Third Street in Terre Haute, Indiana, is an unremarkable stretch of road that leads from I-70 into the city’s fading downtown. Little distinguishes it from any other busy commercial street in any small midwestern town–you could be on Milwaukee Avenue in Niles or Mannheim Road in Rosemont. There’s a Denny’s, a Wendy’s, and a Phillips 66 station; there are realtors, car dealerships, lube shops, and a house with a cracked glass door and a sign advertising “therapeutic massages.” Outside the Midtown Motel a sign reads, “God Bless Our Guests.” The only building that might cause you to stop and take a second glance is a one-story brick structure across the street from a tattoo parlor. It looks as though it might contain a travel agency or a small accounting firm, but a closer inspection reveals that the windows are boarded up. And, partly covered by a blue tarp, there’s a graffito spray-painted on the charred brick walls: REMEMBER TIMMY MCVEIGH. The Oklahoma City bomber was executed at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute in 2001.
In the parking lot a sign declares, “Holocaust Education Promotes Peace.” This sign and the hull of the building are about all that remains of the CANDLES Holocaust Museum, opened in 1995 by Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor who, along with her twin sister and several thousand other twins, was victimized by the experiments of Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s Angel of Death. (Kor’s sister passed away in 1993 after a lifetime of kidney problems, a common affliction among the so-called Mengele twins.) The museum’s name is an acronym–Children of Auschwitz Nazis’ Deadly Lab Experiment Survivors. CANDLES, which featured photographs, books, and artifacts from the Nazi death camps and was frequently visited by school tour groups, was firebombed on November 10. The arson is still being investigated by Indiana authorities and the FBI.
Investigators say that the arson is an isolated incident. Terre Haute was a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s, and it’s not uncommon to see Confederate flags on the grills of trucks barreling down I-70, but hate crimes, locals say, are rare here now. And though there have been reports of white supremacist activity in towns just a quick drive away from Terre Haute (the Southern Poverty Law Center places an active Klan group in the area), Vigo County’s chief deputy prosecuting attorney, Jim Walker–a lifelong resident of the region–says he has no recollection of other crimes of this nature. The major issue for law enforcement in Terre Haute over the past five years has been methamphetamine abuse, he adds.
“This is a pretty welcoming community,” Walker says, sitting in an office with about as many duck decoys and paintings of hunters and dogs as legal volumes. Terre Haute has always been the sort of place where “you can walk down Main Street and people will say hi to you.”
Eva Kor, however, has more complicated memories of the town.
“Coming from Tel Aviv to Terre Haute was like landing on the moon,” says Kor, who arrived in 1960 at age 26. In Tel Aviv she had served as a sergeant major in the Israeli army. She was newly married to an Indiana pharmacist who’d been liberated from Buchenwald in 1944. “I knew very little about American customs,” says Kor, who still speaks with traces of an eastern European accent. She learned English by watching television. “All I knew came from Doris Day movies. I thought everybody was rich and nobody had to work.”
In Terre Haute, Kor found herself in a decidedly Christian region of the States; she estimates that Jews comprise 1 percent of Terre Haute’s population of around 60,000. “But to me, this wasn’t a problem,” she says. “I never liked going to the synagogue. When you raise children, it becomes a little more of an issue, but for me it wasn’t.
“I never made a secret of who I was,” she says. “I never covered my number. My husband tried not to talk about the past. The children would ask about their grandparents and he would say that he couldn’t talk about it. I did.” She relates a story about how, when her daughter was three years old (Kor has two children), she asked a friend’s mother, “Mrs. Baker, where is your number?” When the woman asked her what she meant, Kor’s daughter said proudly, “My mommy has a number. I thought all mommies had numbers.”
Kor says her family’s Jewishness made them the target of harassment for over a decade in the 60s and 70s. “Kids would start Halloween at our house on October 1,” she recalls. “It wasn’t only corn or soap or toilet paper. They would throw bricks at the roof, they would plant white crosses in the front yard, they would set leaves on fire and paint swastikas on the house and write, ‘Go home, you dirty Jew.’ It traumatized my kids a great deal; the kids often said that it was like a war zone.
“All this threw me back to the harassment we experienced during the war, particularly in the year 1943 when, even in our village, the very young Nazi helpers would harass us for days on end and there was nothing we could do to make them stop it,” Kor says. “I would often ask my father, ‘Why don’t you go outside and make them stop?’ And he would say, ‘There’s nothing we can do about it; you have to learn to take it.’ Well, here I was in Terre Haute, Indiana, and my husband said, ‘These are just some kids playing tricks.’ And I said, ‘Now I live in the United States, and no one has the right to harass me or take away my freedom.'”
