Why Did Auschwitz Survivor Eva Kor Shake Hands With an SS Guard?

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Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor's Facebook page shows her shaking the hand of SS guard Oskar Groening at his trial in Germany, April 22, 2015.Credit: Screenshot

Why did 81-year-old Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor, one of the victims of Josef Mengele's notorious twin experiments, shake hands last week with a former SS sergeant during his trial on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder?

That's what someone on the popular question-and-answer website Quora wanted to know. In a response that has been viewed more than 28,500 times, Kor provided an answer herself, saying one reason she shook the hand of Oskar Groening at the beginning of his trial Wedneday was to ask him to tell neo-Nazis in Germany that "you were in Auschwitz, you were involved with the Nazi party, and it was a terrible thing."

Kor also called the handshake a "goodwill gesture" and expressed hope for a dialogue between the survivors and the perpetrators, which she said "would have helped the survivors cope and maybe heal themselves, but even more so not to pass the pain on to their children."

Groening guarded prisoners' baggage on the ramps leading to Auschwitz-Birkenau between May and July 1944, when around 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and most were immediately gassed to death. His main task, though, was to collect and tally money stolen from the new arrivals and then send it to Berlin — a job for which the German press has dubbed him the "Accountant of Auschwitz."

"Most people are only here in court to accuse him of things he has already admitted. So now what?" wrote Kor. "I don’t think we should raise a statue in his honor, but he can serve as a good example to young people that what he participated in was terrible, that it was wrong, and that he is sorry that he was part of it. Now there is a message that has some usefulness for society."

The people in court to accuse Groening included Kor herself, who was the first of more than 60 co-plaintiffs to address the court. The plaintiffs are Auschwitz survivors and their families from the U.S., Canada, Israel and elsewhere.

"Everything he is accused of – I am saying he did all that," she wrote. "I have forgiven the Nazis and everyone who has hurt me, but I told him that my forgiveness did not prevent me from accusing him nor from him taking responsibility for his actions."

Kor was taken to Auschwitz with her family in 1944. Though she doesn't remember Groening personally, she said she can't forget the scene.

Her two older sisters and parents were taken directly to the gas chambers, while she and her twin sister, both 10 at the time, were ripped away from their mother to be used as human guinea pigs for Mengele's experiments.

"All I remember is her arms stretched out in despair as she was pulled away," Kor recalled. "I never even got to say goodbye."

After the court session, Kor, who now lives in Indiana, shook Groening's hand, and posted a photograph of the handshake on her Facebook page.

"I know many people will criticize me for this photo, but so be it," Kor wrote on her Facebook page, as well as in her Quora response. "It was two human beings seventy years after it happened. For the life of me I will never understand why anger is preferable to a goodwill gesture. Nothing good ever comes from anger. Any goodwill gesture in my book will win over anger any time. The energy that anger creates is a violent energy."

Kor called on the victims and perpetrators of the 20th century's darkest era to heal together.

"My ideas in life are very different, I know," she wrote. "I am in the minority – maybe a minority of one. I know how society looks at it, but as I look at society, I do not think it is working very well. So what I am saying is, maybe we ought to try something else. And my idea is for people from the victims' side and people from the perpetrators' side to come together, face the truth, try to heal, and work together to prevent it from ever happening again."

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