Forgiving Dr. Mengele

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh

Documentaries about the Holocaust have become a genre unto themselves, but Forgiving Dr. Mengele, which screens this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, doesn’t fit the mold of Oscar winners like Genocide (1981), The Long Way Home (1997), and The Last Days (1998). Those earlier movies are primarily educational, reminding viewers of the Holocaust’s vast destruction in hopes that its memory will never be erased by revisionist historians, but they also tend to emphasize their subjects’ victimhood; their focus on martyrdom has more in common with Christianity than Judaism. Eva Mozes Kor, the lecturer and activist at the center of Forgiving Dr. Mengele, is most notable for her zeal in refusing to be a victim. Opinionated, truculent, impatient, and conflicted, she has a gift for pissing people off, but she also has a vision of personal healing that requires her to forgive the Nazi who nearly killed her.

Cheri Pugh, a graduate of Northwestern University, was working as an archivist at Chicago’s WPA Film Library when she came across footage of the Auschwitz liberation, including one particularly resonant image of survivors being led from the camp by two little twins. A Web search took her to the site of the CANDLES Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, and to its founder, Eva Kor, the surviving sister from the historic shot. Kor was only ten when she and her family, well-to-do Romanian Jews, were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. She and her twin, Miriam, were spotted by an officer and diverted from the gas chambers to join a special group of prisoners earmarked for the gruesome genetic experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death.” Approximately 1,500 sets of twins served as subject and control for Mengele, whose scattershot methods were more sadistic than scientific–as soon as a test subject died, the control would be murdered so that simultaneous autopsies could be performed.

Interviewed last year by the London Observer, Kor described her routine in Auschwitz: “Three times a week we would be put naked in a room for six to eight hours where every part of my body was studied compared to my twin sister and compared to charts. . . . Three times a week we were taken to the blood lab and they would tie both my arms, and take a lot of blood from my left arm and, on occasion, so much that I fainted. They wanted to know how much blood a person can lose and still live. At the same time they would give injections: a minimum of five in my right arm.” During one experiment in which she served as subject, Eva was injected with a virulent agent that brought her feverishly near death and remembers dragging herself across the floor to a faucet at the end of the building. Her hearty immune system and fierce love for her sister apparently saved both of them from the dissecting table, but the injections given to Miriam stunted the growth of a kidney, leading to myriad health problems later in life and likely causing a rare form of cancer.

Eva and Miriam returned to Romania after the war, then immigrated to Israel. Ten years later Eva married another concentration camp survivor, Michael Kor, and followed him home to Indiana, leaving Miriam behind. Eva raised two children and pursued a career in real estate. As the years passed she became more involved with her sister’s health problems and ultimately donated a kidney to replace Miriam’s deformed one. In 1985, when the twins made a commemorative visit to Auschwitz, Miriam’s worsening medical condition spurred Eva to hunt for Mengele’s medical files in the hope that they’d yield some useful information (to date, they’ve never been found). Eight years later, Miriam finally succumbed to cancer, and Eva began to dwell more on their days in Auschwitz.

Kor recalled a documentary that mentioned Dr. Hans Munch, one of the camp physicians; hoping again to locate the elusive Mengele files, she tracked him down. A former SS officer who was exonerated for war crimes, Munch had saved numerous prisoners from the gas chamber, and when he and Kor met face-to-face, a candid and emotional dialogue led her to an extraordinary resolution. On her next visit to Auschwitz, to commemorate the liberation’s 50th anniversary, she brought Munch along. As a gesture of defiance to Holocaust deniers, he publicly signed a document testifying that he had witnessed the use of Zyklon B in the gas chamber. The other survivors in attendance were affronted by Munch’s presence, and their anger only intensified when Kor declared, “I, Eva Mozes Kor, in my name only, give amnesty to all Nazis who participated directly or indirectly in the murder of my family and millions of others. Because it’s time to forgive, but not forget.” From that moment, Kor claims, her emotional cloud began to lift.

Pugh and her codirector, Bob Hercules, are remarkably evenhanded in their treatment of the situation; people who recoiled from Kor’s statement are given ample screen time and presented with equal sympathy. Especially moving is Jona Laks, an Israeli citizen who also survived Mengele’s experiments and whose outrage and bewilderment are palpable as she and Kor go toe-to-toe. “I should deny to myself that I’ve gone through what I’ve gone through?” Laks demands, her voice breaking. “How can I deny that my parents were taken, gassed, have been thrown to mass graves?” Alex Kor, Eva’s son, notes on-screen that the Mengele survivors most upset by her amnesty statement are Israelis. Their heated protests reveal the political subtext of many Holocaust debates: that those who would diminish the horror of the Holocaust are implicitly questioning the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

To some degree Kor makes this equation herself, and her magnanimity toward Mengele doesn’t extend to Israel’s living foes. During a conference at the Imperial War Museum in London, Kor is confronted by Dan Bar-On, a psychology professor at Ben-Gurion University, who asks her why she can forgive the Nazis but not the Palestinians. “The only way for me to deal with survival situations [is] that I fight back, or fight faster and shoot first,” Kor replies. “I do not have any difficulty reconciling with them after the guns are silent. The question is, how do we get to that point?”

This leads to one of the film’s most intriguing sequences, in which Kor journeys to the West Bank to meet with Bar-On’s Israeli and Palestinian colleagues. Threatened and outnumbered, she clams up, her mouth tightening and her eyes darting about; she looks like an animal that’s been cornered. It’s unsettling to see her words and actions transposed from the sepia-toned past to the more complicated reality of the present, but that’s a large part of the film’s value. Alex Kor remarks that once the last generation of Holocaust survivors fades away, the rest of us will have to interpret their legacy for them. Eva Kor is a courageous woman, but her story illustrates how daunting that task will be.

When: Daily through Thu 3/2

Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State

Price: $9

Info: 312-846-2800

More: The directors will stay after Friday’s 8:15 screening for a Q and A.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bob Hercules.