The harassment came to an abrupt end in 1978, when NBC’s broadcast of the TV miniseries Holocaust started a nationwide discussion on the subject. In schools across the country there were study units about Nazi war crimes and guest lectures by survivors of concentration camps. Kor was asked by the director of the local network affiliate to appear on the local news after the first night of the airing. That appearance led to more media attention, as well as calls from junior high schools in the area asking her to speak.
“These kids I lectured were similar kids to the ones who harassed me before,” Kor says. “But now they wanted to hear my story, and they treated me with tremendous respect.”
Her success as an educator ultimately inspired Kor to create the CANDLES museum in 1995. The museum at first shared space with a travel agency, then gradually expanded. Kor says that during the 80s and 90s she’d begun to feel more accepted in the community.
“One society in the 1940s rejected me for being who I am, for being born Jewish. I never understood then why that was a crime, and now another society was accepting and respecting me for who I was,” she says. “People would stop me at the grocery store and apologize for having harassed me.” The worst thing that happened in those years, she says, was that she had trouble getting a real estate job because of her accent.
The worst, that is, until a cold, rainy night in November, when she was awakened and told the museum on Third Street was on fire. When she got there, practically all of its contents had been destroyed. She tried to get past the firefighters to salvage something, but she wasn’t allowed in. Local reporters approached her and asked how she felt. “I’ve had better days,” she told them.
The only suspect who has been named in the case is Joseph Stockett, though investigators are quick to say he hasn’t been charged with the arson. In late November, Terre Haute police received a tip about an ex-con who was trying to recruit members for an anti-Jewish organization and had expressed interest in acquiring a handgun. Federal authorities arranged an undercover sting, and the 57-year-old Stockett was arrested and charged with unlawful possession of a firearm. The night of the firebombing, the surveillance camera on a nearby store had picked up a light-colored sedan speeding from the scene; Stockett owns a car matching this general description. Currently he’s in Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center awaiting a psychiatric evaluation requested by his attorney.
Stockett, a long-haired, bearded man who calls himself Hippie Joe, is an antiwar activist with strong anti-Israel views. For over a decade he’s drifted from college town to college town, most recently from Urbana to Madison to Terre Haute, living sometimes out of his car and at one point staying in a lawn-mower shed at the University of Illinois. Stockett says that he gets by on social security he receives as a result of heart troubles; he claims to have had 11 heart attacks. In the 70s he served time for setting fire to a Planned Parenthood office in Eugene, Oregon.
When I talked to him last month, Stockett appeared behind a plate-glass window in the Vigo County lockup wearing an orange jumpsuit and bearing a file folder filled with documents downloaded from the Web and notes and poems scribbled on scraps of paper. He claims to be an admirer of the writings of Noam Chomsky and Nat Hentoff and says he’s a devout Christian and pro-lifer. He also admits to having reached out to white supremacists. But, he says, those efforts did not reflect his own views; instead he hoped to mobilize them against the war in Iraq, which he feels is being waged in part to strengthen Ariel Sharon’s position in Israel. “The only thing that I might have as a basis for agreement with the Klan might be their views on Israel,” Stockett says. He categorically denies that he is a racist, a Holocaust denier, or an anti-Semite (a word he pronounces see-mite), proferring as evidence that he was married to a black woman throughout much of the 80s. He claims to have been set up on the weapons charge by the feds.
Kor says her impression of Stockett is that he is a “disturbed individual.” But while the investigation drags on, her main focus has been a nationwide fund-raising effort that’s brought in nearly $250,000 to rebuild the CANDLES museum.
“In order for you to understand how I function, let me tell you this,” Kor says. “When I was in Auschwitz and I was between life and death for two weeks, Mengele stood by my bed and said, ‘Too bad; she has only two weeks to live.’ I made a silent pledge that I would prove him wrong and that I would survive. For the following two weeks, I was in this barrack where I was not allocated any food, water, or medication. People were brought there for two reasons–to die in the barrack or to wait for a place in the gas chamber. The doctors would come in to check my fever chart, and I remember often waking up on the barrack floor because I could no longer walk, and I was crawling to reach the other end of the barrack and I found a faucet with water, and as I would crawl I would fade in and out of consciousness and I would keep telling myself in a semiconscious state of mind, ‘I must survive.’ Nothing that happened after that or since then will ever be as dark as those two weeks.
“Ultimately,” she continues, “if you rise above that pain and anger, you can overcome it. I have forgiven the Nazis. I have forgiven everyone who has hurt me. I refuse to ever be a victim again.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.