As a teenager, she sur­vived Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps be­fore ded­i­cat­ing her life to help­ing other trauma suf­fer­ers. Now 90, EDITH EGER tells Lina Das how her in­domitable spirit kept her alive

The Mail on Sunday - You - - EDITOR’SLETTER - RE­PORT LINA DAS

Edith aged 19, above, and to­day, be­low left

Within sec­onds of our meet­ing, Dr Edith Eger has taken my hand and is giv­ing me a whirl­wind tour of her sea­side home in La Jolla in San Diego, Cal­i­for­nia. A psy­chol­o­gist who is in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed for her work with war vet­er­ans, she treats pa­tients at her home – a stun­ning house crammed with art­works fea­tur­ing bal­let, an abid­ing child­hood pas­sion. Though 90, she is hard to keep up with, zip­ping around and stop­ping only to ad­mire the ocean view. ‘I am so blessed to be here,’ she says.

Con­sid­er­ing Edith’s early life, ‘blessed’ isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Grow­ing up in Hun­gary in a Jewish fam­ily, her dreams of be­ing an Olympic gym­nast were cut short dur­ing the Sec­ond World War when, at the age of 16, she, her par­ents and sis­ter Magda were taken to Auschwitz, the con­cen­tra­tion camp in oc­cu­pied Poland. There she lost both her par­ents at the com­mand of Dr Josef Men­gele, the in­fa­mous ‘An­gel of Death’. She re­mained in Auschwitz for a year where she en­dured beat­ings, star­va­tion and the threat of rape. When, in 1945, Amer­i­can troops fi­nally lib­er­ated the camp she had been moved to, she was found barely alive among a pile of corpses.

Af­ter the war, aged 19, she mar­ried Jewish busi­ness­man Béla Eger and the cou­ple moved to the US, though she strug­gled for decades both with sur­vivor’s guilt and with life as an im­mi­grant. She now works as a ther­a­pist, spe­cial­is­ing in pa­tients suf­fer­ing from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD), a sub­ject she knows all too well. ‘I’m very grate­ful that I was able to find


my in­ner strength in Auschwitz,’ she says. ‘They could beat me and tor­ture me, but they could never mur­der my spirit.’

Im­mac­u­lately dressed and per­fectly made-up, Edith speaks softly, with a broad Hun­gar­ian ac­cent, de­spite al­most 70 years in the US. She smiles con­stantly and cries just once when re­count­ing her story – one she has told in her re­mark­able mem­oir, The Choice. ‘I was at my book club this morn­ing and the fa­ther of one of the women was lib­er­ated at the same time as me, in Gun­skirchen [Aus­tria]. I call Auschwitz my “cher­ished wound” be­cause it taught me com­pas­sion. But I don’t live there [in my head] any more.’

Edith had never even heard of Auschwitz when, on a chilly April morn­ing in 1944, soldiers came and trans­ported her fam­ily to the camp – only Edith’s elder sis­ter Klara es­caped as she was study­ing mu­sic in Bu­dapest at the time. Once at Auschwitz, Edith and her el­dest sis­ter Magda were sep­a­rated, first from their fa­ther La­jos and then from their mother Ilona, on or­ders from Men­gele, who told them, ‘You’re go­ing to see your mother very soon. She’s just go­ing to take a shower.’ It’s a mo­ment that has haunted Edith ever since. ‘I give lec­tures all over the world on the sub­ject of PTSD, yet I still have it my­self – I still have night­mares about that time.’

That first evening, Men­gele searched the camp for in­mates to en­ter­tain him. Edith, forced to dance, per­formed so well that as a re­ward, he tossed her a loaf of bread, which she shared with her fel­low pris­on­ers. It was an act that was later to save her life.

