‘The prison is in your mind’

Sent to Auschwitz at 16, Edith Eger re­veals how the power of Spirit helped her sur­vive the dark­est of days

Spirit and Destiny - - Contents -

The in­spir­ing Dr Edith Eger re­flects on how Spirit helped her through her dark­est days in Auschwitz and how self-love is vi­tal for ev­ery­one

‘I knew if I lived in the fu­ture I would never get out’

What can you tell us about your child­hood?

I was born on Septem­ber 29, 1927, into a Jewish fam­ily in the Slo­vakian city of KoŠice, which at the time was in Hun­gar­ian ter­ri­tory.

I was a dis­ap­point­ment to my fa­ther, a tai­lor. He’d had two girls and wanted a son. But when I was about nine or 10 he told me I was his con­fi­dante!

I was very lonely, had a mag­i­cal friend I’d talk to, was ex­tremely shy and cross-eyed. My sis­ters Magda and Klara would blind­fold me when we went out for a walk so peo­ple wouldn’t see how ugly I was!

In my teens I was a tal­ented bal­let dancer and gym­nast and be­gan train­ing for a fu­ture Olympic Games. I wanted to rep­re­sent my home coun­try of Hun­gary but, when the shadow of Nazism fell over East­ern Europe, I was not al­lowed to train with the team.

What do you re­call about that ter­ri­ble time in 1943 when you, your par­ents and older sis­ters were de­ported to Auschwitz?

I re­mem­ber Mum say­ing in the cat­tle car,

‘No one can take away what you put in your own mind.’

When we ar­rived, we were sep­a­rated from our fa­ther, and then, Dr Josef Men­gele, the in­fa­mous An­gel of Death, pointed at Mum and said to me, ‘Is she your mother or your sis­ter?’

‘Mother,’ I replied and he pointed with his thumb for her to go to the left. I fol­lowed

Mum and he grabbed me and threw me on the other side.

‘You’ll see her very soon. She’s just go­ing to take a shower,’ he said.

My mother turned to me and smiled, a small, sad smile. That was the last time I saw her.

Later, an in­mate cru­elly ripped out my ear­rings and pointed at smoke com­ing out of a chim­ney. ‘Your mother’s burn­ing in there,’ she told me. There’s a po­ten­tial Hitler in ev­ery one of us. I was shaved and stripped of my clothes, feel­ing ashamed and em­bar­rassed when men stared at my body.

Af­ter that, ev­ery time that I went into a shower I didn’t know whether gas would come out or water.

Men­gele used to trawl the bar­racks look­ing for tal­ented in­mates to en­ter­tain him. I was forced to dance one day and, when my per­for­mance pleased him, he tossed me a loaf of bread.

My sis­ter, Klara, was the su­per­star child prodigy on the vi­o­lin in our fam­ily. The only Jewish girl ac­cepted in her con­ser­va­tory in Bu­dapest. She was smug­gled out by her pro­fes­sor, who hid her un­til the end of the war.

I looked af­ter my other sis­ter, Magda, un­til we were lib­er­ated. Half-starved and bro­ken, we en­dured en­forced SS marches across cen­tral Europe as the war en­tered its fi­nal months. I still have flash­backs and night­mares to­day.

What spir­i­tual wis­doms did you learn in the con­cen­tra­tion camp?

That it wasn’t a place of re­cov­ery, it was a place of dis­cov­ery. I dis­cov­ered ‘god’ in Auschwitz. I prayed and He spoke within me, guid­ing me to turn ha­tred into pity.

I had the best spir­i­tual guide ever and felt peace and beauty within me. It told me I am the one who will cre­ate my life. If I sur­vive it will be one day at a time and then I will be free to­mor­row. I knew if I lived in the fu­ture I would never get out alive. I told my­self I am never go­ing to con­sider that I won’t get out of here. I worked hard at de­vel­op­ing my in­ner voice.

Of course, I had anger and shook my fist at ‘god’ but some­how, in time, I turned that into pity and de­cided the pris­oner was not me, it was the guards. They’d been brain­washed to hate

peo­ple like me. They were the ones who’d pay with their con­science. That knowl­edge guided me to stop hat­ing any­more.

