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