Eva Mozes Kor took me to task on a spring afternoon.
She taught me something when she did.
The Holocaust survivor and I talked in March of 2018. We were on the air with filmmaker Ted Green and publisher Peggy Tierney discussing Green’s superb documentary, “Eva.”
At one of the breaks, I described Kor as one of the world’s leading voices of forgiveness and reconciliation. She shot me a look.
I asked her about it.
She told me I had said something that was “not correct.” She was a voice of forgiveness, she said, not reconciliation. They were two different things.
I pressed her: Wasn’t forgiveness a prelude to reconciliation? Wasn’t forgiveness essential to reconciliation.
Kor was polite but adamant in her response.
Forgiveness was hers and hers alone to give. It asked nothing of the Nazis who had oppressed and tortured her as a child. It gave her the means to liberate herself from the horrors she had experienced at Auschwitz, when the infamous Josef Mengele experimented on her and her twin sister, Miriam.
Forgiveness was something she could control. Something no one could take from her.
Her courteous adamance said a lot.
When Kor died July 4 in Krakow, Poland, where she was on a visit to Auschwitz, the remembrances that flowed after her passing focused on her work as a spokesperson for Holocaust survivors and as an ambassador for forgiveness.
Every word of those remembrances was true, but they didn’t tell the whole story.
The fact is that the woman had a lot of pepper in her makeup. She wouldn’t have survived if she hadn’t.
Too often, we think of forgiveness as something soft, yielding, effortless. It isn’t. Forgiving someone for a wrong done is hard, wrenching work. The greater the wrong, the harder the work.
Kor had so much to forgive.
Because at the end of her life she was such a small woman and enchanting presence — not much taller than a coffee table with a smile that was incandescent — she made it easy to think that getting past what she had endured didn’t cost her much.
But it had to have.
Stripped from her parents when she was 10 years old and then treated as a kind of twisted science project, she must have had reservoirs of pain and rage as vast as the universe. What she endured must have burned within her, with the sort of heat that can consume and scorch anything it touches.
More humane researchers these days have come up with a way to assess how early-life trauma affects children. These traumas go by one of the most misleading acronyms around. They’re called ACEs — short for adverse childhood experiences.
Kor’s ACE score would have been off the charts.
What it must have cost her not to let her suffering broil her and her life down to nothing. Many people never would have been able to escape moments that horrific, never would have been able to find either security or comfort in a world that would allow such things to happen.
But she did.
It’s no wonder asserting control over what her experience meant was so important to Kor. So much of what children depend on, what they need — the love of parents, a sense that the world has a place for them — had been ripped away from her before she would have graduated from the fifth grade.
So much had been taken from her so young, that it must have seemed essential to her to assert ownership over the things no one could take from her.
When Kor and I debated — gently, politely — the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation some 15 months ago, she did what she’d been doing since her childhood. She was asserting that her life was her own and that no one had the right to shape or determine it for her.
Eva Kor took me to task on a spring afternoon.
She taught me something when she did.
May she rest in peace.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.