Leadership Lessons Out of the Horrors of Auschwitz

Image of an older woman sitting at a table with books

It was not your typical Hallmark moment. After losing her beloved sister Miriam to kidney failure in 1993, Eva Kor spent hours in a Hallmark store, frantically trying to find the right card to thank a doctor.

It was an impossible task, right from the start. After all, while the doctor in question did help honour the memory of Kor’s sister, he didn’t even try to do anything whatsoever to make Miriam’s life better when given the chance decades ago. If fact, he contributed to the absolute destruction of her childhood.

Believe it or not, Kor initially turned to Hallmark when looking to thank a former Nazi for going on the record in the mid-1990s about what he witnessed as a monitor of the German gas chambers that murdered Kor’s parents and two older sisters. As identical twins, Eva and Miriam were spared immediate execution after their family was sent to the Auschwitz death camp because they were deemed to have some value as human guinea pigs by the infamous Josef Mengele — aka Hitler’s Angel of Death — who conducted genetic experiments seeking to create a super race during the Second World War. And since Miriam eventually died as a direct result of the toxic injections given to her by Mengele’s medical minions, there was little chance Kor would find an appropriate card among Hallmark classics with messages such as “Thanks, Coach!”

When Hallmark staff asked her to describe the occasion, so they could assist the Holocaust survivor find what she wanted, Kor suddenly felt ridiculous and quickly fled the store empty-handed. “It was one of those times when you know you are crazy,” she told me after speaking to a group of Ivey Business School students earlier this year. “I knew Hallmark would not have a card that fit my situation. But I looked anyway because I didn’t know what else to do. I mean, how do you thank a Nazi?”

While pondering this question later, Kor – who in 1984 founded an organization with her sister called CANDLES (an acronym for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) to help Mengele twins collectively deal with the past – had an epiphany. Forgiveness, she realized, is how you thank a Nazi, at least if you are inclined to forgive people who do the worst things imaginable. And as far as Kor is concerned, everybody should be so inclined. Why? Simple. After forgiving her first Nazi, Kor never looked back, at least not in the same way. Painful memories remain to this day, but they now exist in a happy person (Kor is perhaps the jolliest person I have ever met as a journalist). Simply put, the 81-year-old’s philosophy is to live, let live and forgive anyone who doesn’t do the same, especially if they cause you pain and suffering.

For obvious reasons, not everyone agrees with Kor’s philosophy. But she is on a mission and critics do not slow it down. Kor has forgiven Mengele, not to mention the haters responsible for the 1993 firebombing of the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Indiana, where Kor now lives with her husband, another Holocaust survivor. More recently, she caused a public stir in the northern German city of Lueneburg, where in mid-2015 she forgave former SS officer Oskar Groening during a break in the 93-year-old’s trial for working as a clerk at Auschwitz while over one million people, mostly European Jews, were killed between 1940 and 1945. The so-called Bookkeeper of Auschwitz was so overwhelmed by the gesture that he fainted before giving Kor a kiss that was tweeted around the world, creating a mixture of hope and outrage.


“Some called me a traitor,” Kor says, “but they don’t understand forgiveness.” For the record, Kor doesn’t see forgiveness as a means to make bad people feel better, although she admits to being surprised by her ability to like what she calls reluctant Nazis. As she sees it, forgiveness is for victims, who have the right to be happy, and that requires getting out from under the daily burden of pain and anger. In other words, forgiveness empowers victims to heal because it gives them power over the individuals who chained them to misery.


Kor not only practices what she preaches, she preaches a lot, and not just to Holocaust victims. This year alone, she has delivered over 180 lectures on forgiveness because she firmly believes everyone can benefit from forgiving offences big and small. Forgiveness, she argues, delivers internal peace by clearing the mind of hate — which can make people more content and productive in both their personal and professional lives. And that brings us to her Ivey visit, which was sponsored by the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership as part of its ongoing commitment to encouraging and enabling business students to develop leadership character. More on that visit later. First, to really understand Kor’s philosophy, we need to go back to a time that not many people today can really comprehend.