What hap­pened af­ter you were fi­nally lib­er­ated?

In May 1945, when the Amer­i­can army lib­er­ated the Gun­skirchen camp, a young Amer­i­can sol­dier no­ticed my hand mov­ing slightly among a num­ber of dead bod­ies. He sum­moned med­i­cal help and brought me and my sis­ter back from the brink of death.

Magda and I man­aged to find our way back to the fam­ily home. I may have been freed from the death camp, but I knew I must also be free – free to cre­ate, to make a life, to choose. And un­til I found my free­dom, I’d just be spin­ning around in the same end­less dark­ness.

At 19, I mar­ried a Slo­vakian called Bela, whose mother had been gassed at the camp. He made me laugh and feel pro­tected. We had three chil­dren to­gether (Marianne, Au­drey and John. Bela died in 1993, aged 73, of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis).

In 1949 my hus­band, Magda and I em­i­grated to the US, where she worked as a pi­ano teacher and I did a PHD in clin­i­cal psy­chol­ogy, be­com­ing an ex­pert on Post Trau­matic Stress Dis­or­der.

I may have been help­ing oth­ers but it was years be­fore I felt free in my own mind.

In 1980 you made a pil­grim­age to Auschwitz. Why did you re­turn to a place that caused you so much pain?

To face my fears and re­claim my in­no­cence. Magda re­fused to ac­com­pany me. She said to me, ‘You’re an id­iot, a masochist, what’s the mat­ter with you?’

We went through the same ex­pe­ri­ence, but we had two very dif­fer­ent re­sponses. And the work I did guid­ing peo­ple to re­live their trau­mas and not get stuck meant I too had to go through the shadow of the val­ley of death and do the same.

I had to prop­erly grieve in or­der to heal. I couldn’t heal what I didn’t feel. You can’t med­i­cate grief, it’s a nat­u­ral re­ac­tion to a loss. There’s no for­give­ness with­out rage, you don’t cover onions with choco­late. Your body talks to you and you need to re­spect its symp­toms. If you don’t deal with them, it will deal with you. Oth­er­wise what stays in you, stays in your body and can de­velop as a cancer.

Women don’t know how to be as­sertive and we pile a lot of feel­ings up in our­selves un­til we burst, and some­times it’s too late.

My trip to Auschwitz was part of the process of see­ing things dif­fer­ently. I imag­ined find­ing the words that might have saved my mother from the gas cham­ber. I felt the re­gret, wishing I could have changed things. It dawned on me that the life I hadn’t lived was be­com­ing the only life I prized. I re­alised I was phys­i­cally free but not emo­tion­ally and set out to be­come a sur­vivor, not a vic­tim of cir­cum­stance.

The relief from my guilt came as I be­came aware of the cru­elty I’d been prac­tis­ing with my­self. Af­ter my visit I stopped us­ing sham­ing self-talk and prac­tised kind­ness with my­self.

Did your break­through in­form your work as a psy­chol­o­gist?

Yes, I al­ways tell peo­ple the best thing that a par­ent can teach them is how to be a good par­ent to them­selves. In Auschwitz noth­ing came from out­side. I had to look within and ask my­self, ‘How can I be a good par­ent to my­self?’

Even to­day I ask my pa­tients to live in the present and ask them­selves how they can take care of them­selves fi­nan­cially, emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally. I teach self-re­spon­si­bil­ity, there’s no free­dom with­out re­spon­si­bil­ity. I usu­ally start by ask­ing women two ques­tions: ‘When did your child­hood end?’ and ‘Would you like to be mar­ried to you?’

Have you ever felt the spirit of your par­ents around you?

I still feel them guid­ing me to­day and I owe it to them that they didn’t die in vain. So I con­tinue to share what Mum told me in the cat­tle car, ‘No one can take away what you put in your head.’

I beg chil­dren to think big, make a dif­fer­ence. Think small, you stay small. The way you think is how you see the world and the way you are.

