Cry­ing is heal­ing

Edith Eger once danced at Josef Men­gele’s or­ders; now, at 90, she still boo­gies.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Diana Wich­tel

Edith Eger once danced at Josef Men­gele’s or­ders; now, at 90, she still boo­gies.

Edith Eger, em­i­nent ­psy­chol­o­gist and sur­vivor of Auschwitz, has a spe­cial place in her heart for New Zealand. “I was there in 1985 when I was the guest of Prime Min­is­ter [David] Lange. They were ­cel­e­brat­ing the 40th an­niver­sary of lib­er­a­tion and hon­our­ing the peo­ple who risked their lives to save oth­ers.” It was a solemn oc­ca­sion but she and the PM hit it off. “Peo­ple asked me later if we were talk­ing about the nu­clear bombs and so on,” she says in her mu­si­cal Hun­gar­ian ac­cent down the line from ­Cal­i­for­nia, “and I said, ‘No, we talked about how to lose weight.’” Peals of ­laugh­ter. “Be­cause he was in­ter­ested.”

Eger is about to turn 90 when we speak and she takes some keep­ing up with. “I go back and forth and here and there,” she says, of her free-range ­speak­ing style. “Peo­ple try to take notes. I say, ‘Please don’t take notes.’ Stream of con­scious­ness.”

It’s easy to imag­ine un­bur­den­ing ­your­self to her. “I don’t like to call my­self a ther­a­pist,” she says. “I like the idea of dance, that you hold some­one’s hand.” I tell her that her new book The Choice, a vivid, valiant ac­count of her life and her work help­ing oth­ers, made me cry. “Well, you know, cry­ing is heal­ing. Some­times peo­ple tell me, ‘Edie, I hate you, be­cause you made me cry’, and I say, ‘There is no way I can make you cry. I just bring on feel­ings in you that were there al­ready. That’s why the op­po­site of ex­pres­sion is de­pres­sion. You can’t heal what you don’t feel. I have a lot of one-lin­ers.” There are a lot of tears in her book, she says. “Buck­ets, buck­ets.”

Eger, born Edith Ele­fant, was 16 and a tal­ented dancer and gym­nast in Kassa in Hun­gary (now Košice in Slo­vakia) when the Nazis in­vaded in March 1944. For the

crime of be­ing Jewish, she lost her place on an Olympics train­ing team and in

May of that year she, her par­ents and her sis­ter Magda were de­ported to ­Auschwitz. An­other sis­ter, Klara, a vi­o­lin­ist, es­caped – “she was saved by her Christian ­pro­fes­sor,” Eger re­calls.

On ar­rival at Auschwitz, the men and women were sep­a­rated, then ­she and her sis­ter were pushed to the right, their mother to the left. At the bar­racks she asked an­other girl about her mother. “She points to the smoke ris­ing up from one of the chim­neys in the dis­tance,” writes Eger. “‘Your mother is burn­ing in there,’ she says.”

Edith was made to dance for the ­in­fa­mous Dr Josef Men­gele while he de­cided the fate of the group of girls she was with. She closed her eyes and trans­ported her­self to the opera house in Bu­dapest, danc­ing Romeo and Juliet. It’s that sort of act of imag­i­na­tion and will that she cred­its with help­ing her sur­vive.

“Sur­vivors have to be very quick de­ci­sion­mak­ers. You couldn’t con­tem­plate your navel. “

“When I saw those eyes, his look, I was to­tally in­tim­i­dated. I didn’t know whether I was go­ing to move and be the next in the gas cham­ber. I made up my mind – I don’t know how that came to me, at the age of 16 – but I [thought], ‘They are the pris­on­ers, not me.’ Be­cause I be­lieved that they had a con­science – huh! – and that they were go­ing to pay for what they were do­ing, wear­ing that uni­form.”

She was se­verely beaten. She was in a world, she says, where it would have been eas­ier to die than to live. “This has been doc­u­mented and I saw it with my own eyes. Peo­ple at­tacked the guard and they were shot. Or they ran into the barbed wire and they got elec­tro­cuted. I saw the blue bod­ies.”

