Observations from an hour with Eva Mozes Kor
St. Luke's Episcopal, Birmingham, Alabama
Turn away if you don’t like sentimentality. This post goes there. But this is constructive sentiment. Of which, the kind humanity needs more.
For one hour, I was in the presence of living history. I’m not speaking about the quotidian (every day is history) stuff. I was an audience to a woman who had survived WWII. Not periodic bombing or even occupation. She had stumbled by no choice of her own—as if it was her birthright/curse—into the inferno, endured the circles of hell, and ascended to the surface-to the light and eventual freedom. Seventy years later, she’s feisty and impatient with injustice! She is full of love, resolution, and profound forgiveness.
In history, our students had been studying WWII in the abstract. In the absence of real-time proof, 70 year old primary sources can only get them so close. But, on the morning of Friday, 1/29, Kor brought the unit to life. To the students, she was a breathing, emotional artifact that had transcended time and space. A glorified traveling museum exhibit. For me, she was a different sort of education. Now, I’ve read the books and passed the tests. But, in this brief, one-hour course on humanity, I learned how calamity can be a conduit to grace. Moments after getting off the train, this woman was stripped from her parents and became, along with her twin sister, one of the Mengele twins. She and her sister endured inhuman testing, reprehensible treatment, separation, and lies. She survived experiments that left permanent damage. She withstood more than most of us will ever experience, and yet she is joyful, active, and forgiving. Does this mean that she feels love for her captors and the doctors? I have no idea; but her modern convictions certainly make love a possibility. It’s as if she has defied every genetic predisposition for survival (or is forgiveness an evolutionary trait?). She has chosen to remember but to forgive. Either peak altruism or absolute selfishness. What an education.
I harbor grudges like they are guilty pleasures. I hold a grudge if I receive an email that I perceive as slightly rude; I’ll give you the silent treatment if I feel like you’ve trampled my professional territory; If I get cut off in my morning commute, I’ll nurture that frustration for entirely too long and in unhealthy ways. I'll curse the fates that there was no justice, and my frustration will fester Clearly, I have some issues that need resolving. But, at the crux, I’ve lost perspective. Kor, who could justifiably be a curmudgeonly old woman, made the conscious choice, in the face of an unspeakable horror, to forgive. To give for another (who didn’t deserve it). To give grace (love?).
What kind of strength must she bear? From what depths is she able to summon such profound grace? Now, I know we are all different and we should not compare experiences. It’s not a spitting contest. But it stands to reason that most of us have experienced far less. So, of forgiveness and love, why can’t I give more? It’s not for a lack of trying or understanding. Wisdom and tragedy are strange bedfellows.
In fairness, while I was blown away by Kor’s unique testimony, her story has been told throughout history and across the globe. The history of humanity is often the story of these moral giants. There’s may not be the sexiest stories, but they’re the ones that quietly transcend. They are the moral compass, to borrow the oft used metaphor, that show us the way. We just have to pay close attention; their voices haven’t been groomed for the masses, and a microphone isn’t always near. Out of the morass that follows war or hollow demagoguery, these giants show us the way.
I know one thing is certain. About 900 students and adults sat riveted for an hour, listening to a compelling story, but absorbing the types of lessons that give me hope. And then they read her book. Of their own volition. No manipulation. No coercion. That’s exciting. That’s authentic education. And that's good power.
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