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

Eger never saw either parent again.

Her survival in Auschwitz is partly testament to the power of her mind. On her first night, while she was adjusting to the inconceivable, Mengele entered her barracks looking for “new talent.”

He ordered Eger, a trained ballerina, to dance. Somehow, she closed her eyes and transformed the barracks into the Hungarian State Opera House. Somehow she earned a loaf of bread.

“In Auschwitz, we never knew from one moment to another what was going to happen,” Eger said. “I couldn’t fight or flee, but I learned how to stay in a situation and make the best of what is. I still had choices. So when we were stripped and shorn of our hair, Magda asked me, ‘How do I look?’ She looked like a mangy dog, but I told her: ‘Your eyes are so beautiful. I never noticed when you had all that hair.’”

“Every day, we could choose to pay attention to what we’d lost or what we still had,” she said.

After six months, as Americans and Russians advanced, the Nazis began to evacuate the camp, and the sisters were forced to join the “death march” across Europe.

When US soldiers finally lifted them from a pile of bodies in an Austrian forest, Eger had typhoid fever, pneumonia, pleurisy and a broken back.

Healing her body took time — but in a year she was married to Bela, whom she met in hospital.

He, too, had lost his family, but survived in the mountains, joining the partisan resistance.

“At that time, all we asked was: ‘How can we be normal? And ‘normal’ meant getting married,” Eger said.

On her honeymoon, she became pregnant — against the advice of doctors who believed her too weak. Her daughter, Marianne, was a healthy 4.5kg baby.

Yet mental recovery took far longer. Neither Eger nor Magda talked about what had happened — not to each other or anyone else. Denial was their shield.

“We felt that the more securely we locked it away, the safer we were,” she said.

Magda, Eger and her new family all emigrated to the US.

Thousands of kilometers separated Eger from her past, but the memories and trauma came with her.

In The Choice, Eger describes her flashbacks — her racing heart and narrowing vision — in visceral detail.

Once, in Baltimore, taking the bus to her factory job, Eger boarded the European way, taking her seat and awaiting a ticket collector. The driver yelled: “Pay or get off!” He got up and walked toward her. She fell cowering to the ground, crying and shaking.

Although Eger refused to speak of her past to her three children, her 10-year-old daughter Marianne found a history book with pictures of the skeletal corpses piled in a heap. She asked her mother what it was and Eger had to run from the room and vomit in the bathroom.

Settling in El Paso, Texas, Eger and her husband built a comfortable life. He qualified as an accountant and in her late 30s Eger began studying psychology at the University of Texas.

Slowly, cautiously, she started to talk about the Holocaust and examine her experience, intent on learning how we survive trauma and what transforms a “victim” into a “survivor.” She obtained a master’s degree and a doctorate, then earned her license to practice.

Specializing in post-traumatic stress — Eger objects to calling it a “disorder” as it is a common and natural response to trauma — Eger began working with the US military, but her true breakthrough came when she was 53 years old.

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