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'I owe it to my parents': 92-year-old Auschwitz survivor determined to show there is hope in face of adversity

Dr Edith Eger tells TheJournal why over 70 years after leaving Auschwitz she wants people to see her a ‘role model’.

Dr Edith Eger's new book discusses overcoming trauma by talking about her experience in Auschwitz.
Dr Edith Eger's new book discusses overcoming trauma by talking about her experience in Auschwitz.
Image: Penguin

“I WAS TOLD in Auschwitz that I am subhuman and the only way I would get out of it was as a corpse,” Dr Edith Eger says as she describes her experience in the Nazi concentration camp. 

“And today I tell people if someone is talking to you and trying to put you down, just say to yourself ‘the longer they talk the more relaxed I will become’.”

In 1944, a 16-year-old Edith Eger and her family shared their last meal together before Hungarian Nazis arrived at her home and arrested her family. 

They were taken to Auschwitz where her mother and father were killed in gas chambers while Edith and her sister were taken to a holding area and held with other Jews for months. 

Now, at 92-years-old, and as an acclaimed author and clinical psychologist, Eger describes her experiences during the Holocaust as an “opportunity” of hope in the face of despair.

“I would like to describe anything in my life including Auschwitz as an opportunity,” she explains in an interview with TheJournal.ie.

“An opportunity to discover your inner strength, so I think there is a gift in everything but most of all my mother told me in that cattle car ‘we don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know what’s going to happen, honey, just remember no-one can take away from you what you put in your mind’.

“Now we have an opportunity for instead of being locked in with the ‘why me?’ but to say ‘what now?’ and see how you can use the present moment to come closer and have deeper conversations.

“And that’s exactly what happened. Everything was taken away from me. I had my sister and I had my mind,” she says while jokingly adding “that’s why I tell young people don’t use anything, don’t mess with your mind, don’t smoke pot. It interferes with your natural growth and I’m allowed to do a little preaching because I’m a grandma now.”

In 1949, Eger along with her husband moved to the United States and two decades later graduated from the University of Texas, El Paso with a degree in Psychology, later going on to pursue a doctorate in the field. 

Throughout her career she worked with people who experienced trauma in their lives, equipping them with the ability to break out from the ‘victim’ mentality they often developed.

She uses her own experiences in Auschwitz and the subsequent journey she went on to find contentment in her own life. 

“I remember the night before we were having Passover in my home and my father got up, and it makes me cry as I tell you this, he kissed me on my head and the following morning there was a knock on the door and they were picked up and taken to a factory. 

“Then we were locked in and not allowed to get out. If you tried to get out they’d shoot you. I think it’s important to say that, we unfortunately still have genocide but never in the history of mankind, has such a scientific and systematic annihilation of people existed.

“I learned they were people who were brainwashed to hate me and I was able to, with God’s help, turn that hatred into pity. I remember just having my connection with this loving God who guided me to really not allow them to ever murder my spirit.”

In her book The Gift, published this month in the UK and Ireland, Eger documents case studies including a woman who almost died in her own home after a relative attacked her and another person who suffered heartbreak after their partner cheated.

She illustrates how they navigated their experiences and the ways in which they moved from darkness into light again. 

I want to tell people that suffering makes you stronger, that life is not easy. Look at your birth certificate, there is no guarantee or even certainty but there is probability.

“We can use it, hopefully, to empower our lives or we can complain about it. It is really up to us what we do with any situation in life. I look for the gift in everything.

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“We all go through different times and trauma in our lives. I knew that when a woman who came to see me, she was sexually abused, she told me ‘how can I tell you about this when you were in Auschwitz?’ and my answer was that maybe you were more imprisoned than I was because I knew the enemy.

“It’s important for me that people look at me and say that ‘if she can do it, I can do it too’. I want to be a good encourager.”

Eger also maintains the recent pandemic and the slower pace of life around the world, despite the challenges it poses, is another opportunity to recharge and take stock of how we relate to the world. 

“Even now, I think we are taking time out, hopefully, to take inventory of our lives, where we came from, where we are now, and where we are going,” she says. 

The 92-year-old is no stranger to speaking in public forums, touring and talking about her experiences for several years now, but while interviewing virtually due to Covid-19 restrictions, she remains determined to spread her message of overcoming adversity. 

Asked if speaking of her own traumatic time spent in Auschwitz so often has taken a toll on her, she says: “Today I say to myself I owe it to young people, to tell them to listen to their own sense, and recognise that maybe one person can find a role model in me. 

“I owe it to my parents. This beautiful gift I have is memory and while I am alive I want people to know what happens when good people do bad things.”

The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life by Dr Edith Eger is out now.

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