The Australian Women's Weekly
Dancing for my life
At 16, ballerina Edith Eger was forced to dance for the “Angel of Death”, Dr Mengele, a cruel act, but one that saved her life. Now 89, Edie is saving others by counselling victims of abuse. In an inspiring and emotional interview, she talks to Juliet Rie
Dr Edith Eger stands barefoot, scarlet polish on her toes, in chic black pants, a skivvy and a floaty aqua scarf. She looks trim and nimble as she elegantly sways and twirls and then, incredibly for someone who’s nearly 90, breaks into a high kick. Edie, once a ballerina and gymnast, is playing out the dance she was forced to perform for Dr Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death”, 73 years ago and which she recalls in her at once horrific and inspiring new memoir, The Choice.
She is in her living room in California, imagining Strauss’ The Blue Danube, which the “refined killer and lover of the arts” had an orchestra play outside her barracks in the women’s camp at Birkenau, as he commanded, “Little dancer, dance for me!”
Edie closed her eyes to block out her fear, one wrong step and she would be killed. Her pirouettes were perfect, her pointes exquisite and somehow she managed to recall how her ballet master had taught her to use her whole body, her arms, her hands and her fingers to look sensuous and alluring. The lascivious Mengele was in raptures as Edie culminated her dance with “a final graceful split” and he tossed her a loaf of bread which she shared with her fellow inmates, a gesture that later saved her life when those she fed pulled Edie from a line of Jews destined for the gas chambers.
On another occasion, Mengele took Edie naked from the shower and made her stand in front of him in his office, quivering and dripping with water as he scrutinised her body and moved towards her, undoing his buttons, no doubt intending to sexually assault her. “I just saw that look of his. It was slimy. Many fathers do that to their daughters. It’s called emotional incest,” she explains. “I knew nothing about sex, I had never even seen a naked man. I was scared to death.”
Edie was saved that day by a phone ringing and as Mengele left the room to answer the call, she fled.
Dr Josef Mengele was a terrifying figure in Edie’s world back then. She first met the infamous Nazi when she fell out of the train carriage she and her family were transported in from what was then Hungary (Edie’s mother tongue is Hungarian) to Auschwitz in Poland. That journey, with hundreds crowded into each carriage, “human cargo” only able to stand upright, leaning on each other and surrounded by human excrement, was Edie’s first clue of what was to come.
People died on the way as she, her parents and sister Magda forced
“I just saw that look of his. It was slimy. I was scared to death.”
themselves to stay positive. “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,” her mother, Ilona, counselled.
This was the last time she was to hear advice from her parents, for that morning, their fate was sealed. As they tumbled out of the train carriages, the dazed gaggle of terrified Jewish families faced “men in uniforms, barking directions”.
“The Nazis point and shove,” recalls Edie as she explains how, at first, women and men were separated. She and Magda clung to their mother in the women’s line and then she saw Dr Mengele for the first time, “his eyes so dominating, so cold”.
Those aged over 14 and under 40 were ordered into one line and the elderly, children and mothers holding babies into another. Edie didn’t want to leave her mum; she was petrified.
“I didn’t know who he [Mengele] was, but I followed my mum,” she tells me. “Then he grabbed me and said, ‘You’re going to see your mother very soon, she’s just going to take a shower’, and he threw me on the other side. That’s the last time I saw my mother. I asked one of the inmates, ‘When will I see my mother?’, and she pointed at the chimney with fire coming out and said, ‘Your mother is burning there, you’d better talk about her in the past tense’.”
I ask Edie what happened to her father, Lajos. “He was taken to the gas chamber the first day, too. Everybody over 40, under 14, every parent with a child automatically was sent to the gas chamber,” she says.
Edie’s parents had believed that Auschwitz was just a labour camp and had no idea they would be murdered there. The family was used to being persecuted. Long before the Nazis arrived, anti-Semitic feeling was rife in their country. So when they were told they must now stitch yellow stars of David onto their clothes for identification, they accepted it as part of their daily struggle. “We thought this is very temporary,” explains Edie, who was “a shy and very introverted teenager”, the youngest of three sisters. Klara, the eldest, a virtuoso violinist, was a child prodigy who played Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto when she was five and was in Budapest when the others were seized. Miraculously, she escaped the Nazis. Next was Magda, beautiful and vivacious, and then young Edie, the awkward, smart one with a wonky eye from a botched medical procedure. “My mother said, ‘I’m glad you have brains because you have no looks’,” says Edie, laughing. As she grew up, Edie also turned into a brilliant ballerina and gymnast.