Born in 1934, Eva Mozes Kor was a relatively happy child living a relatively comfortable life on a farm in a Romanian community with few Jewish members. When Kor was about six, however, she started to sense the danger posed by Adolf Hilter’s growing power. Her parents shielded their children from what they were hearing on the radio and the related rumours of atrocities. But things were obviously changing for the worse. Neighbours were turning against the family thanks to Nazi propaganda. And after new teachers arrived with new books that depicted Jews as clowns with huge noses and fat bellies, Kor and her twin were subjected to daily ridicule at school, where they were introduced to early motion pictures by propaganda films with titles such as “How to Catch and Kill a Jew.”

In late 1943, Kor’s family tried to flee their once-welcoming community, but they were caught by a group of Hitler Youth. On January 31, 1944, Eva and her twin turned 10 while her family was under observation for being Jewish. There was no birthday celebration. Kor recalls feeling anxious, but relatively safe, until police arrived with orders to move her family to a transportation centre. After being relocated to a ghetto in Transylvania, Kor’s family was told to expect to live out the war in a Hungarian labour camp. But after spending a few days crammed into cattle cars with thousands of other Jews, it became clear that the real destination was not in Hungary.

Immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz, Eva and Miriam were spotted on the separation platform by SS guards with orders to collect twins for use in Nazi medical labs. Their mother frantically asked if being a twin was “a good thing.” A soldier coldly replied “yes” as he dragged her two screaming 10-year-old girls away. That is Kor’s last memory of her parents.

In her book Surviving the Angel of Death, Kor compares what happened next to being in a terrifying car accident every day. But I was in a serious car crash when I was young, and what I experienced is nothing compared to life as a Mengele twin. During the Holocaust, the Nazis used about 3,000 twins as human guinea pigs. These kids were housed in rat-infested barracks. They slept in filthy bunks with swarms of fleas and lice. The bathroom was a squat hole next to where bodies of the latest fatalities were dumped out of the way. Outside the barracks, there was a fenced yard, where some Mengele’s twins could sometimes muster the will to play. But this playground had a death view. Every day, carts loaded with dead rolled past. Kor will never forget the moment that another inmate recognized the face of her mother blankly staring out from a lifeless mess of twisted limbs. And from that day forward, she refused to feel sorry for herself or her sister. As she writes, “I could not think of myself as a victim, or I knew I would perish. It was simple. For me, there was no room for any thought except survival.”

Maintaining the will to live, of course, was almost impossible. Three days a week, Mengele marched his twins to a medical lab in Auschwitz, where they were stripped and subjected to hours of intensive physical examinations by doctors who treated them as dead meat. Three days a week, they were marched to blood labs in Birkenau, where they stood naked for hours waiting to be injected with experimental cocktails, ranging from toxic chemicals and scarlet fever to the blood of the opposite sex. “I took those shots as the price we had to pay to survive,” Kor recalls. “We gave them our blood, our bodies, our dignity, and in turn, they let us live one more day.”


Once a week, Mengele’s twins were disinfected with chemicals that burned their skin and stung their eyes. They were then given bars of soap and crammed into group showers. Long after Eva was liberated by Russian troops, these showers came back to haunt her. “Every night, I had nightmares,” she writes in her book. “I dreamt of rats the size of cats, dead bodies, and needles stuck into me. After we found out that the Nazis had made soap out of Jewish fat, I dreamed that soap bars spoke to me in the voices of my parents and sisters, asking me, ‘Why are you washing with us?’”

To help maintain the will to live, Kor volunteered for kitchen duties, which allowed her to steal the odd potato to share with her sister. But it was her determination to beat the Nazis that kept the two girls alive. After being subjected to a high-risk experiment, Kor ended up in an infirmary with other potentially terminal twins, who were not given food or water because that was considered a waste of resources. Mengele himself pronounced Kor soon-to-be-dead while cheerfully doing his rounds. But she refused to die because she knew that the Nazis conducted comparative autopsies on twins, and so death for one twin meant execution for the other.

