Holocaust survivor, forgiveness activist Eva Kor dies at 85

CNHI News Indiana File Photo Holocaust survivor and CANDLES Holocaust Museum founder Eva Kor, pictured here in this Tribune Star file photo, passed away Thursday in Poland.

Eva Kor’s story of Holocaust survival, and her message of forgiveness, touched the world.

That message of forgiveness, healing and hope will be a legacy that lives on, even though Kor will no longer be able to share it in person. Kor, the founder of Terre Haute’s CANDLES Holocaust Museum, passed away early Thursday morning in Krakow, Poland. She was 85.

She had been on the annual CANDLES trip to Poland and had made a presentation Wednesday at Auschwitz.

The CANDLES Museum issued a statement and said Kor “passed peacefully today, July 4, at 7:10 a.m. local time in Krakow, Poland.”

The statement continued:

“Eva Kor has touched hundreds of thousands of people over her 85 years through her message of overcoming tragedy, finding forgiveness, and healing.

“Surviving the Holocaust at age 10 meant that Eva emerged from a childhood full of fear, loss, grief, and displacement. She and her twin sister, Miriam, were the sole survivors of her immediate family, losing two sisters, her mother, and father on the selection platform at Auschwitz. In addition, she and Miriam were put through the horrific and inhumane experiments by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. But rather than allowing the darkest moments of her life to define her, she moved forward headfirst into a life of purpose.”

In later years, she forgave the Nazis, and Kor spoke all over the world, “helping individuals in search of their own healing, and founding a museum that continues to grow every year. Eva blazed trails for Holocaust education and brought the story of the Mengele twins and Dr. Mengele’s experiments into the international spotlight,” the statement read.

“The themes of Eva’s life are apparent. We can overcome hardship and tragedy. Forgiveness can help us to heal. And everyone has the power and responsibility to make this world a better place. We hope Eva’s story continues to change the lives of those who hear it for many years to come,” the statement said.

Among those with her in Poland was her son, Alex. “I’m devastated. I can’t cry enough to get rid of the pain, but I know my mom wouldn’t want me to cry. She would want me to tell people to continue to follow in her footsteps, to do good things, to stand up for what they believe in and to be better people,” Kor said in a telephone interview.

His mom made a presentation to the tour group Wednesday at Auschwitz, and he shared a story about a chance encounter there. He and his mom were at the guard tower entrance to Birkenau when they ran into the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus Young Men’s Ensemble.

Eva, who was in a golf court, asked them to sing, “The Impossible Dream,” and she lead them in her favorite song. “She was so happy,” Alex Kor said. “It was amazing.” The young men sang two other songs in honor of Eva and her story.

Then, she proceeded to the selection platform and spoke for two hours to CANDLES trip participants. The day went according to schedule, and Kor and his mother went back to their hotel, had dinner and went to sleep. At a certain point, Eva had trouble breathing and became unresponsive; paramedics worked to revive her, but were unsuccessful, her son said.

Jessica McDonald, CANDLES communications coordinator who also is in Poland, has been involved with the museum for several years on the staff and as a volunteer; she also studied the museum as part of her master’s thesis.

The CANDLES staff, while devastated by Kor’s death, are “happy she was able to come back one last time and was able to be here doing what she loved doing, which was sharing her story with as many people as she could,” McDonald said. “She was here doing what she thought was the most important thing she could do.”

Eva Kor’s death is bringing worldwide reaction from those touched by her story, and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a statement that said in part, “The world just lost a giant with Eva Kor’s passing. Janet and I loved and adored her. Everywhere she went, Eva brought light into darkness and provided comfort to those in pain unlike anyone we’ve ever met. ... We will miss her laughter, her wisdom and her passion. We call on every Hoosier to look above on this Independence Day and say a prayer for Eva and the family and nation she leaves behind.”

Holcomb named Kor the recipient of the 2017 Sachem, the state’s highest honor.

In a separate honor, she also was recently named one of the Indiana Historical Society’s 2019 Indiana Living Legends. In 2017, she served as grand marshal for the IPL 500 Festival.

Among those whose lives were forever changed by Kor was Mika Brown, who co-produced the award-winning documentary, “Eva: A-7063.”

On social media, Brown wrote, “Inconsolable like so many others, I fell to my knees when I heard the news. Today, I lost a friend, today the world lost a hero. July 4th, Independence Day, as if it were written this way from the very beginning. You really did go out with a bang,” Brown wrote.

She says Kor saved her life. In 2010, Brown attempted suicide, but two months later, she met Kor “and she put my life and the world into perspective. She saved my soul. I’m eternally grateful for the 10-year journey we went on together.”

Through her work on the documentary, Brown spent much time with Kor over the past few years. “I will always cherish our time together. Eva showed me what mattered, she encouraged me to be better and to help others. I will never stop being the person that she helped me become,” Brown stated.

Brown knows she is not alone in her grief. “To everyone who knew and loved her, I know how deeply you are hurting. We share an unbreakable bond. We will ALWAYS be #TeamEva,” she wrote. She also urged those who were grieving, “Do not let this knock you down, I implore you to do the opposite. Make your life mean something; do not sit idly by, make an impact, your time is short, please make it count. Be kind to others and most importantly, continue to share Eva’s message with the world. Continue to keep her close to your heart,” Brown wrote.

Brown wrote that Kor’s dream “was to make the world a better place and Eva, my angel, our lady in blue, you succeeded. I hope Miriam and your mother greeted you at heavens gates with open arms. You can rest now, close to my heart every single day.”

Ted Green, producer and director of “Eva: A-7063,” said, “I have no words. I’m devastated along with everyone who was so close to her. My heart breaks for Alex, Rina and Micky. I think it's somewhat poetic she went out doing what she loves to do most — leading a tour at Auschwitz to teach her message of forgiveness, healing and hope.”

Green added, “I can’t even explain how big of a privilege it was for me to get to learn and share her story. As the years and decades go by, I believe her legacy will shine ever brighter.”

Educating younger people remained one of Kor’s missions, and among the Vigo County educators who worked closely with her and in the past had traveled with her to Auschwitz is Sherri Armstrong, a teacher at Honey Creek Middle School.

“My heart is breaking. She taught my students every year the lessons of struggle and forgiveness. She meant the world to me and I considered her as one of my dearest friends. You cannot replace someone like her in your life. As she would tell me now stop crying, pick yourself up, and go teach my message to the world. I will do my best, dear Eva,” Armstrong said.

Now back in the United States, Alex Cantrell of Terre Haute had traveled to Auschwitz with Kor and was there just a week ago. “I’ll miss you today and every day. Thank you for changing my life, Eva,” Cantrell stated. Cantrell said Kor “is living proof that atrocities bring resilience and that we are capable of filling the world with love and joy. Forgive and heal.”

By the time of her death, Kor was recognized worldwide through her many presentations, media interviews and the documentary Eva: A-7063. In August 2017, a video interview she did for Buzzfeed generated more than 130 million views in just over a month.

This week, Kor had been posting messages and photos on Twitter about the current trip to eastern Europe.

“Can you believe that today I can get chicken McNuggets near Auschwitz? That would have been wonderful 75 years ago. They taste the same in every country and were delicious,” Tweeted Kor, who was known for her sense of humor.

CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center will be closed until 10 a.m. Tuesday in honor of Kor. “We welcome visitors to come to the museum and pay their respects once we have reopened on Tuesday,” the CANDLES Museum statement read.

Information about a public memorial service for Kor will be released at a future date.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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