Quickly, the world around them started to unravel, but the family still naively believed they would muddle through, as they always had. “I never really had any idea that there was such a thing as Auschwitz,” says Edie. “We knew the Polish people were taken somewhere, but we were safe and we thought that’s not going to happen to us. Then, in March 1944, when Hungary joined Hitler and they bombed my city, things changed.”
Edie and her boyfriend, Eric, had a plan. “He was a very ardent Zionist and we were going to get married and go to Palestine. He and I against the world,” she says. “We had a very deep, emotional intimacy. No sex or touching. He was a photographer and the photo of me doing the splits – one of the few photos I have from our childhood – he was the one who took it.”
Edie and Eric never managed to enact their plan, but throughout her terrifying 18 months as a prisoner, she clung on to their dream. Edie also clung on to sister Magda, each sustaining the other through hideous ordeals. Both faced death, time and time again. When the Americans finally liberated the sisters, Edie was discovered under a pile of dead bodies, so weak she could barely raise her hand. She was not just suffering severe malnutrition, her back was broken and she was riddled with fever and sores.
Yet joy was around the corner. The sisters’ reunion at their house in what was now Czechoslovakia was quite breathtaking. Magda and Edie arrived in Košice by train, not knowing if Klara was alive or dead. Then they saw her face on a poster for a violin concert. As they walked back to their childhood home, Klara opened the front door. “Can you believe that? There she was, waiting for us,” says Edie. “Unbelievable.”
What is even more unbelievable is how Edie managed to stay positive through such darkness. “I think inside me there is hope. I never gave up hope. I somehow acquired this kind of selftalk and I said to myself, if I survive today, then tomorrow I’m going to meet Eric,” she says. “So the first thing I did when I came home, I looked for Eric.”
Edie was in hospital being nursed back to health when she finally received
news about him. “I was told that he was shot a day before liberation.”
And this time, even she lost all hope. “I couldn’t breathe, I had five kinds of typhoid fever, I was in a cast for my back and I realised that my parents are not coming back, Eric is gone and I became very suicidal,” she says, quietly. “This is when I didn’t have any meaning in my life. I didn’t have any purpose and I just wanted to die.”
I ask Edie how she came back from that. She is now a qualified clinical psychologist who has used her experiences to understand and help others – including soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder – to overcome trauma. As we talk today, she analyses herself as she would one of her patients. “This was that existential vacuum I felt back then. It was not clinical depression, it was unresolved grief. I was grieving over the childhood, over the teenage years I never had,” she says.
Edie went on to marry a man,
Albert Béla Eger, whom she met in hospital. They eventually ended up in America and had three children of their own, but that sense of grief has been tough to shake, she admits. “When my first granddaughter was 16 and she asked me to buy her a dress so she can go to her dance, I bought her a beautiful dress and I came home and, out of the blue, I was crying. It took me quite a while to acknowledge that I was not crying because Lindsey was going to a dance. I was crying because I never went to a dance.”
As she approaches her 90th birthday, Edie says she is still evolving. “I always feel that I have yet to arrive. I learn every day and I live in the present.
But I never forget the past. I will never, ever overcome it. I’m reminded of it every time I turn around. But I don’t live there. It’s my cherished wound. It really keeps me looking at every morning, every day and deciding I cannot wait for someone to make me happy. It’s about what I can do to make the world a better place. Serving others, to me, gives me, every day, the reason to be the best me I can be. I’m very, very grateful for today.”
And as for Dr Mengele, Edie says even back in Auschwitz she didn’t hate him, she pitied him and prayed for him. “God, my God, somehow guided me to turn hatred into pity. I felt sorry for them all, prancing around in that uniform, and I decided that they are the prisoners, not me,” she says. “I created a world inside me that even though they could beat me and throw me in a gas chamber, they could never, ever murder my spirit. That’s what I do today, guide people to find their true self, their genuine self.”
“I learn every day and I live in the present. But I never forget the past. I will never, ever overcome it. But I don’t live there.”