Eva Mozes Kor was 9 years old when she and the rest of her family stepped off the train at Auschwitz. Within seconds, she lost sight of her father and two older sisters in the crowd. A Nazi guard soon noticed Eva’s mother, holding tightly to her twin girls, one in each hand.
As twins, Eva and her sister Miriam were of particular interest. The Nazi physician Josef Mengele conducted human experiments at the camp, and twins provided the perfect control group for his efforts. After confirming the girls were indeed twins, the guard pulled them away. It would be the last time they would see their mother, her arms outstretched in despair.
In Forgiving Dr. Mengele, filmmakers Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh tell the story of Eva’s journey from Mengele’s horrific laboratory to her controversial quest to heal herself by forgiving her Nazi tormenters.
Of their family, only Eva and Miriam survived Auschwitz. In the Mengele twin lab, they were subjected to hours of detailed measurements and injections of unknown substances resulting in serious illnesses.
After the war, both girls moved to Israel. Eva eventually met and married another Holocaust survivor. The couple relocated to the United States, where they raised two children.
Hercules and Pugh pick up Eva’s story decades later. Now a grandmother and real estate agent in Terre Haute, Indiana, Eva visits Germany to research Mengele’s methods in the hopes of learning more about her sister’s worsening medical condition. She meets Dr. Hans Münch, a Nazi surgeon who served at Auschwitz but was later acquitted of war crimes. Münch is unable to provide Eva with the information she is hoping for, but hearing of his lifelong struggle with depression and remorse is revelatory: “Nazis have nightmares about Auschwitz, too?” she says, startled at the thought.
What follows is a relationship with Münch, her forgiveness of him, and eventually a personal declaration of forgiveness of all the Nazis.
While Eva is adamant that her pardon is her own and necessary to her personal healing, her surprising claim is met with confusion and outright anger. One of the strengths of the film is the number of diverse voices permitted to weigh in on Eva’s amnesty of the Nazis. Her own children seem bewildered, if not skeptical. Fellow Mengele twins and other Holocaust survivors are incredulous and angry. Ethics experts and theologians challenge her definition of forgiveness.
But Eva is unwavering. “I don’t want to be a victim for the rest of my days,” she says. “It is an act of self-healing open to every survivor to heal their own pain.”
Forgiving Dr. Mengele has the power to launch rich and spirited discussions on the meaning of forgiveness, and as such is especially appropriate for groups.
Classes, church groups, and gatherings of friends and family can dig deeply into the hard questions that Eva’s critics ask: Is it possible to forgive someone who has not repented? Can there be forgiveness without justice? How does one forgive without denying the suffering? Can an individual forgive, or must it come from the community?
Through interviews with Eva herself and her many and vocal critics, Hercules and Pugh offer an inspiring tale of one survivor’s journey—while remaining honest about the controversy created by a not-so-simple act of forgiveness.
Heidi Thompson is chief marketing officer at Sojourners/Call to Renewal.