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An Auschwitz survivor’s radical forgiveness as she hugs Nazi guard

Eva Kor is a Holocaust survivor who was subjected to dangerous medical experiments while imprisoned at Auschwitz. Oskar Groening is a former Nazi bookkeeper on trial for 300,000 counts of accessory to murder at the concentration camp where she nearly died.

But for a brief moment Thursday, when Kor embraced the man who participated in her imprisonment, they were just “two old people reaching out,” Kor said.

The exchange was a rare tale of humanity to come out of the trial for 93-year-old Groening, whose job was to count money and belongings stolen from the people killed at Auschwitz. Kor, an advocate for survivors of Nazi experiments, was in court to testify against him. But she also wanted to meet Groening face to face, she said in a blog post — to see what might happen when a victim and a perpetrator shook hands.

She got her answer a moment later, when Groening kissed her on the cheek.

“I probably wouldn’t have gone that far, but I guess it is better than what he would have done to me 70 years ago,” she wrote.

[Related: The moral guilt of Oskar Groening, the ‘Accountant of Auschwitz’]

Seventy years ago, in 1944, Kor — then Eva Mozes — was a terrified 10-year-old newly arrived at Auschwitz via a transport train from Romania. According to a statement she wrote before testifying, Kor and her twin sister Miriam were ripped from their family, tattooed and brought to a barrack with other twin pairs. For the next several months the girls were treated as a human guinea pigs in experiments overseen by the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

When she wasn’t being crudely examined and compared to her twin, Kor was given a series of painful injections — at least one of which contained some kind of deadly germ. She soon developed a high fever, swollen limbs and painful red spots all over her body. The doctors took her to the hospital barracks, where Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death” doctor infamous for his experiments on concentration camp prisoners, said she had only two weeks to live, Kor wrote.

If Mengele was right, and Kor died, her sister Miriam would be killed with an injection to the heart. Then Mengele would perform an autopsy on each sister in order to compare the two bodies. The Nazi researcher performed these experiments on hundreds of twins — Kor puts the number at 1,500. All but about 200 died at his hands.

Kor was determined to be one of the survivors. She willed herself to recover — at times crawling to a faucet for water, since the hospital staff didn’t give her any — and in three weeks was reunited with her sister Miriam. The girls were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust.

After the war, Kor and her sister moved to Romania, then Israel. There, Kor met and married an American tourist and fellow Holocaust survivor and moved with him to Indiana. In 1984, she and Miriam founded an organization they called CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) to track down other surviving “Mengele Twins.”

But beginning in 1960, Miriam suffered from severe kidney infections that didn’t respond to treatment. According to Kor, doctors believed that Miriam’s health problems stemmed from the experiments at Auschwitz, though the twins were never able to figure out what they had been injected with. Miriam died in 1993.

After her sister’s death, Kor was put in touch with a former Nazi doctor named Hans Münch, who had been acquitted of war crimes in 1947. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, she and Münch met at the concentration camp to sign a reconciliation document. In it, Münch testified to the killings he witnessed at the camp, and Kor granted personal forgiveness to all who took part in the murders, including Münch and Mengele.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Kor wrote in her statement for Groening’s trial. “I realized I had power over my life. I had the power to heal the pain imposed on me in Auschwitz by forgiving the people who imposed that pain.”

Kor’s campaign of radical forgiveness became the subject of a documentary, “Forgiving Dr. Mengele.” It also sparked an outcry among other survivors, who said Kor had no business granting clemency on the part of millions of victims.

Now 81, Kor is one of several survivors who testified at Groening’s trial. Prosecutors say that Groening helped fund the Nazi regime through his job as bookkeeper, making him complicit in the murders of those killed during the Holocaust.

The former “accountant of Auschwitz” has been open about his role at the concentration camp — in his testimony, he admitted to “moral guilt” in the killing of hundreds of thousands of people.

“But whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide,” he said.

The legal case against Groening revolves around the question of whether a small “cog in the machine” like a bookkeeper is responsible for the crimes the Nazis committed. Kor, who is a co-plaintiff against Groening, believes that he is. In her statement, Kor wrote that her forgiveness doesn’t absolve him of guilt. But it does grant her peace of mind.

“It is an act of self-healing, self-liberation and self-empowerment,” she said.

In a blog post for Quora, Kor said that shaking hands with Groening was a goodwill gesture. She had originally tried to talk with him on the first day of his trial in Lueneburg, Germany, but Groening fell from his chair during that encounter.

“This was not the interaction I was hoping for. I knocked out an old Nazi,” Kor wrote.

So on Thursday, she went up to him again. After shaking his hand, Kor asked Groening to make an appeal to young neo-Nazis, warning them away from Fascism and racism.

“You can tell them you were in Auschwitz, you were involved with the Nazi party, and it was a terrible thing,” she says she told him.

As she was talking to him, Groening grabbed Kor and kissed her on the cheek.

“His response to me is exactly what I was talking about when I said you cannot predict what will happen when someone from the victims’ side and someone from the perpetrators’ side meet in a spirit of humanity,” Kor said in her blog post.

Then the two hugged — something Kor hadn’t anticipated, she told the BBC. But she’s glad that the interaction happened the way it did.

“I am not a poor person,” she said. “I am a victorious human being.”