I have found myself in recent years increasingly wary of films that deal with extreme real-life tragedies or genocide, not because I am not interested in such topics or because I fear being overwhelmed by the subject matter. Rather, I am not interested in filmmakers who have little to say about such important subjects, simply using the tragedy to wallow in the heinousness of it all. Neither do I want to become numb to tragedy in the world. Thus, when I first heard about Mengele, a documentary covering the crusade of a holocaust survivor, I noted it and moved on.
Now that I’ve gotten a chance to see it though, I’d suggest this is one of the most important films about the Holocaust (and more broadly about tragedy) I am familiar with. The film gives us little new information about the genocide itself. Rather, it focuses on one woman’s response to her experience at Auschwitz. And if you’ve seen the title, then you can guess Eva Kor’s response to her captors.
At the age of 9, Eva and her twin sister Miriam were sent to Auschwitz, and survived initially simply because they were twins (who were favored for experiments by the Nazis). Mengele’s experiments involved injecting one child with a drug, and then charting the differences in the two children afterward. Eva and Miriam suffered through this for 10 months, with Eva near death at one point. Yet, as she says, she willed her way through the illness, and eventually, walked out of the camp with her sister. She eventually married another Holocaust survivor, moved to Indiana, and got started in real estate. In the early portion of the film, the interspersing of concentration camp footage with Eva’s daily routine evokes the way in which those images must have haunted her over much of her early life in the States.
Yet as her sister struggled and eventually died an early death from a kidney problem associated with their time in the camp, Eva is confronted with a desire to take action and help her. In the process, she meets a Nazi doctor, who was also at Auschwitz concurrent with Eva. She finds he too has nightmares, and struggles with his experiences there just as profoundly as she. This leads her to spontaneously offer forgiveness to him, a decision that eventually results in her forgiving all Nazis, including the head doctor at Auschwitz, Josef Mengele.
Even as Eva does this, she stirs great controversy in the Jewish community, many of whom don’t feel Eva has the right to forgive any Nazi, much less Mengele. Several responses to Eva’s act are interwoven through the film: She has no right to speak for other Jews, her comments could imply she is speaking for the dead, she dishonors her parents who also died in the camp, her decision implies she is willing to forget the evil committed in the Holocaust. Yet Kor fiercely stands by her decision, arguing that forgiveness will “heal your soul and set you free.”
Most interesting about this film is the complexity involved in its portrayal of forgiveness. What is forgiveness? What does invoking it entail? No one seems to know definitively. Everyone seems to have their own perspective. Does it mean one forgets the past? Does it mean one excuses the past? Is it necessary for the perpetrator to be sorry before one can forgive them? If so, how can one ever forgive Mengele, long since dead? Are those who suffered under him or other dead and/or non-repentant Nazis doomed to live as victims the rest of their days? How does forgiveness apply in current conflicts one has with others? Do the rules change? Is it harder or easier to forgive the living?
This film satisfies largely because Kor’s answers to a number of questions above resonate deeply within me. No, forgiveness does not entail forgetting or excusing the evil act. Neither is it dependent on the offender to be sorry. Forgiveness is an act which the victim bestows on another. It is an act they perform. No one can take it from them. All people have the option to forgive, to move beyond victim status and into a fuller life that looks forward in hope, rather than back in pessimism. And yet, in spite of all this, Kor is far from perfect, though she refreshingly recognizes her own limitations, and seems, at least to this eye, to be moving forward, bettering herself, and working out how one forgives, not just for the past, but also for the present. The doggedness and optimism in Kor is a refreshing antidote to the horrors of the genocide she and her people were subjected to.