As an NICU nurse at St. Luke’s Boise, Nichole Harter understands that life is fragile. Her understanding grew even deeper earlier this year after visiting Auschwitz with a Holocaust survivor.
The tour was guided by Eva Mozes Kor, now 81, and included several days of behind-the-scenes access to the concentration camps. During the group’s stay in Poland, Kor fell while showering in her hotel room. Her right hand was swollen and the skin was badly torn, and the fall also caused a black eye. Harter learned about the injuries and quickly offered her assistance. She made sure the wounds were carefully dressed and changed frequently in order to avoid infection while traveling.
Kor was so grateful for Harter’s gentle care that she offered to give a free lecture to the St. Luke’s community as a gesture of thanks. She spoke to a room filled with more than 200 people in the Anderson Center on Sept. 19.
Kor timed her visit to coincide with a prior engagement in Boise; she delivered the keynote address at the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights “Change Your World Celebration” on Sept. 18.
During both presentations Kor reflected on her personal history and how it shaped her life moving forward. Her presentation at St. Luke’s also included her thoughts on ethics and human subject research. She talked about the power of forgiveness during her lecture, explaining that while she was liberated from Poland in the 1940s, she didn’t liberate herself until the mid-1990s when she was able to forgive Dr. Josef Mengele, who conducted painful and often deadly genetic experiments in Auschwitz.
“Forgiveness is a seed for peace,” Kor said. “It is the best medicine.”
In 1944 when Kor was 10 years old she was sent to Auschwitz with her parents, two older sisters, and her twin sister, Miriam. When the family arrived the twin girls were separated from the rest of their family and never saw them again. The girls were among 1,500 sets of twins that became the subjects of genetic experiments under the direction of Dr. Mengele. Just 200 children were found alive when the camp was liberated in 1945, and the twin girls were among the survivors.
Harter learned about Kor’s story after watching a documentary called “Forgiving Dr. Mengele.” When she looked at Kor’s website to learn more, Harter discovered she could join Kor on a guided tour in Poland.
“She has really survived and moved past what happened in her life, and she has so much strength,” Harter said.
Kor is now a sought-after public speaker and forgiveness advocate, and in 1995 she opened the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Ind. Kor estimates she has given more than 6,000 lectures about her experience, including many to members of the medical community.
Her message is simple: Remember that the people involved in medical experiments are human beings.
“You cannot forget that you are dealing with human beings and that you want to help them. It is a very narrow line and it is not clearly defined,” Kor said.
Kor’s tour includes the location where Mengele conducted his experiments. It’s an area that is closed to the public, but she has special access. While standing in the same place where many children suffered during those experiments, Kor shares memories from her own encounters with Mengele.
Throughout the tour, Harter was struck by Kor’s strength and tenacity.
“I don’t know how she revisits it each year. I still have trouble processing it,” Harter said. “It hits all the senses.”
The women bonded because of the care that was needed after Kor’s fall. Kor is right-handed, and her injuries prevented her from doing even the most basic tasks. Harter opened water bottles for Kor and helped her eat during meals. During the flight back to Chicago (the tour group’s hub), Harter kept a careful watch over Kor’s wounds to make sure they were clean.
Spending time with Kor deepened Harter’s dedication to providing care and acting with integrity. Harter now spends more time educating her patients, repeating her intentions regarding care and explaining in greater detail why certain medications are administered as part of their care.
“I want them to feel safe and confident in the care that St. Luke’s provides,” Harter said. “We want to support them and want to do this as safely as possible.”
Despite the traumatic experiments Kor endured with Mengele, Kor said her view of medicine remains optimistic.
“I think most people go into medicine to help people. I am convinced of that 100 percent,” she said.
Kor’s presentation on Sept. 19 received a standing ovation. As Kor concluded her lecture, she reminded the audience to treat all people with respect and compassion.
“Wherever life takes you, become a glowing light,” Kor said.
Chereen Langrill is a former communications coordinator for St. Luke’s Health System