When the diminutive Mrs. Kor took to the stage a hush fell across the audience. She adjusted her microphone and then was handed a second. With a smile she quipped that technology never works. We all chuckled; she is a holocaust survivor with a sense of humor! I was struck from the beginning with how she could make such a tremendously harrowing topic both meaningful and bearable for her listening audience. She was there; she lived and breathed the saddest, most destructive days in the history of humanity. Yet she was gracious and kind and it was clear that her goal was for us to learn from her misery, and not necessarily pity her for the tremendously difficult life she was forced to endure.
Mrs. Kor paints a vivid picture with her softly spoken, slightly accented words. Starting in the cattle car to the selection platform of Auschwitz, to the screaming Nazi guard who tore Eva and her sister away from the rest of her family yelling “twins, twins!” She would never see the rest of a family again.
Every day she was subjected to something – painful, demoralizing, and dehumanizing. She reported blocking out most of the torture and we were relieved for her and in a way for ourselves. It was hard enough hearing the parts she could remember. If hearing her story was so hard, how much worse would it have been to have lived it? She told us of the experiment that almost took her life. She spoke of the German doctor who laughed as he predicted her inevitable demise even at her young age. But Mrs. Kor didn’t die. We knew this because this remarkable woman was here, telling us her story with great eloquence and compassion. She recounted her fight to live, crawling across the barracks floor for water and we rejoiced with her when the fever finally broke and she returned to her sister.
Then she transitioned to the lessons she wanted her captive audience to take away from her story. She wanted us to understand how it was that she came to forgive the Nazi’s even though her position has been widely criticized. She said forgiveness was a power that she alone possessed. It gave her the power to begin the process of healing. Later she would go on to address the fallacy of "justice." Justice is usually synonymous with punishment and as such, it directs its focus to the perpetrator while essentially ignoring the victim. Forgiveness she contended was for the victim; forgiveness resets the balance of power, allowing the victim to move forward. Forgiveness, she contended, did not require forgetting. I left the lecture quietly and walked to my car. Her words about forgiveness reverberated in my mind. If she could forgive the ‘unforgivable’ then there was so much more that I needed to forgive…
Dr. Helen Oribella Williams is a physician in pediatrics, neonatal and perinatal medicine, Assistant Professor in the School of Medicine at Emory, and student in the Master of Arts in Bioethics degree program housed at the Center for Ethics.