From the Flames

updated 12/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

Eva Mozes Kor has experienced firsthand the cruelty that human beings can visit upon one another. The child of Romanian Jewish farmers, she was sent to Auschwitz during World War II. Separated from the rest of the family, both she and her twin sister, Miriam, then 10, were used as human guinea pigs in medical experiments conducted by the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele. "The Nazis made me feel like I was nothing more than a mass of cells, apiece of meat," she says.

Kor, 69, lived through the ordeal and eventually started a new life in America with her husband, Michael, 75, a retired pharmacist and fellow Holocaust survivor. But on Nov. 18 she became a victim again when, around midnight, an arsonist set fire to the Terre Haute, Ind., museum she had painstakingly built in memory of Miriam, who endured Nazi torture by her side but succumbed to cancer at 59. "It's terrible, absolutely terrible," says Kor as she sifts through the rubble of Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors, the nation's only museum dedicated to the children used in Nazi medical experiments. "I came back looking for bits and pieces, but there's not much left."

Except for Kor's extraordinary will to keep the past alive. It took just minutes for the blaze to destroy hundreds of posters, photos, memoirs and even human bones that Kor had collected through donations and on several trips to Europe, financed with her earnings as a real estate agent. Someone, possibly the arsonist, even spray-painted "Remember Timmy McVeigh" on an outside wall—an apparent homage to the bomber who destroyed an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people. But Kor remains unbowed. "Will I give up? No," she says, "and I don't want the world to give up either."

So far the people of the town she has called home since 1960 seem to be behind her. Hundreds of well-wishers turned out for two vigils to support the museum, which had been visited by about 40,000 people since it opened in 1995. "Eva has made such an impact on young students' lives," says Terre Haute North High School history teacher Linda Lambert, who brought her classes to the museum every year. "They didn't live it. They have parents who don't talk about it. But when they go to the Holocaust Museum, it's a life-changing experience."

Although Kor had no training as a curator when she opened C.A.N.D.L.E.S., she has long been an expert at telling her own story. More than a million people, mostly Jews, died at Auschwitz, but Eva and her sister, along with dozens of other sets of twins, were kept barely alive to take part in Mengele's experiments (see box). Three times a week Eva and Miriam were stripped, measured and injected with various chemicals, including one that left Kor near death. Mengele stopped at her bed at the camp hospital and told a doctor she wouldn't last more than a few weeks. "I made a silent pledge that I would prove him wrong," says Kor.

Both Eva and Miriam survived on bread, coffee and stolen potatoes until Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets Jan. 27,1945. They remained close even after Eva married Michael, a native of Latvia who had settled in Indiana. Two years after Miriam died in 1993 of renal cancer—a disease Kor suspects was brought on by Mengele's injections—Kor bought half-ownership of a building and created C.A.N.D.L.E.S.

Police have named no suspects in the Terre Haute arson case, although a man described by investigators as an alleged political extremist, Joseph Stockett, 57, has been arrested on a gun charge unrelated to the investigation but is considered a "person of interest." Starting from scratch once again, Kor insists she is not overly discouraged, not after what she went through before. "When firemen were putting out the flames [a TV reporter] asked me, 'How do you feel?'" she says. "I said, 'I've had better days—but I've had worse.'"

By Bob Meadows. Lorna Grisby in Terre Haute

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