul and grows inside our bodies, even if we physically survive to adulthood.
The domestic terrorism committed by my father ended up killing my brother Steve, who died of alcoholism in 2001.
It’s come close to killing me of the same thing.
The crucial aspect of alcoholism and other addictions is that they are self-inflicted. “You can stop if you want to.” Well, yes, now help me want to!
How do we heal a broken child? How does that child heal herself?
Eva Kor discovered, over six decades of personal growth and reflection and hard work and fun and depression and unadulterated sadness that the only way to heal herself was to forgive the Nazis, especially Dr. Mengele.
This has made her very controversial among Holocaust survivors. Many of them believe (and the movie illustrates this, no holds barred) that they cannot and must not forgive – because forgiveness would mean that what happened to them, all the monstrous enormity of it, would disappear.
They believe in a world of Holocaust deniers that they can’t let that happen.
In the process they empower the Holocaust deniers and cripple themselves. A very brave woman in the film, who is furious with Eva Kor and her forgiveness, unwittingly reveals that her whole life has been ruined by the trauma. Even her children tell her she’s incapable of smiling or enjoying anything; she recounts this, which she knows is true, but still refuses to let go, because it would mean it never happened – and she knows it did. Her life’s whole meaning is insisting that it happened.
She is trapped by the emotional decisions she made as a child in 1944. And we have to honor her for them; it all happened just as she says.
In the same way we now have people coming forward all over the world, testifying about their sexual and physical abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and nuns, oftentimes decades after it stopped.
Our hearts go out to them. How do you heal a traumatized child?
How do we help them put two ideas together that seem so opposed? Yes, it happened, and yes, now is your time to live and thrive?
My brother Steve never managed this, smart as he was. He didn’t have to drink himself to death, but that was his way of protesting what our father did to him, and to us.
Unfortunately this procedure never hurt our dad one bit.
People seem to have just a few responses to trauma; I see it in my own family. One is denial; that was my mother’s favorite way, and oh, did it make me furious with her in time. She should have protected us kids, and she didn’t. Nor would she ever talk about it, much less apologize.
My oldest brother escaped. Moved to Colorado, built his own life, never dealt with his father again. In the process he also abandoned his two younger brothers. As the youngest, I was still in the home with my mother and father, dodging bullets, knives and other weapons. But at least Dick survived.
A third way involves revenge; make the Nazis pay. That’s the secret motivation of Jona Lake, the Holocaust survivor in the film who is so enraged by Mrs. Kor’s Nazi amnesty. Ms. Lake secretly wants the Nazis to apologize on a grand scale (just as Catholic sexual abuse victims want the Pope to do) and to pay through the nose.
But Nazis and popes don’t apologize, and neither did my dad. Ms. Lake is the one who is paying instead.
The third way, motivated by revenge, is connected to the fourth way, which is to turn the trauma inward through self-destruction. To a child this is a way of honoring oneself, insisting it did happen – “as you can plainly see by my alcoholism/suicidalness/failures in life.” Unfortunately it’s emotionally crooked and never punishes the perpetrators.
Still, this self-destruction has always been my way, paradoxically, of honoring the child I once was and still am. I’m just like Steve – except I’m not; he continued to be enmeshed with our father, rescuing him from his many scrapes and problems, for decades after I gave up.
Steve was also the first of us to die; it was so needless, but no one could prevent it. He was determined to prove that what happened to him really happened. But the object of his affection and hatred never apologized.
Since Steve’s death I’ve also found out he emotionally abused his wife and daughters. I didn’t believe it at first but now I do. His daughter Annie told me a few stories and I immediately recognized the pattern; yup, that was Steve. Fortunately I never did that kind of thing, I made myself pay instead of anyone else.
The only way to heal from childhood trauma is to forgive the Nazis. Eva Kor is right, as difficult a thing as it is to do. Otherwise the trauma just eats at you forever.
She did get one Nazi to tell the truth; Dr. Hans Munch, a Mengele associate, was the only one acquitted of war crimes at a trial in Krakow in 1947. As the movie shows, he’s still traumatized by guilt – so no doubt Eva’s forgiveness matters greatly to him.
Until I was 50 I didn’t even know what forgiveness was. I knew that Jesus ordered it strongly (“seventy times seven”) but I didn’t know how to go about it. I was caught up just like Ms. Lake in that childhood bind; forgiveness would mean it never happened.
In time though I forgave my parents. I could see, by examining my life and theirs, that my thinking was childish and unrealistic; Nazis don’t apologize, so what’s the point of destroying myself? Besides, my parents didn’t actually succeed in killing us, just scaring us to death. Maybe “they did the best they could,” though Lord-have-mercy that’s the best they could???
I learned to forgive them. But I still couldn’t stop hurting myself. Was it habit? Was I warped, even ruined? Why didn’t forgiving my parents make me better?
Now, having watched the movie, I know the answer. I had someone else to forgive. I thought it was just my parents but no, not at all.
Not by any stretch of the imagination. Forgiving my parents was the crucial step, but only one of two – and I didn’t know who my other abuser was.
But I found out last week, in prayer that soon had me writhing on the floor, unable to stand, screaming and crying to God.
Afterward I was a total wreck. No energy, no life left in me, all I could do was sit and watch the boob tube with my dog. I never watch TV, but that was all I was capable of.
Who else did I have to forgive?
If it seems far-fetched to you that these distant personages have had such a direct impact on my life, consider: I’ve been a Gay activist since 1974. I was full-time as the editor and publisher of Ohio’s Gay Newspaper from 1985-1994, covering politicians, serial killers and killer-thief-hustlers, arsonists who torched a house for people with AIDS in Canton, on and on and on; let me add this billionaire asshole, who wrote anti-Gay discrimination into the city charter of Cincinnati:
Consider too what the ultimate goal is of bigots: to make Gay people (Blacks, Hispanics, Jews) internalize in their minds the inferiority they set out to enforce on our bodies.
I don’t think I over-identify with GLBT people; I think I identify with them.
So I had a major piece of forgiveness to do – and after watching Eva Kor’s movie, I am suddenly set free.
I strongly suggest, if you need soul-healing, you watch “Forgiving Dr. Mengele.”
It will be wrenching, but you will find, no matter how old you are, that it takes away your taste for self-destruction.
Even better, go to the CANDLES Museum in Terre Haute and ask Eva Kor to show you around. Yes, she’s still alive, giving speeches, teaching students, exchanging hugs with children and living her life in freedom.
I’m headed there this spring and you’re invited.++
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