Edith Eger | 'I have a joy that is within me that I cherish so much'

Edith Eger | 'I have a joy that is within me that I cherish so much'

From Anne Frank to Primo Levi, there are many Holocaust survival memoirs, and each is a tale that must be told. What makes The Choice (Rider, September) by 89-year-old Edith Eger particularly remarkable is that living to write of the horrors of Auschwitz constitutes only the first part of her story.

An internationally acclaimed psychologist, Eger also relates how she found the steel and the spirit not only to recover from her own terrible experience, but to use the life wisdom she gained in so doing to help other victims of trauma. In The Choice she writes: “What happened can never be forgotten and can never be changed. But over time I have learned that I can choose how to respond to the past. I can be miserable or I can be hopeful - I can be depressed or I can be happy. We always have that choice, that opportunity for control... Suffering is universal. Victimhood is optional.”

Speaking to me down the line from her home in La Jolla, California, Eger’s Eastern European accent is still clearly discernible. Why has she chosen to write this book now? “That’s a wonderful question! Something inside me said: ‘If not now, when?’ It was something that I just had to do. It wasn’t easy. But look at your birth certificate. Does it say life is easy?”

Eger was born in 1927 into a Jewish family in the Slovakian city of Košice, which at the time was Hungarian territory. In her teens, she was a talented ballet dancer and gymnast who had begun training for a future Olympic Games. Her ballet teacher told her. “All your ecstasy in life will come from inside.” But when the shadow of Nazism fell over Eastern Europe, Eger was no longer permitted to train with the team. In 1943, she and her parents and sister Magda were deported to Auschwitz. When they arrived, the sisters were separated, first from their father, and then, at the direction of Dr Josef Mengele, the infamous Angel of Death, from their mother. “You’re going to see your mother very soon,” he told them. “She’s just going to take a shower.” The moment that Eger last saw her mother has haunted her ever since. It was the most difficult moment to write about, seven decades later. “I still have flashbacks, I still have nightmares,” she tells me.

That evening, Mengele trawled the barracks looking for talented inmates to entertain him. Eger was forced to dance. Her performance pleased him, and he tossed her a loaf of bread. The first half of The Choice tells the heart-in-mouth story of how Edith and Magda not only survived Auschwitz, but later, half-starved and broken in body, endured enforced SS marches across central Europe as the war entered its final months. After the war ended, the sisters managed to find their way back to the family home in Košice. Discovering that her first love, Eric, had also been murdered in Auschwitz, Eger considered taking her own life. Reflecting on this time, she writes: “We’re free from the death camps, but we must also be free - free to create, to make a life, to choose. And until we find our freedom, we’re just spinning around in the same endless darkness.”

After she recovered her physical health, Eger married, and in the late 1940s emigrated to the US with her husband Béla and infant daughter. At first, immigrant life was a hand-to-mouth struggle - “I came to America penniless, and I didn’t speak a word of English” - but eventually they had two more children and found their feet in the New World. “I just wanted to be like you: I wanted to speak English without an accent. I wanted to be a Yankee Doodle Dandy. I wanted to assimilate,” she tells me. It was Béla who finally told their eldest daughter in the 1950s that her mother was a Holocaust survivor, because Eger had kept her past hidden. Of this moment, she writes: “I don’t trust myself. If I say a word about the past, I will stoke the rage and the loss. I will fall into the dark, I will take her there with me.” It was then that she realised that she was still incarcerated by her past.

Turning point

And then, in the 1960s, came the turning point. In the course of studying for a psychology degree, Eger was given a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, also a survivor of Auschwitz. At the heart of his teaching is this simple statement: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Of the transformative power of reading those words, Eger says: “It was a tremendous wake-up call for me to reclaim myself, my one-of-a-kindness, my authentic self. It was like a rebirth. I knew I had to go back to try and understand.”

Eger in her younger days.

This realisation that life is choice changed Eger’s life. She underwent therapy, found a vocation in teaching, and eventually gained a PhD in clinical psychology. In The Choice she relates some riveting case histories of patients she has helped to heal through what she calls Choice Therapy, although she insists: “I really don’t like to call myself a therapist: I see myself as a guide.” They include a paraplegic Vietnam veteran who shouts “Fuck America” in rage; a young girl who is starving herself to death; a woman angered by her cancer diagnosis. And a 14-year-old juvenile delinquent, sent to her by a judge, who leans his elbows on her desk and says: “It’s time for America to be white again. I’m going to kill all the Jews.”

Transformative trip

In 1980, Eger chose to return to Auschwitz “to perform the rite of grief that has eluded me all my life”. Magda refused to accompany her. “She told me that I’m an idiot, I’m masochist, what’s the matter with me? We went through the same experience, but we have two very different responses.” At Auschwitz once more, Eger imagined finding the words that might have saved her mother from the gas chamber. She felt the regret, wishing she could have changed things. It dawned on her “how easily the life we didn’t live becomes the only life we prize”.

Talking to Eger is a light-filled experience. “I have a beautiful ocean view in the front, and a canyon view in the back. And I am on top of the world in paradise,” she extols. “There is Hungarian goulash in my refrigerator and my daughter just arrived from New York, with Hungarian salami and a strudel with poppy seeds. She knows that when I call, my first question is: what did you eat for dinner, and what did you have for breakfast?

“I hold someone’s precious hand and we go on that journey from victimisation to empowerment,” is how she sums up her work. I myself have been to Auschwitz and it still haunts even my tourist’s memory. But for Eger, those loathsome words displayed above its main gate - “arbeit macht frei” - have come to hold an extraordinary truth.

Remembering her ballet master’s words long ago, Eger says: “Today, I have a joy that is within me that I cherish so much, because I don’t have to wait for anything to come from the outside. I’m approaching 90 and I feel younger now than I did many, many years ago. I have three children, five grandchildren and three great-grandsons, and that is the best revenge to Hitler.”