What is the 'Right Way' to Cope with the Holocaust?
Auschwitz survivor Eva Mozes Kor chose to forgive the Nazis. And that went too far for many Jews. But who are we to tell them how to move on with their lives?
What does it mean to forgive? For whom is forgiveness meant? And what if the crime is so big, there can be no forgiveness? I’ve been thinking about these issues the past few months because it popped up unexpectedly in my professional and personal lives. First, the professional, which you’ll find more interesting.
Early this year, I wrote a feature for Publishers Weekly about what I consider to be a groundbreaking new children’s book about the Holocaust. It begins:
With anti-Semitic acts on the rise worldwide and polls that show a disturbing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, Michigan author Danica Davidson says the timing is crucial for her middle-grade book, I Will Protect You: A True Story of Twins Who Survived Auschwitz (Little, Brown, April 5). The title was co-written with Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor before her death in 2019.
“Eva's argument was that if we wait until 12 or older to teach about the Holocaust or anti-Semitism, it's too late, because the prejudice has already set in,” Davidson tells PW. “That's why she wanted to reach younger kids.”
So far so good. I enjoy my occasional gig at PW because their religion editor allows me to interview some fascinating Jewish authors.
Then came this letter addressed to pretty much every higher-up editor at the magazine:
I was dismayed to see the article below on PW. Eva Kor is an anomaly among survivors of the Shoah. She has generated a great deal of anger over her disturbing accounts of forgiving Nazis for perpetrating genocide against Europe's Jews. Most of her support has come from a small segment of Christians drawn to her message. You have the opportunity to highlight the many outstanding works which accurately educate readers, including young readers, about the truth of the Shoah. Even the title, “Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” of the documentary about her should have alerted you to the pernicious nature of her message.
Please consider posting an update, removing this piece, or simply keeping in mind the importance of accurate portrayals of the Shoah in the future.
I could tell that my editor at PW must have been in a slight panic over the prospect of wandering into an internal Jewish argument. I received an email in the evening asking what we should do about this.
I suggested that we add a passage that had been deleted from the original draft. It addressed the difference between the Jewish and Christian concepts of forgiveness. So, we added this back:
… Then, more than 50 years after Auschwitz, Eva decided that to in order to heal herself, she needed to forgive her former Nazi tormentors.
The decision inspired the 2006 documentary, Forgiving Dr. Mengele. Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, a professor of Jewish Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, appeared in the film as somebody critical of the decision to forgive.
Berenbaum’s argument against Kor’s action was based on Jewish law, which says that forgiveness can only be granted to a person who admits that what they did was wrong, makes efforts to atone, and promises not to do it again. Mengele and many other Nazis had made no such attempt. Still, Berenbaum understands that Kor’s action was necessary for her own well-being.
“Eva felt the need to purge herself of all the hatred that she had,” Berenbaum tells PW. “The only way she could do it was by forgiveness.”
Author Danica Davidson tells me, by the way, that Berenbaum had fact-checked and endorsed the book. Anyway, my PW editor pointed out this additional context to Schneider, who still wasn’t pleased. She wrote:
To be clear, I am sure that no one at PW intended to offend or traumatize the Jewish people with this misleading article. However, it is entirely unacceptable. The core of the issue is that it normalizes an extremely unusual, and destructive, response to the Shoah, and in a way which many people who lack knowledge would like to believe is inspiring. Even the title of the documentary, Forgiving Dr. Mengele, should have alerted PW to the nature of this enterprise. It is an obscenity to suggest that, whatever Ms. Kor's personal feelings, the philosophy which she espoused is appropriate. Deborah Lipstadt, Dara Horn, and other writers have written about "softcore Holocaust denial." This article is a perfect example of that dangerous phenomenon. The fact that its purpose is to recommend a book for young people, who are increasingly ignorant of history, is frightening.
To my editor’s credit, she kept the article as it was and backed me up all the way. My response was this:
I grew up hearing stories from Holocaust survivor relatives, and everybody coped in their own way, whether you agree with it or not. I strongly disagree with this letter-writer, and I've been writing about Holocaust and Jewish issues most of my life. I would never write anything that promoted Holocaust denial.
