TERRE HAUTE — Eva Mozes Kor was a 10-year-old prisoner in Auschwitz in 1944 when she was told by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele that she had only two weeks to live.
On Friday, she turned 80.
Guests at her birthday party Saturday evening ate, sang and danced in celebration of the woman whose message of forgiveness has resonated across Terre Haute and the world.
More than 200 people attended Eva Kor’s 80th birthday celebration and CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center Annual Gala in O’Shaughnessy Hall at St. Mary-of-the-Woods.
The grand birthday party was complete with a multi-tier cake, a toast, music and videos paying tribute to the Holocaust survivor. One much-anticipated part of the event was dancing the hora, a Jewish folk dance of celebration.
Kor, who wore a blue and sparkling gold dress, looked happy.
“I am absolutely delighted to turn 80. I am proud that I reached that age,” Kor said before the event.
But she plans to live for many years to come.
“I look forward to turning 90, 100,” she said. “My goal is to live to be 111.”
A very specific age for a very specific reason.
Her goal is to be in Auschwitz for the centennial anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
“In order to be there at the 100th anniversary, I have to turn 111,” Kor said.
“I’m taking it one year at a time but I’m getting closer to my goal.”
The last 80 years of Kor’s life are a story of overcoming adversity.
Born “in a tiny little village” in Romania, “I was born in the wrong place, wrong time, wrong religion and wrong sex,” Kor said, because being born Jewish in Europe at that time was going to “get you in trouble.”
The youngest child, Eva Mozes’ father, was a farmer and landowner who wanted a son but got four daughters instead.
“He told me that I should have been a boy,” she said adding that for the first few years of her life, “he set me up for failure everyday” and punished her by putting her in a dark room with mice.
At 5 years old, she apparently “snapped back” at her father, “I don’t see how it’s my fault.”
And defying her father for the next 41⁄2 years was “practice” for Auschwitz.
Being strong-willed and outsmarting authority “helped me survive” at the Nazi camp.
At 10 years-old, Kor and her twin sister, Miriam Mozes Zieger were among 3,000 children imprisoned in Auschwitz and were among about 200 liberated from the camp by the Soviet Army in 1945.
She lived in Israel for some time and came to the U.S. in June 1960. She married Michael “Mickey” Kor, another Nazi concentration camp survivor, and raised two kids.
One of her children, Alex, attended the event.
From her, Alex said, he found an example of perseverance over unbelievable odds, maintaining a positive attitude, and as he personally learned from a challenging experience, “there’s a lot of good that can come out [of] something so bad.”
He also admired his mother’s sense of humor.
His wish for his mother “is to… have the health, strength, ability to continue to tell her story.”
And this story is told to many who hear Kor speak and those who visit CANDLES, the museum she founded.
She spreads the message of forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is available to every victim on the face of this earth. It can heal, liberate and empower,” Kor said.
CANDLES Executive Director Kiel Majewski also learned many things from Kor.
“The things that inspire me about her are the little things: She never quits, she always comes through, she tells it like it is, and she expects the best out of people,” Majewski, whose first day of work at the museum was on Kor’s birthday in 2007, said. He has known her for eight years.
“In Auschwitz, Eva dreamed an impossible dream just to survive. The odds were always against her, but she has shown us that the odds don’t matter if you believe in yourself and don’t give up on your dreams. Her example has inspired entire generations of people.”
And Kor did not want any gifts, she said. Instead, she hopes people will support CANDLES.
“I don’t need anything. I have everything. I probably am the luckiest person in the face of this earth,” she said, because at 80, “people still want my company” and “hear my thoughts.”
“What else can I ask for?” she said.
The gala also included a silent auction, dinner, raffle and the recognition of Eternal Light Award recipient, Peggy Tierney. The award is given by CANDLES annually to a person who demonstrates service to the museum’s mission.
Also at the event, special guest Carl Wilkens — the only American who stayed in Rwanda throughout the 1994 genocide — spoke of healing and forgiveness. He is the former head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in Rwanda and now director of World Outside My Shoes, an educational nonprofit.
Aided by pictures and video clips, Wilkens not only shared his stories from the genocide but also spoke of the importance of relationships and allies during times of crisis. He also talked about Rwanda’s recovery process and keys to healing.
“The way to healing and forgiveness is focusing on what remains,” not what was lost or taken because those can bring about bitterness, Wilkens told the Tribune-Star.
“Looking for the good in situations is key to putting one foot in front of the other.”