Kor spent two weeks fighting a fever expected to kill her. Every night, she dragged her starved and dehydrated body, an inch at a time across filthy, rough cement floors to a faucet in another room where she could secretly steal a drink. After hearing of Eva’s ordeal through the camp grapevine, Miriam arranged to sneak her some bread. That led to other donations of food. Kor recovered, but her survival put both twins back in the rotation for experiments. And Miriam was soon sick from the shots that stunted the growth of her kidneys.

Throughout most of her time as a human guinea pig, Kor didn’t hate the world. Hate didn’t even take over the day the Nazis gave everyone false hope by fleeing the Russian advance before thinking twice and returning to destroy evidence while hosing every survivor in sight with machine gun fire. Despite passing out surrounded by bleeding lifeless bodies, Kor was still not dead inside when she woke up. “I stood up, thankful to be alive,” she recalls. “I thought it must have been a guardian angel that made me faint before the bullets hit me, because I didn’t have any time to think or do anything to save myself.”

Kor stopped being thankful after the Nazis fled for good, when she had a surreal experience that blackened her soul. Armed with an empty bottle, she and two other twins had set out in the cold to fetch water from the frozen Vistula River. While the group contemplated how to break the ice, Eva was paralyzed with bewilderment after spotting another girl about her age on the other side of the river. The girl looking back didn’t look like a bug-infested skeleton. She was healthy and clean, with nice clothes and braided hair. And on her back was a school bag, which blew Eva’s mind.

Until that moment, Eva had assumed that everyone other than Nazis had been sent to concentration camps. She just could not imagine a world in which some kids still had a life and went to school. Anger took hold that day and it stayed with Kor until she forgave her first Nazi at Auschwitz in 1995. As she writes in her book: “Immediately I felt that a burden of pain had been lifted from my shoulders, a pain I had lived with for fifty years: I was no longer a victim of Auschwitz, no longer a victim of my tragic past. I was free. I also took that moment to forgive my parents, whom I had hated all my life for not protecting us from Auschwitz, for not saving us from growing up as orphans. I finally understood that they had done the best that they could. I also forgave myself for hating my parents.”

Kor’s presentation at Ivey was to MBA students enrolled in the business school’s Transformational Leadership class, which focuses on developing 11 core dimensions of leadership character and their associated elements. The class discussion that followed was intense. But that was the point. “We really wanted to help students explore forgiveness, what it takes, what it means, which traditionally gets little attention in leadership development,” says Ivey Professor Mary Crossan, noting that forgiveness is a big part of humanity — one of the character dimensions linked by Ivey research to good leadership. “Not being able to forgive forces leaders to carry a lot of baggage. It is also important to note that while this class really focused on forgiveness of others, a big part of forgiveness has to do with forgiving oneself.”

When MBA student Fahad Tariq signed up for Crossan’s course, the former Ernst & Young manager thought it couldn’t hurt to do some self-exploration. He also thought doing it at Ivey would be an easy credit, allowing him more energy to focus on learning about finance and entrepreneurship. “Boy, was I wrong,” Tariq recently admitted in a commentary on the unique course published by The Globe and Mail. The Ivey student now considers Transformational Leadership one of the hardest and best courses in his MBA program. “Reflecting on who you are as a person and remaining committed to your values sounds a lot easier than it is,” he said. “Throughout the course, I had to think deeply about my failures, regrets, role models, motivations and aspirations. It was an exhausting exercise meant to make us aware of why we act the way we do. The end goal was to develop the positive character traits that every successful leader must embody, including integrity, courage, accountability and humanity.”

And as far as Tariq is concerned, one of the people who made him think the deepest was Eva Kor. “This to me,” he says, “was a clear example of resilient character. She could have been vengeful, and justifiably so, but she recognized she could have a greater positive impact by demonstrating magnanimity.”