“What is going on in high school and junior high that is so toxic that happy children become so bitter?” asked Eva Mozes Kor, seated on stage in RIC’s Sapinsley Hall. The question hung heavy over an audience of more than 400 that not only filled the hall to capacity but also included an overflow of another 600 people in the auditorium in Roberts Hall.
A noted speaker and author, Kor survived the Holocaust and is one of the last living twins subjected to the experiments of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. In 1995 she chose to publicly forgive the Nazis who victimized her and murdered her family. Since then, she has been traveling the world as a “forgiveness advocate,” sharing her harrowing life story and the lessons learned from her experience.
Kor was speaking at Rhode Island College on Feb. 15 just as the horrifying story of the latest mass school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, was dominating the news. The timing gave her message added resonance. Kor spoke with deep empathy for the plight of ostracized children who are forced to sit alone at lunch or to endure torment at school. “No child in this world is a misfit,” she said. “We should find a place for them.”
The resilience it takes to survive trauma and the power to forgive those who inflict it were central themes of her lecture. At 84 years old, Kor remains a dynamic and engaging speaker with a surprising sense of humor, given the weight of her subject matter.
As a storyteller, her instinctive feel for detail brought her tale to life without the use of visual aids, audio accompaniment or even so much as a lighting cue. She simply sat at a table on a stark stage and allowed the imagery and power of her words to take you back with her to Auschwitz as a child of 10 years.
“I want you to understand how deeply hatred for Jews in the Nazi regime went,” she explained. As an example, she quoted a sample mathematics problem from one of her childhood schoolbooks: “If you have five Jews and you kill three, how many are left?”
Ultimately, Kor’s story of survival, monumental as it is, is not what drives her to appear at more than 100 speaking engagements a year – it is her message of forgiveness. “Forgive your worst enemy. It will heal your soul and it will set you free,” she implored the crowd.
She forgave the Nazis, she explained, not to absolve them, but to finally put an end to her own anger and pain. It was her way of ensuring that her persecutors no longer held any power over her life.
“If any of you here are still traumatized by some past experience, all you really need is a piece of paper and pen,” she advised. “Write a letter of forgiveness. At the end you must say, ‘I forgive you,’ and you must mean it. But don’t send the letter. It is for you.”
As the world outside Sapinsley Hall grappled with yet another explosion of unspeakable violence, Kor, the ultimate survivor, remained sanguine in her hope for a better future – and in the power of forgiveness to heal.
“Everyone wants to know how on earth can we accomplish world peace,” she concluded. “Teach forgiveness to children.”
A crowd of more than 1,000 came to hear Eva Kor’s address.