Marie Conn, Ph.D., professor of religious studies, has made several trips abroad with Eva Mozes Kor, who, with her late twin sister, Miriam, were part of the infamous World War II experiments conducted on twins at Auschwitz by Dr. Josef Mengele.
In 1985, Kor founded the organization CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) and the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Indiana in 1985 to educate about the Holocaust and the power of forgiveness. She publicly forgave the Nazis for what had been done to her and her family, garnering international attention.
Conn joined a group from CANDLES in early October on another pilgrimage to Europe. They visited Portz, Romania, the village where Eva and her twin, Miriam, grew up and from which they were taken at age 10, first to the Cehei Ghetto and then to Auschwitz. And she visited Cluj, Romania, the city in which the girls lived after they were liberated from the concentration camp.
“The real heart of our trip was visiting Portz with Eva," Conn recalls. "Portz is a very small village in the foothills of the Carpathians. There is actually just one street running down the town. Eva’s house is gone, except for one stone wall, but the people who live in the house that is there now welcomed Eva with smiles, hugs, tears and old photos. They all live with ghosts of the past — Eva with memories of being marched out of town and her neighbors with memories of standing by, helpless to intervene. It is hard to describe how moving their meeting was. Eva placed flowers in memory of the family.”
While in Portz, the group stopped at the grammar school the girls had attended and at the train station that welcomed them home.
“Visiting Portz with Eva, seeing the vast fields her father once owned, meeting people with memories of working for her father on those fields, and simply walking along that one road, were, for those of us privileged to share them, steps in a sacred pilgrimage, a unique experience that will stay with us for the rest of our lives,” Marie adds.
After arriving in Budapest, Conn’s group also took a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter, the Great Synagogue and Hungarian Jewish Museum, and the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center as well as other impressive and historical sites.
Among the many moving experiences Conn had on her trip was a visit to the Shoes Memorial along the river wall in Budapest, Hungary. Along one section of the wall are casts of many pairs of empty shoes — some are tiny, others are sturdy men's work boots and many are various types of women's shoes. Some are filled with pebbles (remember the Jewish practice when visiting graves) and others with flowers. Some contain Hebrew prayers on small pieces of paper.
According to Conn, the memorial honors the Jews killed by Fascist Hungarian militiamen in Budapest during World War II.
“They were ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. It represents their shoes left behind on the bank. This is where we lit and left our memorial candles. Words cannot convey what standing there felt like.”
NOTE: Documentarian Ted Green and his team joined Conn’s group on a past trip as well as this one to Romania and Hungary. Narrated by Ed Asner, the film tells Eva’s powerful story of degradation, survival and ultimately, how she won against the Nazi’s evil by speaking out and forgiving them. The film will preview in late 2017. See the trailer here.
— Brenda Lange