Our Neighbors….Vicky KnickerbockerThe late Cloquet High School teacher Gus Gillespie’s love of journalism and human rights issues ignited a spark in 1974 graduate Vicky Knickerbocker.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
“Anger is a seed for war; forgiveness is a seed for peace” – Holocaust survivor Eva Kor
The late Cloquet High School teacher Gus Gillespie’s love of journalism and human rights issues ignited a spark in 1974 graduate Vicky Knickerbocker. It was a spark that led the Cloquet student not only to a career as a human services and sociology instructor at Inver Hills Community College (IHCC), but also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live out a period of history that will not soon be forgotten.
Knickerbocker recently had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz – a network of concentration and extermination camps built and operated by the Third Reich in the Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during World War II – in the company of a survivor of the Holocaust.
“I was granted this unique privilege by being awarded a $1,800 teacher’s scholarship which allowed me to travel to Poland to participate in a ‘Seed of Forgiveness’ tour led by Eva [Mozes] Kor, a child survivor of Dr. [Josef] Mengele’s twins experiments,” she explained. “Dr. Mengele was particularly interested in twins because he wanted to know more about to how to scientifically reproduce the traits of a superior people. The Nazis actually believed that that they were members of a superior race known as the Aryans. So, to gain this knowledge he experimented on individuals he considered to be ‘non-humans,’ including Jews and gypsies.”
Knickerbocker, who grew up in Scanlon and attended school in the Cloquet area through high school, said her interest in the Holocaust grew out of a belief in the value of multi-culturalism.
“My interest in promoting multi-culturalism and writing was greatly inspired by my high school journalism teacher, Gus Gillespie,” she related. “As a junior and senior, I was chosen by Gus to be a teen-talk reporter for the Duluth Herald. Over the years, I have taught several humanities, human services, sociology, and women’s studies courses which encourage students to appreciate and respect cultural differences rather than hate and despise them.”
Prior to being employed as a full-time instructor at IHCC in Inver Grove Heights, she worked at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies from August 2002 to August 2007. Over the course of the last 10 years, she has traveled to several countries of the world including Germany, France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Israel, Mexico, Holland, Belgium, Armenia, Romania, Ireland and Italy to expand her knowledge of the Holocaust and other genocides.
Her interest in the Holocaust was further prompted by hosting a day-long symposium on the Holocaust at Central Lakes College which was attended by over 700 individuals, including many high school and community college students. She has been teaching a three-credit Holocaust course at IHCC for the past four years.
Knickerbocker was understandably excited by being one of 12 Holocaust educators chosen nationally this year by the Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors (CANDLES) Museum for the monetary stipend that made her trip to Auschwitz possible. She traveled with other Holocaust educators and their family members from several different states and countries.
“This was an incredible learning experience which greatly broadened my knowledge of Eva Gor’s experiences and will help me better authenticate the life lessons that college students can learn from studying about the Holocaust,” said Knickerbocker.
During the tour, Knickerbocker said Kor identified significant historical artifacts and ruins in Auschwitz that were associated with her being a child inmate of this death camp from May 1944 to January1945.
“Several of the most important historical artifact and ruins Eva pointed out were the railroad tracks, the selection platform, the huge posts of electrified, barbed wire fencing, the gas chambers, the guard towers, the crematoria, and a cattle car,” related Knickerbocker. “She told us all of these played a significant role in the deportation and murder of her mother, father and her two older sisters. Standing on the selection platform, she recalled a tragic story of how the Nazis had forcibly marched her family members and another 100 Hungarian Jews onto a train, packed them into a cattle car, and transported them for four days to Auschwitz in Poland without any food or water.”
Knickerbocker went on to explain how Kor reported that she and her sister Miriam were chosen to survive because they were identified as identical twins and were abruptly separated from their mother immediately after their arrival in Auschwitz in May 1944.
