It’s an unlikely pairing. A quiet and thoughtful Glaswegian rock star who tours the world with Ocean Colour Scene and a feisty woman in her 80s, who’s a survivor of Auschwitz. They get together, and make a record. The result is a four track CD called The Railway People.
I had the privilege of meeting Raymond Meade and Eva Mozes Kor at an event at Glasgow’s CCA, where they were speaking about their record collaboration.
This story also featured in an excellent BBC Scotland documentary called The Railway People, which was beautifully and sensitively put together by Demus Productions.
Raymond has been to Auschwitz and Birkenau. The former Nazi concentration camps are located in the town of Oswiecim, around 30 miles west of Krakow in Poland. Raymond has visited the camps five times.
On his last visit he penned lyrics and a poem, but he had a idea, which led him to reach out to Eva. He emailed her and asked if she would read and record the poem How Could It Be? And to read this at Birkenau in a bid to capture the essence of the words. He didn’t expect a reply.
But when you hear Eva speak – you get the impression this woman is curious, and she was intrigued. Eventually, the two met in Krakow and started their journey. There is a bond between them which is palpable when you see the two of them interact. There’s a mutual respect and a genuine fondness.
What Eva has faced in her life is unimaginable. When she arrives in Birkenau, she’s with her twin sister Miriam. They are 10. Dressed in matching dresses, the identical twins catch the eye a Nazi officer. He asks their mother – “Are they twins?” She hesitates “Is that a good or a bad thing?” He assures her it’s a good thing, and she confirms that they are. Their fate is decided.
The family is split up. The twin sisters are taken to Dr Joseph Mengele, named the Angel of Death. They never see their parents, father Alexander, mother Jaffa or sisters Edit and Aliz again. The family perished in the gas chambers of Birkenau. The twin sisters survived but suffered torturous experiments and treatment at the hands of Mengele.
In Glasgow – Eva talked about loss and said we always remember the last time we saw someone. It’s true. I remember my dad smiling and waving from his hospital bed as I left, fully expecting to see him the following day. He had a heart attack a few hours later, and I wasn’t there, but I still see his face as I left. It’s sad – but not traumatic.
Contrast that with 10-year-old Eva, and the tears, screaming, anguish and fear, that ensued as families were ripped apart. We can’t imagine how that final scene must haunt her. She’s revisited the scene, the railway platform at Birkenau many times. Astonishingly she found the courage, strength and compassion to forgive.
The path to forgiveness has been a long one. Eva talked about the time she met a former Nazi officer, a Dr Hans Munch. And she liked him. She described him as “a bad Nazi but a good human being”. He stood outside the gas chambers while people inside were killed. A death certificate recorded one death to hide the large numbers of people murdered. Dr Munch had joined Eva at a conference in Boston. He then agreed to go to Auschwitz with her in 1995 to sign an affidavit which stated the truth.
Eva wanted to thank him for this act but struggled to find an appropriate Thank You card, so she wrote a letter. That letter prompted her to write a further letter, to forgive the Nazi who caused so much terror and cruelty to Eva and her sister Miriam – Dr Joseph Mengele, who was dead by this point.
She read the letter to Mengele out loud on the railway platform at Birkenau. And in that forgiveness she found strength. The act of forgiving gave her power and control. She owned the forgiveness, it was her’s to give, and no-one could change it. It was a defining moment.
“I discovered I had one power. What I tell everybody is that you — any victim, any person hurt — you have the same power. You have the power to forgive. And what it does, forgiveness, has nothing to do with the perpetrator. It has everything to do with the way the victim feels.” Eva Kor
The partnership and relationship between Raymond and Eva, transcends age, place, boundaries and cultures. There’s a willingness to engage, learn and to try and understand.
For Raymond’s part, he’s captured Auschwitz and Birkenau. I’ve also visited the former concentration camps. You cannot fail to be affected by what you see and feel. For me Auschwitz was horrific, but Birkenau hit even harder. While Auschwitz has the incredibly sad exhibits of what is left of the dead – the suitcases, piles of shoes, hair and spectacles – in Birkenau there is nothing. It’s empty. It’s a vast open space and you’re left to fill it with your imagination and emotions. The atmosphere sinks into your bones, chilling you to the core. It’s eerie, haunting, incredibly sad, and silent.
Raymond’s song At The Top of the Stairs was written after he stood atop the stairs overlooking the train tracks which brought carriage loads of people, to their final destination, and death.
In 1995, Eva opened the CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she now lives. It sees around 7,000 school children every year. She also lectures all over the world and the 82-year-old works tirelessly to educate people and to try to stop the atrocities of the past being repeated.
Eva’s sister Miriam died in 1993 from a lung illness that Eva attributes to the tests that Mengele performed.
A radio documentary was made telling the story of how the project came to life. This documentary has been awarded the New York Festivals Bronze Winner for the World’s Best Radio Programmes.
Eva Kor is an amazing and inspiring woman and credit also goes to Raymond Meade for his determination to bring this project to life and as Eva said, “for following what was in his heart”.
“My hope is that younger generations from every future era ensure that this place is never forgotten, never repeated and always recognised as a symbol of senseless violence”. Raymond Meade
“It’s important to stand up for what you believe in and make the world a better place”. Eva Kor