Anticipating Auschwitz

Eva Kor in the Indianapolis airport on Aug. 21, 2012

By Dr. Miriam L. Zimmerman

Dr. Miriam L. Zimmerman

Not many couples celebrate retirement by going to a death camp. My husband Richard and I have joined the CANDLES tour to Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau for the 75th anniversary of its liberation. “CANDLES” is an acronym for “Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiment Survivors,” an organization of surviving “Mengele twins.” It is our first trip after retiring from our mediation practice of 18 years.

Mengele twin and forgiveness advocate Eva Mozes Kor, of blessed memory, started CANDLES in 1984. Eva Kor grew CANDLES into Indiana’s only Holocaust museum, opening in 1995, in my hometown of Terre Haute, Ind. Unfortunately, Eva passed away on July 4, 2019, in a Krakow hotel, while leading a tour to Auschwitz.

Eva might have forgiven her Nazi tormentors, but I have not. My father, Werner Leo Loewenstein, also of blessed memory, was able to emigrate from Germany, arriving at Ellis Island with less than $5 in his pocket, on April 15, 1937. He used to say that Tax Day was his day of liberation and that he did not mind paying taxes to this great country.

Dad’s diploma from the University of Berlin Medical School became his ticket out of the Nazi inferno. With stricter immigration policies imposed by the current administration, I wonder if today, Dad could obtain a visa for what, in his time, was a land of freedom and opportunity for all who qualified. In the 1930’s, the Statue of Liberty beckoned to oppressed people everywhere, with the promise that this is a land where one might achieve anything. It is up to you.

I was reared in a patriotic household. Every day, Dad raised the U.S. flag on a flag post which he installed outside our front door; and every day, he brought the flag indoors. (I want to tell my California neighbors who leave their U.S. flags aloft 24/7, that instead of being respectful, they are denigrating their flags, which soon display the ravages of time and weather.)

Dad first told me about Eva Kor when I was in high school. The intensity in his eyes has stayed with me. “You’ll never guess who has settled in Terre Haute.”

I could not. “Eva Kor, a Mengele twin,” was his awestruck answer. No doubt it was my blank stare that inspired him to give me an immediate crash course in medical experimentation in concentration camps, and the notorious “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele. Eva and her survivor husband Michael Kor, a pharmacist, became close family friends. I wonder if the Kor household was as patriotic as ours.

Dad graduated from medical school in 1934, the last year that the Third Reich permitted Jews to graduate from professional schools. As a medical student, he witnessed the demise of his chosen profession under the Nazis. At the end of his life, he gave lectures to physicians for their continuing medical education credit on Nazi medical ethics; rather, the lack thereof.

After his graduation from medical school, he could not obtain a license to practice medicine. Unlike my grandfather, who, as a decorated World War I veteran, felt safe from Nazi persecution, Dad became highly motivated to leave.

Stripped of his possessions, his livelihood, and his citizenship, he entered this country with the hope that here, he could achieve his dreams. He did just that – marrying my mother, rearing three children in idyllic southwestern Indiana, and practicing medicine in Terre Haute for 53 years, until cancer took him in 1990.

When people asked him how the Holocaust could have happened in such a cultured, modern, and sophisticated nation, he gave the following answer: “It isn’t well known now, but the Nazis had a racist ideology that resulted in scapegoating and extermination of undesirable people. They had an extensive and very effective propaganda machine that convinced the people it was so. And they had doctors to carry it out.”

This unholy trinity: racist ideology, propaganda, and medical murder makes Auschwitz understandable. It became the cornerstone of my Holocaust course at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif., which I have taught for 25 years. As a second-generation Holocaust survivor, I felt it was an important duty to educate students on the dangers of demagoguery, racism, and misinformation. For years, I have taught my students that the best way to avoid a dictator taking over the government is to keep our democratic institutions strong, maintain a free press, and keep oneself informed about current events.

Although we will have professional Auschwitz guides to take us through the camp, Eva’s son Dr. Alex Kor, “will be taking the lead at several of the locations most important to Eva’s story,” according to Beth Nairn, volunteer coordinator of the CANDLES tour. Alex, too, has taken up the mantle of Holocaust witness, carrying on the work of his mother.

Dad couldn’t wait to obtain his U.S. citizenship so he could join the U.S. Army and fight the Nazis. As a German-speaking doctor, he was put in charge of captured, injured German prisoners of war.

As part of an advance battalion, he entered the concentration camp at Buchenwald shortly after its liberation. “Buchenwald scarred me for life,” was a mantra that echoed throughout his life, and mine. From Dad, I inherited both survivor and liberator guilt. A curse or a blessing? According to my three adult children, a Holocaust filter channels all my perceptions and behaviors.

In my Holocaust class, I teach my students that the same genocidal motives that goad nations to destroy other peoples exist within each of us. From the micro- to the macro- level of human behavior, these motives include scapegoating; all or nothing thinking such as, “You’re either with me or against me;” lack of self-esteem coupled with an exaggerated sense of shame; and the need to feel pure and innocent in the eyes of one’s deity or peers.

This listing is subjective and incomplete; experts from other fields might add more. But whether on the interpersonal or the global level, humanity needs to learn how to take responsibility for these internal motives of destructive defensiveness.

For a week or so, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz will remind the world of what can happen when a mad dictator seizes control of a powerful nation. But for me, it is not enough just to remember. To prevent a future Auschwitz, we must collectively realize that motives for genocide reside in each of us, and it is our individual responsibility not to act on those impulses. In approaching Auschwitz, I am reminded of what can happen when a majority of the people are unable to do so.

Dr. Zimmerman is professor emerita at Notre Dame de Namur University (NDNU) in Belmont, Calif., where she continues to teach the Holocaust course. She can be reached at

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