SOUTHERN INDIANA — The Southern Indiana community and the world at large lost one of its most prominent links to the past with the death Eva Kor on July 4.
Kor, the founder of Terre Haute’s CANDLES Holocaust Museum, passed away early Thursday morning in Krakow, Poland, during the museum's annual trip to the country to visit Auschwitz. She was 85 years old.
In 1944, Kor and twin sister Miriam were imprisoned at the Auschwitz concentration camp along with the rest of their family. The two were then subjected to the barbaric genetic experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele — otherwise known as the Angel of Death.
Unlike most involved in the experiments, Kor and Miriam survived, with the camp being liberated in 1945. After the war, Kor made her way to the United States, where she became a citizen in 1965, and found a home in Terre Haute.
In the decades that followed, Kor shared her story of surviving the Holocaust in a variety of public settings throughout the world, including schools, museums and libraries. Despite her international significance, Kor always made it a point to interact with her fellow Hoosiers.
“Eva did so much to raise awareness of the Holocaust in Indiana and the whole region," said Matt Goldberg, director of community relations for the Jewish Community of Louisville. "She spread the word of what happened to her and the Jewish people. She really embodied the phrase 'never forget, never again.'"
Goldberg said that though Kor will be missed, her legacy will live on. He added that as more and more Holocaust survivors age and pass away, it's important to listen to the stories of those who lived through the horrors while they are still around.
“As the years go by, there are fewer and fewer people who are able to give first-hand accounts of what happened in the Holocaust," Goldberg said. "There is a handful of people left, and most were children when it was happening. As we move forward in the next 5 or 10 years, there really won’t be any survivors able to give their testimony. We have to capitalize on their stories now and learn from them."
Echoing this was Eileen Yanoviak, director at the Carnegie Center for Art and History.
"What's interesting is that with something like Eva Kor's story and others like hers, documenting is so important to remembering," Yanoviak said. "Remembering helps us with avoiding the mistakes of the past and improving our world."
Earlier this year, the Carnegie Center hosted an event titled the "Story of Eva," during which a documentary about her life and work was screened and discussed.
"Some people wonder why we would show a documentary about the Holocaust in Southern Indiana," Yanoviak said. "Her presence in Indiana showed that it wasn't as far away as people thought. We're more connected to those stories than we think we are. She helped us put ourselves in the situation of seeing it through her eyes, and that's so powerful."
Similarly, the Floyd County Library held a reading program this past winter that focused on Kor's book, "Surviving the Angel of Death."
Director Melissa Merida said that the library stressed the three points Kor hit on in the book — never give up on yourself or your dreams, judge people on their actions and the content of their character, and forgiveness.
"These three points we can learn from Eva Kor’s message can make a difference in keeping not only her history and that of so many others alive by making our own small part of the world a better place," Merida said. "If her unthinkable childhood experience can make such a huge impact on so many all over the world, we can take that example and make our own small part of the world a better place. As an individual, I believe this is the reflection I want my life to be — forgiveness and not holding any grudge for the unfortunate experiences in my life, to accept others unconditionally, and to strive to make every day count in making the world a better place in just some small way, even if others don’t know what I have done."
Merida's connection with Kor went further than the library's reading program. Merida grew up just outside of Terre Haute — where Kor called home — and previously met her. Even though she only met her once, she said she feels as though she's lost a close friend.
Along with that shared history, Merida's position with the Purdue Extension made her responsible for the Southern Indiana 4-H Polish Student Exchange. As part of the program, Merida visited Auschwitz.
"Walking on that ground and in those buildings while hearing of the gruesome and tortuous treatment of innocent people was life-changing in so many deep ways," Merida said. "It went beyond what I’d ever learned or felt through books and documentaries. Additionally, facilitating a group of teens and seeing it through their eyes, hearing their testimony of what they saw, heard, and felt instilled in me an overwhelming call to action — to learn as much as I could and share the experience to help others understand and never forget the history of the Holocaust."
This is when Merida said she began using her roots of knowledge about Eva from her childhood to learn more about her story and spread her teachings. By sharing, Merida said it's possible to build a better world, one step at a time.
"She went through quite a struggle with telling her stories. Then she came to the understanding that if she didn’t share it, she wouldn’t have as rich of a life," Merida said. "By sharing, she could help create a better future and keep the story alive. I think it’s important to learn the tragedies of history and to build a better community. It starts with each of us. It doesn’t have to be a huge worldview. It can happen right her locally.”