Lying on a hospital bed in Auschwitz concentration camp, sick with a dangerously high fever, the only thing comforting Eva Mozes Kor was the prospect of seeing her twin sister Miriam again.
After some time in that cold, lonely room, Dr Josef Mengele – the SS "Angel of Death" – came to check in on her. Eva remembers him smirking, pointing to her and saying, "Too bad, she's so young and only has two more weeks to live."
At that point, the 10-year-old made a silent pledge to herself to prove Mengele wrong and reunite with her sister – a promise she fulfilled through sheer determination. "I don't know where that will came from," she told me recently. "I felt that if I gave up for a single moment, I would die."
Now 80 years old, Eva has become an advocate for forgiveness, making peace with everyone who's ever hurt her, including the Nazis. Most astoundingly, she has informally adopted Rainer Höss – grandson of Rudolf, the SS commander of Auschwitz during the time she was imprisoned there – as her own grandson.
Eva and her sister were born in Romania on New Year's Eve, 1934 to a family of Jewish farmers. Six years later, her village was occupied by Hungarian Nazis and her life changed forever. Her father, Alexander, was hassled for being Jewish, and her mother, Jaffa, got sick. Meanwhile, local kids were encouraged to call Eva and her sister "dirty Jews".
The family were taken to a Jewish ghetto at the beginning of 1944, and in May of that year slung in a cattle car bound for Auschwitz. The conditions were awful; countless crying souls crammed into a van, oppressive heat making the lack of food and water during the 70-hour journey even more unbearable.
Eva recalled the moment the doors opened up: "When we arrived at Auschwitz we asked for water, but instead we got Germans yelling orders. I looked around and, just like that, my father and two older sisters [Edit and Aliz] disappeared in the crowd. I held onto my mother for dear life. I thought she could protect us."
In the confusion, a German officer approached Jaffa and demanded to know whether her daughters were twins. She answered yes, and the girls were dragged away. "We were both crying, and mother's hands were spread in despair," said Eva. "We never got to say goodbye. I had the best mother on the face of this Earth."
In just half an hour the twins had lost their family forever. Separated from the pack, they were grouped together with other twin girls, undressed, had their heads shaved and were taken away to be tattooed: "It seemed like a nightmare, and I thought that if I close my eyes and open them again the nightmare would disappear," said Eva. "I tried, but it didn't work."
Eva remonstrated so passionately that it took four people to restrain her, a 10-year-old, before they were able to mark her arm with the number A-7063.
Like many sets of twins taken captive by the Nazis, Eva and Miriam were experimented on six days a week. The tests included the girls being placed in an observation lab every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, where they were undressed and had most of their body parts examined for up to eight hours. "They would spend three hours on my ear lobe – it was unbelievably demeaning. They treated me like I was nothing, like I was a piece of meat," Eva told me.
The worst, however, came on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, in the "blood lab", where doctors injected Eva with five large needles in her right arm while taking blood from the other. She never knew what she was being injected with, but it's those tests that landed her in hospital for a couple of weeks, which is where she decided she and her sister would make it through the ordeal, and where she miraculously recovered.
At the time, Eva didn't realise that her survival had also saved her sister's life; the Nazi doctors were waiting for Eva to die, planning to kill Miriam soon after so Mengele could cross-examine their bodies.
However, the sisters pulled through, and on the 18th of January, 1945, the Germans ordered all the prisoners to march away from the camp. Those who couldn't were shot.
During the death march, Eva walked up to an icy river for water. "I saw a girl about my age across the river wearing a beautiful dress and carrying a school bag," she recalled. "I realised that there was a real world outside. I thought the whole world was a concentration camp."
A few days later, Eva heard a woman yelling: "We are free!"
Eva and Miriam were one of the 200 sets of twins who survived out of the almost 1,500 sets selected for experimentation.
The pair returned to Romania, where they lived with their aunt. But life still wasn't as it had been before; anti-Semitism was rife, and the man their aunt had married was jailed without trial, accused of being bourgeois. So the girls moved to Israel in 1950, where they were finally free to live without prejudice. "I slept for the first time without the fear of persecution because I was Jewish," said Eva.
Here, the twins were both able to start new lives for themselves, with Eva receiving a good education at an agricultural school and achieving the rank of Sergeant Major in the Israeli Army Engineering Corps. She married Michael Kor, also a Holocaust survivor, in 1960, and moved to the United States, where the couple had two children, Alex and Rina.
In 1978, Eva decided to find out what had happened to the rest of the surviving twins – to hear of their experiences and learn how the Holocaust affected their lives. In just one week, the sisters found 80 pairs of twins, and 42 more later on.
In 1984, Eva and Miriam founded CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors), a foundation whose primary message is that there's always hope after despair.
In 1993, Miriam sadly died of cancer, but Eva continued her work, meeting Dr Hans Munch – a former Nazi doctor – in her quest for answers. Munch told her, to nobody's surprise, that Auschwitz was "hell on Earth". He admitted that he watched through a hole in the the gas chamber's doors while people died, adding that once Zyklon B fell from the roof, people would climb on each other to try and avoid it.
"He could see a mountain of bodies breathing their last breaths," Eva recounted. "The strongest were on top, and when they didn't move [the guards] knew they were all dead."
Munch claimed that none of the guards or doctors could function at the camp, which is why everyone – bar him and Mengele – got drunk every night. "I needed someone to talk to, and Mengele always justified the experiments," he told Eva. "He said the prisoners would die anyway, and that we were actually saving them for a while."
Eva read a witness statement signed by Munch 50 years after the liberation of Auschwitz and thanked him for proving the Holocaust deniers wrong. Ten months later, she decided to write a letter where she forgave – in her name alone – all the Nazis for their crimes. She enlisted the help of her English professor, who advised her to go home and pretend she was talking to Mengele so she could find a way to forgive him as well.
It took her four months to work through all her pain.
"When I finished, I realised that the guinea pig had the power to forgive the god of Auschwitz," she said. "I had the power to forgive. No one could give me the power, or take it away from me. I refused to be a victim, and now I am free."
Eva later received an email from Rainer Höss, who said he wanted to meet her in person and give her a hug. However, at first she thought he must have been an impostor – that no Nazi's grandson would be capable of speaking out against the actions of his grandfather.
Höss then sent a second email asking Eva to become his adoptive grandmother. On their first meeting last July at Auschwitz, they were both nervous, but Eva was immediately fascinated by Rainer's intelligence, bravery and kindness, and impressed at the fact that – despite the fact he grew up surrounded by evil – he'd managed to turn out a decent human being.
After their meeting, she decided to accept his offer. "I'm proud to be his grandmother," she told me. "I admire and love him. He had the need of love from a family he never had."
Höss broke all contact with his family in 1985, and has said that if his grandfather had a grave he would urinate on it. However, Eva still wants him to forgive his father and his grandfather. "I do argue with him, as I don't always agree with everything he does. But I definitely love him," she said. "There is a real camaraderie and emotional understanding. People from different places who call each other grandma and grandson can give a sign of hope."
Now, Eva maintains her role at CANDLES and holds lectures revolving around a set of messages she holds dear: Never give up on yourself, never judge people on their heritage and always forgive your worst enemy, as it's the only way you'll be able to set your soul free.
She also still attends tributes at Auschwitz, where she always dances at the selection platform where she lost her family.
"That's where they took away the joy of my life and my family," she said. "This way, I reclaim it."
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