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History and memory serve as two of the core issues in Forgiving Dr. Mengele, a somewhat misleadingly titled documentary airing April 24 at 22:30 on YES Docu. Screened at a number of American film festivals this year and last, the program focuses on issues that go far beyond just Josef Mengele, the German doctor who conducted horrific experiments at Auschwitz and earned the moniker "Angel of Death" among the camp's brutalized inmates. Though never less than intriguing, the film's wide scope can at times be distracting, with some sections feeling underdeveloped and out of focus.
Forgiving Dr. Mengele takes its name from the controversial act of Eva Mozes Kor, a Transylvanian-born Auschwitz survivor who was deported to the camp with her family in 1944. A dark-eyed 10-year-old, Kor was separated from her parents immediately upon arrival at the camp. The entire Mozes family would die at Auschwitz with the exception of Kor and her sister Miriam, who were saved from the gas chambers because they were twins.
Films and books about the Nazis' "scientific" experiments always run the risk of giving in to the baser aspects of human curiosity, thereby exploiting the victims' suffering. Forgiving Dr. Mengele doesn't dwell on the inhuman tortures that took place at Auschwitz's research facilities, and while the experiments aren't really the subject of the film in any case, it's still to the credit of the filmmakers that they don't get ghoulishly sidetracked here as so many others would. For viewers, it should be enough simply to see brief clips of the emaciated twins who became a focus of Mengele's research, which was intended in part to determine how the Aryan super race might reproduce more efficiently, the idea being that blue-eyed blondes could more quickly replace the exterminated subhuman populations if they were born in pairs. (Mengele's implicit recognition that Jews were sufficiently similar to Germans to serve as their biological stand-ins has always seemed one of the more obvious contradictions in Nazi racial thinking.)
The Mozes sisters survived nearly a year of laboratory experiments before being liberated by the Soviet army. Eva nearly died several times during the course of the twins' incarceration, and recalls for the camera her "refusal" to die because she knew her own death would also mean an immediate death for her sister and subsequent side-by-side autopsies.
Mozes and her sister returned to Romania following the war, then immigrated to Israel in 1950. Ten years later, Eva Mozes married another Holocaust survivor and moved to Terra Haute, Indiana, where she raised a family, entered the real estate business and remained in close contact with her sister. When Miriam later developed medical problems resulting from the injections she'd received in Mengele's laboratory, Eva took a step that strengthened their biological bond even further. "I didn't let her die at Auschwitz," she says. "I couldn't let her die in Tel Aviv." Following a successful transplant surgery, the twins now shared a pair of kidneys.
As she recounts in the documentary, Miriam's mysterious medical problems inspired Eva to start an organization dedicated to finding Mengele's missing research files, which, she hoped, could be used to save surviving twins as the effects of his experiments began to appear.
The film also focuses on the debate that developed between Eva Mozes and other Mengele twins in the aftermath of her declaration on a return visit to Auschwitz that, "in my name only," she gave "amnesty" to former Nazis "because it's time to forgive and forget." Outraged fellow survivors criticized what one called her "betrayal" of their murdered families and communities, while Mozes herself saw the statement primarily as an "act of self-healing." Potentially compelling are scenes that involve a direct discussion of these issues between Mozes and another of Mengele's twins, but the debate's intellectual promise is undermined by the filmmakers' impatience to move on to other topics.
Among these is a problematic, rather superficial section on Mozes' visit to the West Bank during the second intifada, in which she explains her hesitancy to meet with Palestinian educators and is lectured on the suffering inflicted by Israeli-administered checkpoints. The documentary may have identified an interesting paradox in contrasting its subject's absolution of the Nazis and her inability to speak meaningfully with Palestinians, but the scene is unfocused and confusing. Who, exactly, is supposed to forgive who here, and for what? Are Palestinian hardships under occupation really being compared, even loosely, with Auschwitz? The segment is misconceived and poorly executed; while debates over suffering and forgiveness play a role in any conflict, this section of Forgiving Dr. Mengele is simply too ill-defined to add anything to the film.
It's a shame, because had it been longer and more focused, Forgiving Dr. Mengele might have provided a compelling starting point for discussions about whom, if anyone, has the right to forgive when so many victims have been silenced. The film isn't without merit in its current form, but it ultimately lingers only because of the unusual energy of its subject, not the philosophical questions her actions inspire.