Generosity helps rebuild museum leveled by hate

An arsonist destroyed memorial to the Holocaust, and then the contributions started pouring in

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Eva Mozes Kor is just no good at being a victim.

Even as she watched arson destroy her tiny Holocaust museum last year, she vowed to rebuild.

It would not be an easy promise to keep. All that was left of the Terre Haute museum was a charred shell, and the contents were mostly gone. Kor lost valuable pictures and rare books and did not know how she would start over.

But then the mail started coming, and she had her answer. About $300,000 in donations arrived from more than 2,300 people across the country. The donations ranged from $5 to $100,000.

Impressed by kindness

“I am so impressed by their goodness, their kindness and their caring,” she said of the supporters. “I dearly cherish them. They made my life much richer emotionally.”

Kor will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building Monday, less than 11 months after the original was set ablaze.

Kor, a plucky 70-year-old who survived nine months in a Nazi concentration camp, was heartbroken by the fire, but she knew that if the Nazis could not kill her spirit, neither could an arsonist.

“When I was in Auschwitz, I knew that if I gave in or gave up on my decision to live, I would die,” she said. “I never permitted myself to doubt my resolve. So when I stood outside the building, when the flames were still rising, I vowed to rebuild.”

Though the $300,000 already collected will pay for the building itself, she will need to do additional fundraising to acquire items to take the place of those destroyed.

Kor salvaged what she could from the rubble–a Nazi helmet, a tin cup, a lid to a container and other artifacts–and put them in storage. She then assembled a 15-member board to begin plans for the new facility.

Lectures around world

Delegating much of the work to others through the board has left Kor free to lecture around the world. She is scheduled to speak in Poland in January and in Germany in June.

If the arsonist was bent on extinguishing her message, he or she has to be disappointed, she said.

“It’s strange how these things work,” Kor said. “Since the museum burned down, the demand for lectures has increased dramatically.”

Whoever set the museum ablaze wrote “Remember Timmy McVeigh” in black spray paint on a wall. Timothy McVeigh, who had strong ties to white supremacists, was executed for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people in 1995.

Police have not charged anyone in connection with the Nov. 18 museum fire.

The hate that drove the arsonist has united a diverse group in support of Kor’s vision.

“These are not just Jewish issues,” said Sister Mary McCarthy, a board member who serves on the finance committee. “We are all connected and related. A crime against any one of us is a crime against all of us. We have an obligation to stand against violence, racism and hatred.”

Jim Jenkins, former mayor of Terre Haute and a museum board member, has known Kor for years. Although he has heard her story many times, he is still appalled by the level of cruelty she endured.

“She has suffered a huge personal loss: the loss of her freedom and of her family,” he said. “Every day when she wakes up, she has some memory of being in a Nazi concentration camp.”

The one thing she does not have is hatred.

Kor, burdened with anger toward the Nazis for years, forgave them years ago. It had taken too much time and energy, she said, to keep recounting their atrocities, reliving the experience and refueling her fury.

So she gave the Nazis clemency, and in her forgiveness she found power, she said. Once a frightened guinea pig for Nazi experimenters, a little girl who woke up each morning wondering if she and her sister would be killed, she was finally able to put the past where it belonged: behind her.

Kor, who had also grown up resenting her parents for being unable to protect her, forgave them as well, and finally, she forgave herself for anger at them.

“It’s almost like being reborn,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about the pain inflicted on you.”

She hopes those who visit the museum might learn the same lesson. She has plans to reach out to troubled teens to help them better understand their anger and work past it.

The museum, called CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors), was founded in honor of Kor’s twin sister, Miriam, who also survived the death camps but died of cancer in 1993.

“I knew that I had to do something in her memory, but I didn’t know what,” she said. “I thought about opening a museum for a long time. This is my project in her memory.”

Like the old museum, the new building, bearing the same name, will focus on child Holocaust survivors.

Kor, born in Transylvania in 1934, was taken to Auschwitz with her family in April 1944. Her parents were killed almost immediately. Her two older sisters also died.

Kor and her sister were subjected to numerous experiments conducted by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. The experiments were so demeaning the sisters did not talk about the details until they were adults.

“We were starved for food, for kindness, for the love of the mothers we once had,” she said. “We had one determination: to survive one more day, one more experiment. That is the way we lived.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Chicago Tribune, USA
Oct. 11, 2004
Jo Napolitano, Tribune staff reporter

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