Dr Edith Eger : I Remember

Valentina Valentini 10 May 2021

Dr Edith Eger, psychologist and author, reflects on her life long journey towards happiness and acceptance

Dr. Edith Eger rose from the ashes of Auschwitz to become a renowned psychologist and author. Throughout everything she has faced, the 93-year-old has held on to hope and remained resilient, calling each challenge and circumstance a gift. Now, with two New York Times Bestsellers and the legacy of a multi-generational family, Dr. Eger reflects on her journey toward happiness and acceptance.

Edith with her parents

Edith (on her mother's lap) with her parents and sisters Magda (middle) and Klara 

My mother telling me, very seriously, "I'm glad that you have brains because you have no looks". I had two beautiful sisters, Magda and Klara, both older, and I took what my mother said to heart, and I was not angry with her. I wanted to prove how smart I was, so I did really well in school, I started my own book club. Just because someone tells you that you’re not pretty, or you’re not smart doesn’t mean you have to give up, because the only one you have for your lifetime is you.

"The only one you have for your lifetime is you"

My first boyfriend, Eric. He told me that I had beautiful eyes and beautiful hands when we were separated at the transport to Auschwitz. We met in Kosice, when I was 14 and were together for two years before being taken to Auschwitz. He was on a different transport on the same day. Years later, I was told by his family that he had been shot the day before my liberation on May 4, 1945.

I would ask my father for money. I knew to do it when he was playing billiards with his cronies because he would want to save face in front of them. He would always be more generous then and so I would make sure to ask him for things during those moments. Timing is everything.

Edith doing the splits

Edith doing the splits

Ballet and gymnastics were the most important things in my early life. They had so much meaning for me, and I think they also helped to save me. In Auschwitz, I could not change what was outside of me; they could throw me in a gas chamber at any minute. But at night, I could escape into my head and be dancing. I could be with my boyfriend and imagine everything about how it would be when I would see him again.

Dancing for Dr. Josef Mengele. He was also known as the “Angel of Death.” He came to the barracks and wanted to be entertained. The girls I shared my bunk with pushed me in front of him because they knew I was a dancer. He told me to dance for him while he selected others to go to the gas chamber. I was dancing for my life; in my mind the music was Tchaikovsky and I was dancing Romeo and Juliet at the Budapest Opera House. Afterward, he gave me a piece of bread. I could have gobbled it up, but I climbed up to the top bunk, to my friends and shared it with them. Later, on the death march from Mathausen to Gunskirchen, I was beginning to fail and if you stopped walking, you were shot right away. I was slowing down, so the girls I shared that bread with almost a year before made a chair with their arms and carried me. This is the most important thing I learned from this time—collaboration and cooperation, not competition—and have taken that through my whole life in everything I do.

Feeling so thrown out, so forgotten. I wondered, “Does anyone know that I’m here? Does anyone know about children being thrown into gas chambers?” I would pray for the guards because I thought that they must have been brainwashed because we are born with love, with joy, born with a passion for life. We are taught to hate.

"We are born with love, with joy, born with a passion for life. We are taught to hate"

With her husband Bela (Albert) Eger, a fellow survivor and her daughter Marianne

With her husband Bela (Albert) Eger, a fellow survivor, and her daughter Marianne

I never introduced myself by my name. I would say, “I’m Klara’s a sister, for instance, because she was famous for playing the Mendelssohn violin concerto. I spent a lot of my childhood alone, and I was painfully shy, except for when I was dancing, of course. But perhaps everything is planned for us and I learned how to be alone because in Auschwitz everything was taken away from us.

Being among the dead and I felt a hand holding mine. I looked up and all I saw was a big lip. I’d never seen a man of color in Hungary. And when I looked further, I saw his eyes and he was crying. He gave me some M&Ms. Of all the things that happened there, it felt like a miracle in that moment.

It was so very difficult. When people would talk to me and ask me if I was okay, I would say yes. I felt like a widow, like I lost everything, but still, I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me. So, I created what we call today, the ego, the false self.

Edith with her daughter Marianne in New York

Edith with her daughter Marianne in New York

When I came to America, I just wanted to be what we called a “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” I wanted to be like everyone else. If you asked me who I was, I would say, “Who do you want me to be?” I became a very successful schizophrenic [laughs] because I just wanted to be like you. And I never told anyone I was in Auschwitz until I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

When I met Viktor, I had written an article for a local paper when I was living in El Paso, Texas in the 1970s about Dr. Frankl. It was titled, Viktor Frankl and Me and somehow, it made its way to him and he invited me to come and meet him in San Diego where he was teaching at the United States International University. When I read his book, I wanted to write ten more pages for each one he wrote—he had gone through the same experiences and we used the same mechanisms to survive in the camps that I had, but from a different perspective because of his age. He described that he would close his eyes and imagine that he was in Vienna lecturing about the psychology of the concentration camp, just like I’d done when I had to dance for Dr. Mengele.

Edith celebrating her 90th birthday with four generations of her family

Edith celebrating her 90th birthday with four generations of her family

I was so hungry to learn. I had a friend who was a professor at the University of Texas, El Paso. I didn’t have a diploma, but he fixed it somehow so that I could be a provisional student. I graduated Cum Laude four years later and then went on to get my PhD in Clinical Psychology. Learning and thinking had always been a refuge for me when I was young, so school fed that part of me that needed intellectual comfort. My curiosity is what kept me alive in Auschwitz, and it’s what kept me going after moving to America. I’ve always wanted to know what was going to happen next and wanted to learn as much as I can about that.

I loved getting to work with patients. What I always want to do is to create an atmosphere for my patients: I want them to feel perfectly safe to identify and feel any emotion they have, to know that is just what they are—emotions—and when we allow ourselves to feel our pain and honor it, we become stronger. Don’t call me a shrink, call me a stretch! I want to stretch your comfort zone and become stronger.

My proudest moment. When my first book, The Choice, was published and I visited my grandsons, there it was on their coffee table. In that moment, I knew that the story of my parents would be carried forward by their generation and they can also be ambassadors of peace, following in my footsteps.

"Part of me was left in Auschwitz, but not the better part"

Edith on her 90th birthday

Edith on her 90th birthday 

Returning to Auschwitz was really the best thing for my healing. To go back to the lion’s den, look the lion in the face and feel my rage and assign the guilt to the perpetrators was imperative to becoming who I am today. I was also able to say goodbye to my parents. Every day, I work to honor the pain that I carry from Auschwitz; it lives right here in my heart. I don’t let it control me, though. I acknowledge it and move on. I call it my cherished wound. Part of me was left in Auschwitz, but not the better part.

Read more: Max Richter: Interview

Read more: A short history of cemeteries

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter