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A Holocaust Museum Where Talking Is Encouraged

Eva Kor survived Auschwitz and Josef Mengele. Today, she's healing by telling her story.
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On an overcast Wednesday, as traffic whizzes up and down U.S. 41, the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center's bright red sign shouts in all-capped white letters holocaust education promotes peace. Inside, volunteer guides and survivor docents dispel silences among visitors. "You're asking yourself, 'Why did this happen?'" one 96-year-old docent asks a trio of college students. "Well, I was in Germany in the 1930s," he begins.

Unlike many solemn memorials to genocide and suffering, CANDLES (short for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) is not an especially quiet place. It is Indiana's only Holocaust memorial, and located in a small city where fewer than 100 residents are Jewish. The structure itself is a physical statement of defiance: It was resurrected from the rubble of the first museum, which was firebombed in 2003.

CANDLES' central message—that the only way to face genocide is for people to talk about it—originates with its founder, an Auschwitz survivor named Eva Kor. After weathering three decades of lingering trauma she built the museum to memorialize her late twin sister Miriam. In the process, the museum helped Kor erase her reticence to talk about the Holocaust—and urge others to do the same.

On this weekday morning, Kor can be found in the museum's foyer, clearing her throat. Though she used to deliver this talk 400 to 500 times a year—her health has forced her to cut back—"I cannot lecture without actually feeling some of it," she says slowly, in a thick Romanian accent.

In the adjacent hall, small exhibits form a timeline. It starts with photos of Kor and her family in their hometown of Portz, Romania, before World War II. At the back of the room, a gray platform portends where the story is headed: It sits opposite a dark wall-sized image of the train tracks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

After Hungarian soldiers put 10-year-old Eva and her family on a train to Auschwitz in 1944, the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele designated Eva and Miriam as subjects for "scientific" experiments. Over six months, technicians took the sisters' blood and injected them with mysterious substances—at least five shots a week, one of which made Eva severely ill. She was given two weeks to live, a fact she recounts decades later in a cold, matter-of-fact tone that is as straightforward as the museum itself, which is absent any melodramatic videos or music.

In January of 1945, the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz, and Eva and Miriam eventually returned to Romania. Fifteen years later, Eva married a pharmacist and Buchenwald survivor named Michael Kor and moved to Terre Haute with no intention of ever speaking of her experiences at the camp in America, despite occasional dreams and reminders. At Halloween, when neighborhood kids soaped the windows of her home and littered her front porch with corn, she yelled at their parents, remembering harassment in her home village.

In 1978, Eva finally agreed to an interview with a local NBC affiliate. It was as if telling the story gave her control over her past, she says. In 1984, she founded the CANDLES organization with Miriam to search for other survivors of Mengele's experiments. The first CANDLES museum was built in 1995, two years after Miriam died. After it was destroyed in 2003, Kor, with the help of locals and outside donors, raised nearly $500,000 to rebuild the museum, acquired more exhibits and artifacts, and recruited more staff and docents to help. Kor was not about to shut up, allowing an arsonist to succeed where the Third Reich had failed.

After she completes her lecture, Kor rolls up her sleeves to reveal a tattoo—which reads A-7063—on her left arm. The 73-year-old blue mark is fading, blending in with the veins on her arms that are becoming more visible with age. She grabs her walker and slowly makes her way toward the exhibit hall, where visitors are quietly pacing through the artifacts. Kor will see to it that someone on staff engages them in a conversation. Atrocity, she believes, thrives in silence.

A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.