Her de­scrip­tions of life in Auschwitz are hor­ri­fy­ing. ‘I saw peo­ple be­ing shot right in front of me,’ she says. ‘When peo­ple tried to flee, they were elec­tro­cuted in the barbed wire.’ Worse in some ways was the cru­elty ad­min­is­tered by some in­mates upon each other. One girl, spy­ing Edith as she was ad­mit­ted to the camp, pointed to the smoke ris­ing from the chim­neys and told her: ‘Your mother is burn­ing in there.’ ‘I just had to keep telling my­self that if I could sur­vive to­day, then to­mor­row, I’d be free,’ says Edith, ‘even though I was told that the only way I would get out was as a corpse.’

Beat­ings were com­mon­place and the threat of worse was never far away. On one oc­ca­sion, af­ter watch­ing Edith wash­ing, Men­gele or­dered her to fol­low him naked into his of­fice. But a phone ring­ing in the next room dis­rupted his plans. ‘I didn’t know any­thing about sex,’ she says. ‘I’d had a boyfriend, Eric [be­fore Auschwitz], but I was a com­plete in­no­cent. I sensed that I was in trou­ble, so when the phone rang, I ran away. I al­ways wanted to be­lieve there is a God and in that mo­ment, I felt it. I found God in Auschwitz de­spite the hor­ror.’ She also found pock­ets of joy there, such as the com­pe­ti­tion the young women pris­on­ers held to see who had the best boobs (‘I won!’) and the ir­re­press­ible Magda who flirted with a young French pris­oner while still cap­tive. ‘She never lost her sense of self.’

In spring 1945, Edith and her fel­low pris­on­ers were moved from camp to camp dur­ing an en­forced death march. So weak that she al­most col­lapsed, Edith was car­ried by the same pris­on­ers with whom she’d shared the bread thrown to her by Men­gele. ‘They re­mem­bered and they car­ried me so I wouldn’t die,’ she says.

Edith ended up at the camp in Gun­skirchen and af­ter it was lib­er­ated, she and Magda were sent to stay with a Ger­man fam­ily to re­cu­per­ate. Yet even here the hor­ror didn’t end. One night a drunken GI lib­er­a­tor forced his way into Edith’s room with the in­ten­tion of rape, un­til some un­known force stopped him. ‘He came back the next day and apol­o­gised,’ says Edith. ‘He kept com­ing back and brought me food, taught me how to walk again [dur­ing her in­car­cer­a­tion, she had bro­ken her

back] and how to do the jit­ter­bug, too.’

Af­ter the sis­ters re­turned home to Hun­gary, where they were re­united with their sis­ter Klara, Edith started to re­cover phys­i­cally, yet the men­tal scars proved more dif­fi­cult to heal. ‘I was sui­ci­dal af­ter Auschwitz,’ she ad­mits. ‘My par­ents were gone, my boyfriend Eric had gone [he had died in Auschwitz just one day be­fore lib­er­a­tion] and I felt I had noth­ing to get up for in the morn­ing. It took time but I de­cided that if I lived, then it had to be for some­thing, rather than against some­thing.’

Soon af­ter, she met and mar­ried Béla Eger, a Slo­vakian camp sur­vivor, whose own mother had been killed dur­ing the war, and in 1949 they moved to the States. At times, Edith’s rec­ol­lec­tions of her life as an im­mi­grant are painful to hear. On one oc­ca­sion, af­ter board­ing a bus in Bal­ti­more and for­get­ting to pay, she heard the con­duc­tor’s shouts and was in­stantly trans­ported back to the camp where ag­gres­sion was the norm, throw­ing her­self down to the floor in in­com­pre­hen­sion and fear. ‘I couldn’t bear shout­ing or the sight of barbed wire and even to­day I still feel those trig­gers. But now it’s fleet­ing.’

