Auschwitz survivor Edith Eger: What I know about life

Dr Edith Eger, who is coming to Ireland, shares her experiences and some life lessons

Dr Edith Eger: “Like in the Bible, we walk through the valley of the shadow of death but we don’t camp there or set up home there.”

Dr Edith Eger: “Like in the Bible, we walk through the valley of the shadow of death but we don’t camp there or set up home there.”

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Later this month, Auschwitz survivor Dr Edith Eger will arrive in Ireland for the first time to speak at the international Safe World Summit on gender equality and ending gender-based violence. The 91-year-old psychologist’s best-selling memoir The Choice recounts her time in the concentration camp and her struggle to be free of the survivor’s guilt and shame that followed her as she made a life in America.

She arrived at the camp in May 1944, one of more than 10,000 Jewish people from her hometown of Kosice, Hungary, who were rounded up by the Nazis.

Eger went on to become a psychologist and for the past several decades has worked in America with people struggling to overcome traumatic events in their lives – from violent relationships and child sexual abuse to post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. She lives in La Jolla, California, where she still practises psychology.

In advance of her visit, she shares her life experiences and some lessons she has learned:

I had a lot of survivor’s guilt and shame from my time in Auschwitz 
I travelled there from Hungary with my father, my mother and my older sister Magda. At Auschwitz, I stood in front of Dr Josef Mengele, the Nazi’s ‘angel of death’. He pointed my mum to go the left and said I should go to the right. I followed my mother and Mengele stopped me and said “you are going to see your mother very soon” and threw me over the other side, which meant life.

Looking after yourself is not narcissistic. We need to educate women and girls that they are not defined by a relationship

My mother and father were executed that day in the gas chambers. A woman pointed at a smoking chimney and told me I’d better start talking about my mother in the past tense.

On our way to Auschwitz, my mum had held me and told me, “we don’t know where we are going, we don’t know what is going to happen but nobody can take away from you what you put up here, in your own mind”. This helped me to survive the worst of times at the camp. I put thoughts in my mind that would help me survive. I would think, “if I can survive today, then tomorrow I will be free”.

I needed to return to Auschwitz to complete my healing
I started studying psychology in America after years of burying and denying my experience in the camp. I knew I needed to come face-to-face with my oppressor. When I told my sister I wanted to return to Auschwitz, she said I was an idiot and a masochist.

We went through the same experience but we had different approaches to healing. Everybody has to find their own way. I knew I was not able to have joy and compassion until I returned to Auschwitz, until I went back to the lion’s den and looked at the lion in the face. I needed to reclaim my innocence and assign the shame and guilt to the perpetrators. That’s what going back to the camp did for me. Forgiveness has given me the ultimate spiritual freedom.

The main gates into Auschwitz with 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work Sets You Free) above Photograph: iStock
The main gates into Auschwitz with 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work Sets You Free) above Photograph: iStock

People need to understand the importance of self-care
Looking after yourself is not narcissistic. We need to take charge of our own contentment. It is very dangerous if you put your whole life in somebody else’s hands.

Women I have worked with who are in domestic violence situations, they tell me they believe that they are nothing without the man. One woman I worked with said she had put her whole life into her husband’s hands – even though he abused her she still believed that she was nothing without him.

We need to educate women and girls that they are not defined by a relationship. You are not just “somebody” when you are in a relationship despite what society and Hollywood has preached.

Pre-marital therapy is something I work on a lot with people
Couples come to me and we talk about sex but we also talk about a lot of things that aren’t very sexy: communication, anger, what are the deal-breakers in the relationship? I write all of them down and the couple sign on the dotted line. We talk about what will happen if the pre-marital contract is not honoured. I like to talk about consequences, not punishment.

I love swing-dancing – I was liberated by the American GIs on May 4th, 1945, and that was the music of the time

It is possible to move on from trauma
With my clients, I hold their hands and together we visit all the places they’ve been. Together, we examine all the traumatic events that have happened to them. Like in the Bible, we walk through the valley of the shadow of death but we don’t camp there or set up home there. We move from victimisation to empowerment, from darkness to light.

I tell them whatever happened, you made it. You could have killed yourself. I became very suicidal after I was liberated. The reality hit me that my parents were not coming back. I would get up in the morning and say “what for?” I had nothing and I wanted to die. But we can choose to become bitter in our grief and fear. Or we can choose to hold on to the childlike part of us, the curious part, the part that is innocent and joyful.

The freight wagon which stands in the centre of the camp. Its an example of those used to carry people from across Europe in trains to the camp. Photograph: iStock
The freight wagon which stands in the camp yard. Its an example of those used in trains which took people from across Europe to Auschwitz, often looked in for weeks at a time with little provisions. Photograph: iStock

I’ve learnt not to look for happiness, because that is external
You were born with love and you were born with joy. That’s inside. It’s always there. That’s what I learnt at Auschwitz, how can you find joy within you. These are the happiest days of my life. I work every day, I see my patients and I talk about choices. Everybody can choose to be a victim or a survivor

People are always asking me the secret to long life 
I turned 91 in September and one of my secrets is that I go swing-dancing every week. I hope to go dancing this Sunday. I love swing-dancing – I was liberated by the American GIs on May 4th, 1945, and that was the music of the time. If you want to turn me on, give me a big band, give me Glenn Miller. I don’t care if you call it elevator or supermarket music. The rocking and rolling is not for me – I have my music and you have yours. We can work together beautifully.

The Safe World Summit organised by Safe Ireland will bring together more than 35 world activists, advocates, lawyers, scientists, journalists, writers, artists and survivors. It takes place on October 22nd and 23rd in The Round Room at the Mansion House, Dublin. Dr Edith Eger will join speakers including Egyptian feminist activist Mona Eltahawy, Ailbhe Smyth of Together For Yes and former adviser to the White House on violence against women Lynn Rosenthal. For tickets and more details visit safeireland.ie

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