She is a 91-year-old Holo­caust sur­vivor, yet Edith Eger had em­pa­thy for the Pitts­burgh gun­man, she tells Ben Hoyle.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - SURVIVORS -

Board­ing her flight from Lon­don to Cal­i­for­nia, Dr Edith Eger was on top of the world. At 91, the world-renowned psy­chol­o­gist, Holo­caust sur­vivor, keen swing dancer, Jeop­ardy fan, in­spi­ra­tional speaker and best­selling author had just be­come a vi­ral sen­sa­tion in Bri­tain. A pair of mag­netic ap­pear­ances on the BBC’s Break­fast and Woman’s Hour, dur­ing which she shared com­pas­sion­ate, up­lift­ing in­sights mined from the hor­rors she en­dured in Auschwitz as a girl, led to her trend­ing on so­cial me­dia and sent her ex­tra­or­di­nary mem­oir, The Choice, rac­ing to the top of the book charts.

Along with her three chil­dren, five grand­chil­dren and three great-grand­sons, it was the sort of suc­cess that con­sti­tuted “the best re­venge to Hitler” that she can think of, she says. The buzz lasted un­til she landed.

Ear­lier that same Satur­day a man shout­ing an­ti­semitic slurs and armed with a mil­i­tarystyle AR-15 as­sault ri­fle and three hand­guns had burst into the Tree of Life Con­gre­ga­tion syn­a­gogue in an af­flu­ent Jewish com­mu­nity in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia, and mur­dered 11 wor­ship­pers. It was the dead­li­est at­tack on Jewish peo­ple in Amer­i­can his­tory and Eger, like mil­lions around the world, was left “to­tally heart­bro­ken”.

Now, sunk into a large, cream L-shaped sofa in her hill­top home in La Jolla, near San Diego, she looks frail and tiny in black trousers and top, plus a colour­ful Es­cada scarf and chunky gold jew­ellery and san­dals. Yet there is no mis­tak­ing the zest for life in her an­i­mated face.

In his fore­word to The Choice, Philip Zim­bardo, the psy­chol­o­gist who cre­ated the fa­mous Stan­ford prison ex­per­i­ment, writes that when Eger first lec­tured his stu­dents, she laced her har­row­ing sto­ries of the Nazi death camps with “a pres­ence and warmth I can only de­scribe as pure light”.

To­day, she sits fac­ing a sculp­ture of a bal­let dancer and a cor­ner win­dow that re­veals a view of the Cal­i­for­nian coast. In the dis­tance the set­ting sun picks out a Mor­mon tem­ple. There is also a Catholic church, a Pres­by­te­rian church and a Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses hall.

“I am sur­rounded with all re­li­gions,” she

can’t be a ter­ri­ble place.” Mo­ments later he was steered into a line for men. She never saw him again.

She, her sis­ter and their mother then found them­selves in an­other line face to face with Dr Josef Men­gele, later known as the An­gel of Death. He pointed their mother to one line and when Edith tried to fol­low he grabbed her and pushed her and Magda in an­other di­rec­tion. “You’re go­ing to see your mother very soon,” he said, look­ing hard at her. “She’s just go­ing to take a shower.”

This scene re­vis­ited Eger in her night­mares dur­ing re­cent months when the White House or­dered im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials to sep­a­rate chil­dren from their par­ents at the Mex­i­can bor­der. “I am very vis­ual. I see my­self ac­tu­ally fol­low­ing my mother.” The night­mares re­in­forced the grim “ab­sur­dity” that “the very man who an­ni­hi­lated my fam­ily saved my life. He could have left me go­ing with my mother.”

In­stead she was led to a dif­fer­ent part of the camp where she asked a vet­eran in­mate when she would see

Even so, her life felt filled with prom­ise as she set about try­ing to “blend in” and be­come a “Yan­kee Doo­dle Dandy”. What she did not know then was “that night­mares know no geog­ra­phy, that guilt and anx­i­ety wan­der bor­der­less”. She told no one about her wartime suf­fer­ing. It would be decades be­fore she faced down her mem­o­ries, re­turned to Auschwitz and found her pro­fes­sional call­ing as a psy­chol­o­gist able to draw on her pain to help com­bat veter­ans and oth­ers who have been ex­posed to trauma.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion that helped the Egers on their ar­rival in Amer­ica was HIAS, a 130-year-old Jewish char­ity that works to pro­tect and re­set­tle refugees. Last week­end, hours be­fore the Pitts­burgh syn­a­gogue at­tack, the 46-year-old white man who has been charged with the mur­ders posted on­line that it “likes to bring in­vaders in that kill our peo­ple. I can’t sit by and watch my peo­ple get slaugh­tered.”

Eger once had a neo-Nazi patient. She dis­cov­ered that his life had been wrecked by his par­ents’ in­volve­ment in David Koresh’s Waco cult. She feels em­pa­thy even for the Pitts­burgh gun­man. “I think we are all good peo­ple. We are not born with hate,” she says softly. If the gun­man were her patient she would search for the in­ner pain that drove him to com­mit the crime, ask­ing him: “What would you like to hold on to and what are you will­ing to let go?” The goal would be to “re­move the ob­sta­cles that get in the way” of him find­ing joy in life.

She is trou­bled to see Nazi at­ti­tudes “bloom­ing all over again”. Fas­cism, she says, “is re­ally very much alive” in “small­town USA” just as it is in parts of Europe, such as in Vik­tor Or­ban’s “very, very an­ti­semitic” Hun­gary.

Ul­ti­mately, though, im­prove­ment means giv­ing peo­ple the tools to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for them­selves. The answer can­not be to tell them what to think, she says. In­stead, “we should teach peo­ple how to think. Bring in and open up. Lis­ten com­pas­sion­ately.”

And have faith in the fu­ture. She feels that the world is a bet­ter place than a gen­er­a­tion ago, in part be­cause young peo­ple “speak out more now”.

She says: “I like to be­lieve that life doesn’t go back­wards. That life goes for­wards.” Mostly she thinks that is still the case, even if the good is drowned out by the daily bar­rage of de­press­ing head­lines. She smiles. “You never hear when the plane ar­rives. You hear when the plane crashes.”

Pho­tos: sup­plied by Pen­guin Books Story: The Times, Lon­don Edith Eger sur­vived the camps at Auschwitz and Gun­skirchen by cre­at­ing an in­ner world where her soul was free.

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