As she and Béla set­tled into fam­ily life with their three chil­dren, they never told any­one about their past hor­rors, bury­ing their pain but find­ing them­selves ‘more psy­cho­log­i­cally im­pris­oned than be­fore’ as the past con­tin­ued to rear its head. Re­mem­ber­ing his months of star­va­tion in the camps, Béla would hoard food. ‘If I asked him to buy two po­ta­toes, he’d buy 10lb – we al­ways had to have enough food. I’m the other way – I’m very care­ful with what I or­der in a restau­rant. I’ll fin­ish ev­ery­thing on my plate and if you don’t fin­ish yours, I’ll take it home with me as left­overs.’

It was dur­ing the 1960s, while Edith was study­ing for a psy­chol­ogy de­gree, that she reached a turn­ing point. Given a copy of Man’s Search for Mean­ing – a mem­oir by fel­low Auschwitz sur­vivor Vik­tor Frankl – Edith was struck by its mes­sage: that ev­ery­one has the free­dom to choose their at­ti­tude in any set of cir­cum­stances. ‘It was a real wake-up call for me to re­claim my­self and not be a pris­oner of my past.’

She gained a PhD in clin­i­cal psy­chol­ogy and be­came a ther­a­pist, us­ing her ex­pe­ri­ences to help oth­ers and en­cour­ag­ing her pa­tients ‘to feel the feel­ings, as you can’t heal what you don’t feel. I cre­ate an at­mos­phere with them where they are safe to feel ev­ery­thing. I cry with my pa­tients and I meet them where they are.’

In 1980 she re­turned to Auschwitz to ‘per­form the rite of grief that has eluded me all my life’. ‘Magda told me I was an id­iot for re­turn­ing, but I wanted to be free. I needed to go back to the lion’s den and stop run­ning from the lion. When I was there, I saw a man in a uni­form and thought he was a Nazi, but then I reached in my pocket and saw my Amer­i­can pass­port and be­gan to recog­nise that I didn’t have to live there in my mind. I could choose to be free.’

Edith still had one more choice to make: whether or not to for­give her­self. As a young girl en­ter­ing Auschwitz with her mother and sis­ter, she saw the women be­ing ush­ered into two sep­a­rate lines – the one to the left for those over 40 and un­der 14; the rest turn­ing to the right. When Men­gele asked Edith if Ilona was her mother or sis­ter, she replied: ‘Mother’ and Ilona was im­me­di­ately sent to the line on the left, for those sen­tenced to death. For decades Edith tor­mented her­self with the thought, how­ever un­founded, that if only she had replied: ‘Sis­ter’, her mum might have sur­vived.

‘Have I for­given my­self ? I’m still work­ing on it,’ she smiles. ‘Not only did I have sur­vivor’s guilt, I also had sur­vivor’s shame – but no one else was do­ing that to me. I was. We are our own worst en­e­mies. I’m much bet­ter now, but I’m yet to ar­rive [at self-for­give­ness].’ As hu­mans, says Edith, ‘We grieve not over what hap­pened but what didn’t hap­pen. I re­mem­ber buy­ing my grand­daugh­ter a dress for a dance and start­ing to cry. I couldn’t un­der­stand why un­til I re­alised it was be­cause I never went to a dance when I was a young girl.’

Now, though, Edith dances to her heart’s con­tent with her sprightly 93-year-old boyfriend of three years, Eu­gene. ‘We go swing danc­ing ev­ery Sun­day.’ Béla [who died in 1993] and Edith had di­vorced and then re­mar­ried each other. ‘The first time I mar­ried him was as a girl. The sec­ond time, I was a woman.’

Edith tries to live in the present. ‘I don’t get into the coulda, shoulda, woul­das of life. I just say: what now? But I do be­lieve I’ll see Eric again,’ she smiles. ‘I still think about him. And I’ll see my par­ents, too.’ What will she say to her mum? ‘Oh, I don’t need to think about that,’ she replies. ‘My mum is al­ways with me.’

The Choice by Edith Eger will be pub­lished in pa­per­back on Thurs­day by Rider, price £8.99*

Josef Men­gele, the Nazi camp doc­tor known as the ‘An­gel of Death’

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