NEW PORT RICHEY — Eva Mozes Kor spoke in vivid detail of her horrendous past as one of Dr. Josef Mengele's "guinea pigs" during the Holocaust, but her overriding message, one that came years later, is one of forgiveness.
"I call anger a seed of war," Kor said Tuesday night in a packed auditorium at Pasco Hernando Community College, where she was a guest for Peace Week.
"A person who has forgiven is a liberated person. I call forgiveness a seed of peace."
Raised in Hungary, Kor and the rest of her family, including her twin sister Miriam, were sent off in cattle cars to the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Upon arrival, she and Miriam were separated from their parents and siblings and never saw them again.
As identical twins, the girls were of special interest to Mengele, known as "the Angel of Death'' for his ruthless experiments and cruelty. She recalled his black, gleaming boots, white gloves and baton in hand.
"I decided that I would not cooperate with them and give them as much trouble as a 10-year-old could," Kor said.
"We couldn't process" what was going on, she said. She recalled early on going into the latrine and finding the corpses of three dead children. She didn't tell her sister, but made a "silent pledge" not to end up on that filthy floor.
"The message was clear. That could not happen to Miriam and me … . I never let doubt or fear enter my mind." She kept a picture in her head of one day walking out of the camp.
But first, she had to endure seemingly endless cruelty. She and the other twins spent 6 to 8 hours a day naked in an exam room, poked, prodded, measured and compared. They were given mysterious injections and were the subject of many experiments. "Unbelievably demeaning … the only way I could cope with it was blocking it out of my mind," she said.
She developed a high fever and was sent to a filthy concentration camp "hospital" to die. But she made another silent pledge to be reunited with her sister, and despite the doctor's prediction that she had two weeks to live, she survived. Out of 1,500 sets of twins, only 200 individuals survived the camp, she said.
The contents of the injections were never known, and her sister later had failing kidneys which doctors discovered hadn't grown larger than the size of a 10-year-old child's. Kor gave her own kidney to her sister in order to save her life.
Miriam, who was living in Israel, later developed cancer and died in 1993.
Kor said children under the age of 12 cannot project forward or backward, but rather live in the here and now.
"I thought at the age of 10 all children live in a camp like Auschwitz," she said. Later, after liberation, when she was trying to fetch water from a stream, she looked across and saw a young girl with hair ribbons and a bookbag. That was a jarring realization for her that kids could have another life.
"Children who fight for their lives don't verbalize their thoughts," she said.
Kor and her sister stayed behind at the barracks as long as they could after liberation, after their captors fled. But other Nazis came along and burned the barracks. Finally, allied soldiers came and immediately Kor knew they were different. The men gave her chocolate cookies and hugs.
"It was my first taste of freedom," she said. "I realized my dream became a reality."
She later returned to her home in Hungary, which had been ransacked, leaving nothing but three crumpled photographs.
Kor wrapped up her gut-wrenching story with three "life lessons." First, never give up, no matter what,'' she said. She explained how after the war she wanted to find some of the other people in the liberation picture and spent years trying to track them down through the media. Finally, after endless attempts, she found 122 other people, in 10 countries, on four continents.
Her second life lesson was about prejudice. She admitted to being prejudiced herself, even now. She said she doesn't like the way some young people look, men with ponytails, piercings, tattoos, sloppy clothes; girls with low-cut shirts. "If I could rule the world for one day, I would put all young people in uniforms," she said, drawing applause and cheers.
She encouraged treating everyone with respect. "Realize that every single thing we do touches the lives of everybody else … like ripples in the water."
Finally, she spoke about forgiveness.
"No one could give me that power. No one could take it away," she said. "Everyone has the power to forgive. You can use it in any way you wish."
She recommends teaching forgiveness in school, beginning in kindergarten or younger. She gave parenting advice. What should you tell your kids when they come home saying someone was making fun of them? Not to ignore. Not to fight. Go and forgive, she said.
"I would also like to talk to God," Kor said, and tell Him to add an 11th commandment: Forgive your worst enemy.
Amber and Tony Kallenbaugh of New Port Richey were moved by Kor's presentation, and "how much strength she has," Tony said.
"I like that she preached forgiveness," Amber added.
Derek Wertheim, a PHCC student who is Jewish, said he had heard other Holocaust speakers before but never one who was part of the Mengele experiments. "It was very moving," he said, adding that the descriptions were "shocking."
Kor encouraged the audience to make peace with anyone they feel may have wronged them, and even to make peace with themselves for things they have done and feel guilty for, and to realize how much power we have, once we're able to do that.
"I was no longer a victim of Auschwitz," she said. "I was no longer a victim of my tragic past."