Thu, Sep 13, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Learning
to heal decades after Auschwitz

Her mother’s wisdom helped Edith Eger create a happy inner life in the camp, but true healing meant going back there

By Anna Moore  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Edith Eger was 16 years old, crammed into a cattle truck, human cargo from Hungary headed for Auschwitz, when her mother gave her the advice that shaped her life.

For most of the journey, her mother had not said much, had not cried or complained, but had instead gone inside herself.

“That night,” Eger said, “she turned to me and said: ‘Listen. We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Just remember, no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”

For the next year, Eger’s inner life — cherished memories, favorite recipes, future fantasies — sustained her, even saved her. After liberation, though, it turned against her.

Survivor’s guilt, buried memories and constant flashbacks held her hostage. A siren, a shouting man, a piece of barbed wire could hurl her back to 1944.

Ultimately, Eger’s mission to understand her mind and utilize its power led her to become an acclaimed psychologist specializing in trauma. Her mother’s words have formed her life’s work.

Now 90, smiling and immaculate in vivid turquoise, she talked to me from her light-filled home office in La Jolla, California. Her next patient was due in an hour.

“I do not believe in retirement,” she said in heavily accented English. “My patients are my teachers.”

Life now is good.

“I live in paradise with an ocean view from the front and a beautiful canyon view at the back,” she said. “I go dancing once a week. I live in the present and I think young. I’m kind of celebrating every moment.”

Eger’s book, The Choice, is an international bestseller and took 10 years to write. She began it after the birth of her first great-grandson, for her family to read.

“I was hoping it would be in their living rooms, and they’d see me as a good role model,” she said. “Its reception has been the biggest miracle of my life.”

However, transporting herself out of her “paradise” and back to hell was not easy.

“It was very difficult, but I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, because, you see, the opposite of depression is expression,” she said. “I was able to put it out there and cry and cry. With every page I lost 2,000 pounds of emotional weight.”

Eger’s story starts in Kosice, Hungary — now Slovakia — with her parents and two older sisters.

Her father, a tailor, was a lover of life. Her mother was more distant, prone to disappointment. One sister, Klara, a violin prodigy, studied in Budapest, where she managed to hide throughout the war. Another, Magda, was the “jokester,” the one with the attitude. Eger was the “invisible one.”

“I was a very erudite teenager,” she said. “I had my own book club and was reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Why? Because my mother told me: ‘I’m glad you have brains because you have no looks.’”

So an ordinary family, as imperfect as any other.

With the Nazi grip came yellow stars, curfews and evictions. Life tightened for Jewish families.

One night in April 1944, soldiers pounded on their door and took Eger, Magda and her parents to a brick factory where they lived for a month with 12,000 other Jews. Next was Auschwitz.

On arrival, Eger’s father was herded away with the men and her mother was also separated when the infamous “ Angel of Death,” Josef Mengele ordered anyone under 14 or over 40 to a different line.

“She’s just going to take a shower,” Mengele told Eger when she tried to follow her.

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