She tried to live. “They could tor­ture me and they could beat me, but they could never mur­der my spirit. If I sur­vive to­day, then to­mor­row I’m go­ing to see my ­boyfriend who told me that I have ­beau­ti­ful eyes and beau­ti­ful hands.”

She would even­tu­ally find out that her ­boyfriend had died the day be­fore lib­er­a­tion. “But that kept me alive, that some­how I’m go­ing to make it. That this is just tem­po­rary and that I can sur­vive it.”

Cen­tral to sur­vival was stay­ing with her sis­ter. One day they were lined up, wait­ing to be tat­tooed. “I was told they don’t want to waste the ink on me be­cause I’m go­ing to the gas cham­ber.” In the chaos, Magda was pushed into an­other line. “You see, sur­vivors have to be very quick de­ci­sion­mak­ers. You couldn’t con­tem­plate on your navel. So I got the at­ten­tion of the Nazi and I started to do cart­wheels so Magda could run and we could be to­gether.”

In the spring of 1945, Edith and her sis­ter and other pris­on­ers were moved from camp to camp, end­ing in a death march. The sis­ters ended up at Gun­skirchen, a sub-camp of Mau­thausenGusen con­cen­tra­tion camp in Aus­tria. There she was found, barely alive, in a pile of corpses, when an Amer­i­can sol­dier from the 71st In­fantry saw her hand move.

“I call it the saints came march­ing in. The sol­diers kept com­ing in and I saw this guy with tears in his eyes and M&Ms in his hand. I had my sis­ter and we made it, mirac­u­lously.”

Decades later, her work with post­trau­matic stress disor­der took her to Fort Car­son, Colorado. “I dis­cov­ered it was the home of the 71st In­fantry that gave me a sec­ond chance in life. See how things come around? Isn’t that amaz­ing? There is hope in hope­less­ness.”

Af­ter the war, Edith met and mar­ried for­mer par­ti­san Béla Eger. They em­i­grated to Amer­ica with their first daugh­ter in 1949, had two more chil­dren and she went back to school and be­came a ­psy­chol­o­gist. Béla Eger died in 1993.

Eger’s book, The Choice, also charts her work with pa­tients, from a cata­tonic army cap­tain who ar­rived with a loaded gun – she takes him for a walk with her dog – to par­ents who have lost a child to sui­cide. “How can I be use­ful to you?” she asks. They are use­ful to her, too, help­ing her con­front her own wounds.

In 1990, she went back to Poland, to the site of Auschwitz. “I told my sis­ter and she told me I’m a com­plete id­iot,” says Eger. “I’m a masochist. What’s the mat­ter with me, didn’t I have enough?

“But her needs and my needs were very dif­fer­ent. I had sur­vivor’s guilt and if that wasn’t bad enough, I had tremen­dous sur­vivor’s shame. I could never for­give my­self un­til I went back and re­vis­ited Auschwitz.”

There’s a quiet, shat­ter­ing mo­ment in The Choice that re­calls what she went back to con­front: the fear that with the wrong choice of word – she is asked by Men­gele if the woman with her is her mother or her sis­ter – she might have doomed her mother. “I could not for­give my­self, think­ing if I would have said ‘sis­ter’ then maybe my mother would have made it.”

At Auschwitz, she de­cided that there’s still a choice to be made in the present: “To for­give my flaws and re­claim my in­no­cence. To stop ask­ing why I de­served to sur­vive,” she writes. There’s no ­chang­ing what hap­pened, “but there is a life I can save. It is mine. The one I am

liv­ing right now, this pre­cious mo­ment.”

Eger writes of an­other mo­ment years later, when her sis­ter Klara said to her, “If I had been there, our mother would have made it.” How did she re­spond to what must have been a dev­as­tat­ing re­proach? “You know, I just hugged her and kept her feel­ings com­pany. I didn’t deny her truth. That was the truth for her and I just held her. I thought words would just get in the way. Be­cause I didn’t know what could have been. But I know that I can­not change the past.”

For Eger, go­ing back brought heal­ing. “Go through the val­ley of the shadow of death, but don’t set up house there,” is one of her use­ful one-lin­ers. “I refuse to be a vic­tim,” she said. “I was vic­timised. It’s not who I am. It was what was done to me.”

