Edith Eger: ‘In Auschwitz, I discovered they couldn’t murder my spirit’

The Holocaust survivor shared her life’s wisdom at The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival

 Edith Eger: “I’m not a victim. I was victimised. It’s not who I am, It was what was done to me.”

Edith Eger: “I’m not a victim. I was victimised. It’s not who I am, It was what was done to me.”

 

“I learned a great deal in Auschwitz. I discovered my inner resources and that they couldn’t murder my spirit,” said Edith Eger, Holocaust survivor and California-based psychologist who treats people with post-traumatic stress disorders.

The 93-year-old Hungarian-born author of the bestselling memoir, Choice (2017) and The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save your life (2020), was in conversation with Irish Times writer and columnist Róisín Ingle on Tuesday as part of The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival, which runs every evening until Friday, January 29th.

Edith Eger and Irish Times writer and columnist Róisín Ingle during The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival on Tuesday
Edith Eger and Irish Times writer and columnist Róisín Ingle during The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival on Tuesday

In a heart-warming and upbeat chat, Eger shared her wisdom from 40 years of working as a therapist while also speaking about how she and her older sister Magda survived the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz during the second World War where her parents were killed.

She spoke about how she was asked to dance for Dr Josef Mengele, the German officer and physician who selected victims to be killed in the gas chambers.

“It was very scary. I was shaking but I pretended the music was Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and that I was in the Budapest Opera House. I ‘checked out’ and years later when I met Viktor Frankel [Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor] he told me how he ‘checked out’ too when he was in Auschwitz.”

And she spoke about how for years she tried to find the American soldier who pulled her hand from a pile of dead bodies in May, 1945.

“I couldn’t find that man but I did find a man from the 71st infantry that liberated me and he told me that he never saw anything so terrible in his life.”

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In 1990, Eger returned to Auschwitz to free herself of “the guilt and shame” and assign it to the perpetrators, to go through that rage to reclaim her innocence. “Anger is very important. You don’t cover garlic with chocolate. But it’s not what happens, it’s what you do with it,” she said.

Eger said that “you can’t heal what you don’t feel” and that going back to Auschwitz was very important for her. “I went through the valley of the shadow of death but I didn’t camp there,” she said.

Holocaust survivor Edith Eger during The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival on Tuesday
Holocaust survivor Edith Eger during The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival on Tuesday

Eger also spoke about how forgiveness is a very important journey. “Forgiveness is a gift that I gave to myself and not only did I survive but can guide others, so I’m doubled blessed.”

She joked about how she isn’t a “shrink” but a “stretch” and that how every day, we should do something we have previously avoided and be curious.

Eger said that every situation has a gift in it. “You can choose to be miserable or happy . . .You can’t change the past but you can choose to be free and escape the concentration camp of your own mind,” she said.

Answering a question from a 12-year-old listener who asked what one change would she make to society, she said, “Ask yourself is this the best I can do? And find a balance between the working, loving and playing and don’t forget the playing.”

And in closing, she said that she wanted to tell young people to be ambassadors for peace and goodwill. “I’m counting on you to make the world better,” she said.  

Festival tickets

The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival runs until Friday, January 29th. Upcoming guests include: MEP Mairéad McGuinness; Irish-Nigerian author, academic and broadcaster Emma Dabiri; Comedian Dara Ó’Briain; Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon; Taoiseach Micheál Martin; professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin Luke O’Neill; 16-year-old award-winning author Dara McAnulty; actor Gabriel Byrne and Washington-based CNN commentator John King.

A single price of €50 admits ticket holders to all events at the festival. Our Digital Subscribers can purchase tickets at the discounted price of €25 – just make sure you are signed in and follow the link below. The discount will be automatically applied.

Ticket buyers receive a link by email allowing them to attend the events each evenings via their phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer.

For more details see irishtimes.com/winter-nights. Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. See also: Oliver Sears: Why I am setting up a Holocaust awareness organisation in Ireland

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