Grisamore: Concentration camp trip ‘life changing’

egrisamore@macon.comJuly 8, 2014 

The range of a remote control is usually limited to across the room. You can take aim at the TV from the sofa and over the top of the coffee table. (Ask any man for instructions.)

So Robin Orlando never could have dreamed her thumb would have such a far-reaching effect after she hit the “play” button and watched a television documentary two years ago.

It set off a chain of events from her home in River North to West Georgia College in Carrollton to the CANDLES Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

Robin was flipping through movie listings on Netflix when the acclaimed film “Forgiving Dr. Mengele” got her attention.

The 2006 documentary is the story of Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor and her decision to forgive the late Dr. Josef Mengele.

The doctor performed medical experiments on her and her 10-year-old twin sister, Miriam, at the Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Her father, mother and two siblings were among the 1.1 million prisoners who died as a result of the atrocities at Auschwitz.

Robin was so moved by the 82-minute film and its powerful message of forgiveness that she called her youngest daughter, Katie Battle, a nursing student at West Georgia.

Katie not only watched the historical documentary, but she also wrote and asked Kor to speak on “medical ethics” at West Georgia, where she was president of the student nursing association.

She convinced college officials to commit to the $5,000 speaking fee. Later, she and her mother signed up to be part of Kor’s annual trip to Poland and visit the horrific concentration camps.

It was not the same as going to summer camp.

While many of their friends were sticking their toes in the sand on a beach somewhere last week, Katie and Robin were in Kor’s traveling party of 104 to Auschwitz, where 90 percent of the Polish political prisoners who died there were Jewish. Among the war crimes committed at the concentration, termination and labor camps was the use of gas chambers.

Mengele was sometimes called the “Angel of Death.” He conducted experiments on about 1,400 twins, with little regard for the health and safety of his subjects. Along with other medical researchers at Auschwitz, he was interested in the science of genetics and heredity. His research was in keeping with Nazi Germany’s aspirations of creating a “perfect” human race.

Kor is now 80. Although her twin sister lived to be an adult, she died from the long-term effects of the testing at Auschwitz.

Kor’s book and film dealt with her forgiveness of Mengele and others. Her actions stirred controversy, and even some hostility, among many Holocaust survivors and some in the Jewish community.

In 1984, Kor founded the organization CANDLES, an acronym for “Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors,” and opened the museum in Terre Haute. She was able to locate more than 100 surviving Mengele twins.

After returning home on Sunday, Robin called the eight-day trip “life changing.”

“When we met Eva, there was something about her that was just compelling,” Robin said. “Her message of forgiveness and prejudice is about making the world a better place, even if it’s just in your own little spot.”

Katie is 25 and a critical care nurse at Kennestone Hospital in Marietta. She said Auschwitz was an experience she will always remember.

“It has made me want to speak up against racism and anti-Semitism and prejudice,” she said. “It makes you wonder why these things happened without the world doing something about it. And you want to make sure good people will stand up and keep it from happening again.”

They were able to meet Rainer Hoss, whose grandfather, Rudolph Hoss, was commandant of Auschwitz and was hanged two years after the war following a trial in Warsaw.

Hoss expressed his horror and regret for the crimes committed by his family. He held hands with Kor at a ceremony and signed a peace pledge. Robin and Katie had their photograph taken with Hoss and Kor next to the same building where many of the medical experiments were conducted.

One of the most touching moments came when Kor approached a group of visiting German students. As she spoke, and they learned who she was, many of them began to cry.

“She told them she wanted them to know it wasn’t their fault,” said Robin. “They burst into tears, and she hugged them. She said they were not to blame and they can’t carry the weight of what their ancestors did.”

Said Katie: “Being able to go with Eva was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In another 20 years, there may not be any Holocaust survivors around, much less the ones who survived the experiments of Dr. Mengele. Being there was like being part of history.”

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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