For years, Eger wouldn’t speak about what hap­pened dur­ing the war. Then she read the clas­sic mem­oir by ­Aus­trian psy­chi­a­trist and Holo­caust sur­vivor Vik­tor Frankl, Man’s Search for Mean­ing.

“Without Vik­tor Frankl, I maybe would still keep my secret. I didn’t want peo­ple to look at me with pity so I went un­der­ground. He was just mag­nif­i­cent, guid­ing us to find mean­ing in suf­fer­ing.”

You can see why they be­came close friends. Frankl wrote, “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.”

But aren’t some peo­ple so hurt, some sit­u­a­tions so im­pos­si­ble, that choice no longer re­ally ex­ists? “I think that some peo­ple are more stub­born and change is very, very dif­fi­cult be­cause you’ve got to be to­tally hon­est with your­self. What are you will­ing to let go of? What are you hold­ing on to?”

Peo­ple evolve self-de­struc­tive strate­gies such as try­ing to look for other peo­ple’s ap­proval, try­ing to please ev­ery­one or do ev­ery­thing right, which can never hap­pen. The an­swer, she says, is “to re­ally, truly prac­tise self-love, which is self-care, which is not nar­cis­sis­tic. Nar­cis­sis­tic peo­ple don’t like them­selves.”

Lib­er­a­tion came, but for Eger, free­dom took a lot longer. “We were lib­er­ated May 4 and I wit­nessed how peo­ple would go through the gate – I’m pic­tur­ing it now as I talk to you – and then pretty soon they would come back.” In hos­pi­tal, she be­came sui­ci­dal. “I had no mean­ing in my life. There is noth­ing. My par­ents are not com­ing home. I did not go from one day to the next, ‘now I’m free’. I think it’s a life’s work to truly em­brace my­self.”

She had flash­backs and re­mains ­sen­si­tive to loud noises. “Even now I’m re­ally afraid of an­gry men. I don’t know what they are go­ing to do next. Peo­ple tell me, ‘Edie, you got over it,’ and I say, ‘No, I never got over it and I’m never go­ing to for­get it.’ But some­how I came to terms with that,” she says. “Worry is in the fu­ture and guilt is in the past. So I am very much in the present.”

The present still in­volves some ­im­pres­sive acts of will. “The doc­tor tells me, ‘What drugs are you on?’ And I say, ‘Zero’, and they can’t be­lieve it. I do ­ev­ery­thing I can not to reach out for the pain pill.” She has a busy clin­i­cal prac­tice. She of­fers, should I ever come to La Jolla, to show me how to cook Hun­gar­ian.

Eger still fin­ishes talks and speeches with a dancer’s high kick, “but not as high as I would like it to. And I go ev­ery Sun­day with my boyfriend and we do the boo­gie-woo­gie and the swing danc­ing.

The chil­dren call it su­per­mar­ket mu­sic. It’s okay. My mu­sic is my mu­sic.”

Her sis­ter Magda is 95. “I just spoke to her a minute ago. She’s a Life Mas­ter in bridge and that keeps her alive. She even played with Omar Sharif.”

And now there is her book. I won­der if she will find it ex­pos­ing. “I like that thing, ex­pos­ing,” she says, “be­cause, yes, I am in my naked­ness. I can get mad and sad and feel any feel­ings and still ac­cept my­self as no more and no less than be­ing hu­man.”

It must have been hard, writ­ing about the past. “I de­cided that maybe that’s how I could hon­our my pre­cious par­ents. I am go­ing to be in a book­store here, War­wick’s, and I know that I’m go­ing to cry be­cause it ain’t over, you know.”

She will, no doubt, do it in her own way – don’t take notes – and fin­ish with her dancer’s high kick. Her mu­sic is her mu­sic.

THE CHOICE, by Edith Eger (Rider, Pen­guin Ran­dom House, $35).

Edith in 1956.

1. Edith and Béla. 2. The Ele­fant fam­ily in Cze­choslo­vakia in 1928, from left, He­len, Edith, Magda, Klara and Lud­wig. 3. Edith at 16. 4. Edith and Béla with baby Mar­i­anne in 1947.

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