According to historical accounts, Mengele, garbed all in white, often took his turn as the “selector” on the ramp where incoming prisoners were brought, deciding which of them would go to the gas chamber and which would be saved, which earned him the title of “Angel of Death.” He would reportedly get very excited when he found twins, believing them to be the key to heredity that would help develop the blonde-haired, blue-eyed race that represented the Nazi ideal. In attempts to fabricate blue eyes, drops or injections of chemicals would allegedly be put in the eyes of some of the twins, causing severe pain, infections, and temporary or permanent blindness.
In all, approximately 3,000 twins were pulled from the masses on the ramp at Auschwitz, most of them children, and only around 200 survived. Eva Kor was one of them.
While on the recent tour, Kor escorted Knickerbocker and other travel participants to view the girls’ camp where she, her sister, and numerous other twins were housed in what Knickerbocker described as “triple-decker bunks in a dirty, smelly, wooden barrack that was a former horse stable.”
“She informed our group that the twins were considered ‘privileged’ because they did not have to go outside to use the public latrine and they were fed dinner on a daily basis, which consisted of a small slice of bread and a brownish fluid that everyone called ‘fake coffee,’” described Knickerbocker.
She said at the end of the Auschwitz tour, Kor took group members to visit Block 10, which was the experimental block were Dr. Mengele had daily blood withdrawals taken from all of the twins, often in large quantities, and performed many painful and inhumane experiments on them, including Eva and Miriam.
“Eva recalled that three days a week, Dr. Mengele would have the children marched to his lab so that he could perform intensive studies and blood extractions that left them exhausted,” said Knickerbocker. “She stated she hated injections and being jabbed to give blood samples. According to her, one of the injections the Nazi doctors gave her made her extremely ill and she nearly died.”
Knickerbocker reported that another important historical location that was visited in Auschwitz was the liberation site where Kor retraced the steps that she, her sister, and many other sets of twins had taken on the day the Russians freed them from the Nazis.
“Participating in this liberation trek was a very somber experience as Eva led the group down a rocky path that was still completely lined by electric barbed wire fencing that the Nazis had erected 65-plus years ago to imprison those they deemed racially inferior,” reflected Knickerbocker. “These historical remnants of imprisonment are eerie reminders of the evils of racism. It was also an inspirational pilgrimage as Eva emphasized the importance of not dwelling in the past, but looking ahead. She wants to be remembered not as a victim but as a survivor who had three very important life lessons to pass on: Never give up on yourself, never judge others unfairly, and always forgive those who have caused you personal harm.”
Knickerbocker said Kor’s eyewitness testimonials will be valuable teaching resources in her future Holocaust courses as they will greatly personalize her students’ readings of the two books Eva has written, “Echoes From Auschwitz: Dr. Mengele’s Twins: The story of Eva and Miriam Mozes” and “Surviving the Angel of Death: The True Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz.”
Knickerbocker contends that Kor is “an exceptional role model” who has many positive life lessons to tell that can motivate future community college students to do well personally and professionally.
“Seeing what an optimistic and upbeat person Eva is will give them hope and confidence that they, too, can overcome some of life’s adverse circumstances,” Knickerbocker said.
She particularly singled out Kor’s courage and tenacity in returning to Auschwitz five times in the past 10 years to educate as many people as she possibly can about the horrors of the Holocaust.
“Her message of forgiveness is inspiring,” said Knickerbocker. “I am certain my students will be awed by Eva’s committed effort to keep the memory of the Mengele Twins alive by establishing and maintaining the CANDLES Museum in Terre Haute, Ind., for the past 17 years.”
Knickerbocker is now planning to enrich and fortify her teaching curriculum in the course by incorporating the videotapes, personal narratives, and pictures she and other educators recorded and produced while touring in Auschwitz.
“This video documentation will help students gain a more empathetic understanding of the pain and suffering Eva and her family members experienced,” concluded Knickerbocker, “because they will be able to intimately see and hear her personal perspectives about what she experienced in Auschwitz.”