Terre Haute resident and Holocaust survivor Eva Kor died Thursday, while accompanying one of the many groups of people she led to Eastern Europe in the last decade.
WBAA News Director Stan Jastrzebski went on one of those trips nearly a decade ago to cover the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
He spoke by phone and Skype to some of the people he met on that trip to get their remembrances of a woman who was small in stature, but outsized in impact.
I thought I knew what it meant to be cold.
I’d grown up near Chicago and winters there can be rough. But then there I was, shivering in my heavy coat and boots in a drafty bunkhouse at Birkenau in the middle of Poland in the coldest January I’d ever experienced.
And cold barely begins to summarize the conditions faced by the person on our trip who’d been one of many sleeping four to a bed there – well, not a bed so much as series of wood slats. The clothes were ragged, the work hours deadly, and in the time Eva Kor wasn’t working, she and her twin sister were often the subject of cruel experiments by a Nazi doctor practicing pseudo-science.
So Eva knew what cold was. And what did she give every member of that trip? A long, blue scarf inscribed with the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam.” Roughly translated, it means “heal the world.” A little symbol of her inner fire in the face of such frigidity that many on the trip wore to the commemoration of the liberation of the camp that day in 2010.
“The day of the ceremony was so bitterly cold,” says Laura Pearce, at the time a college student interning at Terre Haute’s CANDLES Holocaust Museum, which Kor started.
“There were a couple little open fire pit sort of things and some of us were huddled around there and it was miserable. And then a few of us just looked at each other and were like ‘oh my god.’”
A realization of what Kor had gone through, and a crystalizing moment, Pearce says, in her desire to make history real to the public.
“Didn’t make us any warmer," Pearce says, "but it made us a lot more thankful and it definitely made us stop complaining.”
It was a different kind of fire that brought Kor together than Kiel Majewski – specifically an arsonist’s attack on the museum in 2003.
“It was really one of the all-time backfires," Majewski says. "The arsonist meant to destroy and silence her message and it really just gave rise to this huge outgrowth of love and support and learning from Eva’s message.”
Majewski eventually became CANDLES Executive Director and took multiple trips to Europe with Kor’s groups – sometimes to museums where Kor’s picture is on the wall. In the photo, she’s a forlorn-looking young girl. But Majewski says that belies an inner strength he saw on a daily basis.
“People would see pictures of her and think “here’s a 4’9” sweet little old lady’ and I would want to quickly disabuse them of those notions in case they ever met her in person and realize that she was non-stop bulldozer energy and if you’re in her way, she’s going to go through you and get the job done.”
“She didn’t allow anything that came her way to get in her way and she’s really kind of not beholden to this idea that to be good you have to be sweet only. To be good, you have to be fiery sometimes,” says Jamie Luna-Schatz, a high school English teacher in Terre Haute who regularly takes her students to the CANDLES Museum.
And there’s that word again – fire. Luna-Schatz says her teaching is informed by the relationship she built with Eva Kor and her students have been bolstered in their social activism by the Holocaust survivor’s story.
"Them seeing Eva and knowing how she’s helped people and how people have helped her has inspired them to want to do the same,” she says.
Eva Kor was tortured by Nazis as a child, but was also photographed as an adult hugging one who’d been on trial for war crimes – a sign of forgiveness that Majewski says many people -- himself included -- questioned.
“And 20 years ago, that was way ahead of its time. Now it’s right in time," he says. "There’s so many people discussing that and studying that. So, like with everything else, Eva was a trailblazer.”
And Luna-Schatz says like so much else, perhaps even the date of her death had symbolism.
“I love Eva for being the funny, feisty, warm independent person that she was an I think it was very fitting that she passed away on Independence Day, because she was definitely a very independent soul and she brought a lot of good to Terre Haute and our world.”
Eva Kor passed away in Krakow, Poland – just a short drive from a place where, for years, she’d struggled to survive. The high temperature that day had been 74 degrees. But when the chill next sweeps over the selection platform at Birkenau, the memory of the scrappy lady in the blue overcoat and scarf will warm those who knew her.