I think as hope­fully as I can. When I pray, I pray to Mum and thank her for bring­ing me home. I have a lot of thank yous when I pray. I also recog­nise that I didn’t ‘over­come’ what hap­pened, I came to terms with it.

Do you still get flash­backs to your time in Auschwitz?

Many things trig­ger it and make me re­live it but it’s not the trig­ger that’s im­por­tant. It’s im­por­tant for me to wel­come those feel­ings and feel them and breathe them, then re­lease them and not blame other peo­ple for them.

Of course, I still think about my par­ents and my first love, Eric, who died there, and ask how would it be if they were alive. But I don’t live in the past, I live in the present even though I’ll never for­get the past.

Your book The Choice (£8.99, Rider) about your ex­pe­ri­ences was pub­lished when you were 90. Why then?

It took me a life­time to write it. I se­ri­ously thought about do­ing it 11 years ago so that when I died my chil­dren would know their an­ces­tors were strong sur­vivors and never gave up. I wanted them to know that chal­lenges in life are tem­po­rary and they’ll sur­vive them. And I wanted to be re­mem­bered as a woman of strength and not a vic­tim of any­thing.

What drives you to con­tinue to share your story of sur­vival?

To unite the hu­man fam­ily and em­power peo­ple not to be a vic­tim. To help peo­ple find their way from vic­tim­i­sa­tion to em­pow­er­ment, from prison to free­dom.

The big­gest prison is your mind and the key to it is in your pocket. Look within you – the liv­ing ‘god’ is there. Ha­tred breeds more ha­tred. Love is why we come to this world and how we can make a dif­fer­ence, by be­liev­ing in good­ness and kind­ness. I tell peo­ple to be a good par­ent to your­self be­cause you’re the only one you have for a life­time – all your other re­la­tion­ships end.

Free­dom is dis­cov­er­ing the part in you that doesn’t al­low any­one to de­fine who you are. Re­cently, I gave a lec­ture about bul­ly­ing and said a bully is re­ally a cow­ard. Peo­ple are go­ing to put you down but no one is go­ing to do that with­out your per­mis­sion. Peo­ple only

have as much power over you as you al­low. Re­claim your power, the power within you.

You were born with love and joy and not born in fear. Fear and love do not co­ex­ist. If you have fear you have no love. If you have love you are not go­ing to have any fear. Fear is a par­a­site and sucks you up and you be­come a vic­tim. I refuse to be a vic­tim. I was vic­timised but it was not who I am, it was what was done to me.

What ad­vice do you have for peo­ple still try­ing to find the key to un­lock them­selves from their men­tal prison?

Get up in the morn­ing and go to the bath­room, look at your­self in the mirror and say, ‘I love you’. Self-love is self-care. Love your neigh­bour as your­self but not bet­ter than your­self. Tell your­self daily, ‘I’m beau­ti­ful, I’m kind.’ Hon­our your­self and love your­self. There’ll never be an­other you, no one can ever re­place you.

What’s your life like to­day?

I live in La Jolla, Cal­i­for­nia. I go swing danc­ing once a week and do the boo­gie woo­gie! I have a joy within me that I cher­ish be­cause I don’t have to wait for any­thing to come from the out­side (ex­ter­nal world). I feel younger now than I did years ago. I have five grand­chil­dren and three great-grand­sons, and that’s the best re­venge to Hitler.

More in­foThe Choice by Edith Eger is pub­lished by Rider Books, priced £8.99.

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We have five copies of The Choice to give away. email your name, ad­dress and con­tact num­ber with The Choice in the sub­ject bar, to spirit. des­[email protected]­me­dia.co.uk by jan­uary 3, 2019.

With Bela on our wed­ding day

I have a joy withinme that I cher­ish

When our first child, Marianne, was born

Magda, Klara and Edithto­gether in the 1970s

On hol­i­day with Magda and Klara in the early 1930s

With the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Ad­vi­sory Board

the ar­rival of hun­gar­ian Jews at auschwitz-Birke­nau con­cen­tra­tion camp in 1944

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