Before I get into my own opinions on this, I asked Davidson to respond to Schneider’s criticisms. Here’s what she wrote:
Eva told me forgiveness for her meant personal healing. It meant she let go of her anger because it was only hurting her, not the Nazis. She made it clear to me that this did not mean Nazis and other people who committed crimes and abused others should get away with it, only that the victim did not need to feel chewed up by it forever. Every person is different, and this is what helped her after decades of anger.
What Eva described to me sounds like stuff I’ve heard from philosophers, including Epictetus ("Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him”) and Marcus Aurelius (“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”) Our book explains how and why Eva found forgiveness, as well as the fact it’s a controversial decision and why some other survivors disagree with her. No one is being preached at to forgive, no one is being shamed if they disagree, and you can read this book and learn from it whatever you think of Eva’s decision."
It is true that forgiveness, without any work done by those being forgiven, is likely a Christian concept and not a Jewish one. And, of course, most Nazis went to the gallows, or bit down on their cyanide capsules, without ever uttering a word of remorse for what they had done.
But I think of it like this: the Holocaust was so unique in history, so unimaginably horrific, that those fortunate enough to have survived it can choose any way they’d like to cope with the aftermath. Most of my family, including my great-grandmother, was murdered in the Holocaust. But some did survive and found their own ways to deal with the trauma and move on with their lives. One of my relatives couldn’t cope with it at all. He emigrated to Israel, but suffered from what we would now call PTSD and ended his own life. My brother is named after him.
My great-uncle Charles survived slave labor and the Mauthausen concentration camp, but completely lost his belief in God. “What God would allow this to happen?” he told me. I had no counterargument. Charles lived into his nineties and I had many conversations with him about his experiences. His stories are where much of my firsthand knowledge of the Holocaust comes from. His method of coping was to jettison God. I never asked him about forgiveness, but now I wish I had. I am guessing that he would have thought the question to be meaningless. His path was similar to mine as a third-generation survivor. He became a journalist and writer after the war and devoted himself to keeping the memory alive of all who had perished.
This brings us to Eva Mozes Kor, the Holocaust survivor whom Emily Schneider says coped with the aftermath of Auschwitz in the wrong way—in fact, in such a wrong way that children and PW readers should not read her story because she is not representative of the “right way” to cope with Holocaust survival. What is the right way? My cousin who committed suicide found one way. My great-uncle who lost his religion, but buried himself in his writing, found another way. And Eva Mozes Kor found her own path.
I will not presume to tell any Holocaust survivor what they need to do to continue their lives in peace. Eva chose a way that may not conform to Jewish law, but neither did my relatives who chose suicide and atheism. I am guessing there are as many ways of coping, or not coping, as there are survivors.
Now, here’s the personal part. In no way am I comparing this to the Holocaust, but I did not speak to my six brothers at all for ten years. I won’t get into the reasons. Nobody would care except my family. But, in my mind, it was for a series of infractions for which there could be no forgiveness.
Over the years, it occurred to me that I was punishing nobody but myself. I would never see my nieces and nephews again, attend their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, their weddings—an entire branch of my family cut off from me. So, I am in the process now of reestablishing ties with my extended family. It was a relief to let go of the anger. I also realized that my anger was a proxy for a deeper trauma I suffered a number of years ago. Hatred and anger consumed me and I was unable to move on. Forgiveness, whether deserving or not, allows the forgiver to live.
My forgiveness had nothing whatsoever to do with guilt, innocence, or worthiness. Is that a “Christian” concept like Emily Schneider says? I don’t know. I’m not a Christian. Does it go against Jewish law? Maybe. But there are many ways in which I live my life outside strict interpretations of Jewish law. For the sake of my own sanity, this is what I am choosing to do.
I have written about the Holocaust my entire life. I have spoken firsthand with many Holocaust survivors in my family and in my work as a Jewish journalist. To them, the most important thing is to “never forget.” As for “never forgive,” that depends upon to whom the question is asked. It is not up to me to judge.