Holocaust survivor Edith Eger about how her spirit kept her alive

The former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau is now a monument and museum

A few seconds after our meeting, Dr. Edith Eger has taken my hand and is giving me a bell around her house by the sea in La Jolla, San Diego, California. A psychologist who is internationally acclaimed for her work with war veterans, treats patients in her home, an impressive house crammed with works of art with ballet, a lasting passion of childhood. Despite being 90 years old, it is difficult to keep up with the rhythm, to glide and stop just to admire the view of the ocean. "I'm so blessed to be here," she says.

Taking into account Edith's early life, & # 39; blessed & # 39; It is not the first word that comes to mind. Raised 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 her sister Magda were taken to Auschwitz, the concentration camp in Hungary. Occupied Poland. . There he lost his two parents under the command of Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous "Angel of Death". He remained in Auschwitz for a year where he suffered beatings, famine and the threat of rape. When, in 1945, US troops finally liberated the camp where they had moved her, they found her barely alive among a pile of corpses.

The former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau is now a monument and museum

The former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau is now a monument and museum

Edith, 19 years old

Edith, 19 years old

Edith today, left, and 19 years, right, and today, left. Raised in Hungary in a Jewish family, her dreams of being an Olympic gymnast were cut short during World War II when, at the age of 16, she, her parents and her sister Magda were taken to Auschwitz.

After the war, aged 19, he married the Jewish businessman Béla Eger and the couple moved to the US. UU., Although fought for decades with the guilt of the survivors and with life as an immigrant. Now she works as a therapist, specializing in patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a topic she knows very well. "I am very grateful to have been able to find my inner strength in Auschwitz," he says. "They could hit me and torture me, but they could never kill my spirit."

Immaculately dressed and perfectly made up, Edith speaks softly, with a broad Hungarian accent, despite almost 70 years in the United States. She smiles constantly and cries only once when she tells her story, one she has told in her remarkable memory, The Choice. "I was in my reading club this morning and the father of one of the women was released at the same time as me, in Gunskirchen [Austria]. I call Auschwitz my "precious wound" because it taught me compassion. But I do not live there [in my head] never again. & # 39;

Edith had never heard of Auschwitz when, on a cold morning in April 1944, the soldiers arrived and transported their family to the camp; only Edith's older sister, Klara, escaped while studying music in Budapest at that time. Once at Auschwitz, Edith and her older sister Magda separated, first from their father Lajos and then from their mother Ilona, ​​on Mengele's orders, who told them: They are going to see their mother very soon. He's just going to take a shower. It's a moment that has persecuted Edith ever since. "I give lectures all over the world on the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder, but I still have it myself, I still have nightmares about that moment."

From left to right: sisters Klara, Edith and Magda in 1946. "I saw people who were shot right in front of me," says Edith. & # 39; When the people tried to run away, they were electrocuted on the barbed wire & # 39;

From left to right: sisters Klara, Edith and Magda in 1946. "I saw people who were shot right in front of me," says Edith. & # 39; When the people tried to run away, they were electrocuted on the barbed wire & # 39;

From left to right: sisters Klara, Edith and Magda in 1946. "I saw people who were shot right in front of me," says Edith. & # 39; When the people tried to run away, they were electrocuted on the barbed wire & # 39;

American Passports

American Passports

American Passports

American Passports

Edith and her husband Béla became US citizens in 1955

That first night, Mengele searched the camp for the inmates to entertain him. Edith, forced to dance, worked so well that, as a reward, she threw a loaf of bread, which she shared with her fellow prisoners. It was an act that later saved his life.

His descriptions of life in Auschwitz are horrifying. "I saw people being shot right in front of me," he says. "When people tried to flee, they were electrocuted on the barbed wire." Worst yet was the cruelty administered by some prisoners to each other. A little girl, spying on Edith while she was admitted to the camp, pointed to the smoke coming from the chimneys and said, "Your mother is burning there." I just had to keep telling myself that if I could survive today, then tomorrow, I would be free, "says Edith," even though I was told that the only way I would come out was like a corpse. "

Edith and Béla in 1947 with their newborn daughter Marianne. Béla was a survivor of the Slovak camp, whose mother had been killed during the war

Edith and Béla in 1947 with their newborn daughter Marianne. Béla was a survivor of the Slovak camp, whose mother had been killed during the war

Edith and Béla in 1947 with their newborn daughter Marianne. Béla was a survivor of the Slovak camp, whose mother had been killed during the war

The blows were common and the threat of the worst was never far away. On one occasion, after watching Edith wash, Mengele ordered him to follow him naked to his office. But a phone ringing in the next room interrupted his plans. "I did not know anything about sex," she says. & # 39; I had a boyfriend, Eric [before Auschwitz]but I was completely innocent. I felt I was in trouble, so when the phone rang, I ran away. I always wanted to believe that there is a God and in that moment, I felt it. I found God in Auschwitz despite the horror. "She also found places of joy there, like the competition that the young prisoners held to see who had the best tits (" I won! ") And the irrepressible Magda who flirted with a young French prisoner while still captive. & # 39; She never lost her sense of herself.

In the spring of 1945, Edith and her fellow prisoners were moved from one camp to another during a forced march of death. So weak that it almost collapses, Edith was taken by the same prisoners with whom she shared the bread that Mengele threw at her. "They remembered and charged me not to die," he says.

Edith ended up in the Gunskirchen camp and after she was released, she and Magda were sent to stay with a German family to recover. However, even here the horror did not end. One night, a drunken alcohol liberator made his way to Edith's room with the intention of raping her, until an unknown force stopped him. "He came back the next day and apologized," says Edith. & # 39; He kept coming back and brought me food, he taught me to walk again [during her incarceration, she had broken her back] and how to do the jitterbug, too.

Edith in Atlantic City

Edith in Atlantic City

Edith in El Paso

Edith in El Paso

Edith and Marianne on vacation in Atlantic City, 1952 (left), and four years later in El Paso

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

Soon after, he met and married Béla Eger, a survivor of the Slovak camp, whose mother had been killed during the war, and in 1949 they moved to the United States. Sometimes, Edith's memories of his life as an immigrant are painful to listen to. On one occasion, after boarding a bus in Baltimore and forgetting to pay, she heard the driver's screams and was immediately transported to the camp where aggression was the norm, throwing herself to the floor in incomprehension and fear. "I could not stand screaming or seeing barbed wire, and even today I feel those triggers, but now it's fleeting."

Edith in the early 80's. In 1980 he returned to Auschwitz to perform the rite of pain that has eluded me all my life & # 39;

Edith in the early 80's. In 1980 he returned to Auschwitz to perform the rite of pain that has eluded me all my life & # 39;

Edith in the early 80's. In 1980 he returned to Auschwitz to perform the rite of pain that has eluded me all my life & # 39;

When she and Béla settled into family life with their three children, they never told anyone of their past horrors, burying their pain but finding themselves "more psychologically imprisoned than before" while the past continued in the head. Remembering his months of starvation in the fields, Béla would accumulate food. "If I asked him to buy two potatoes, I would buy 10 pounds, we always had to have enough food, I'm different, I'm very careful with what I order in a restaurant, I'll finish everything on my plate and if you do not finish yours, I'll I'll take home with me as leftovers.

It was during the 1960s, while Edith was studying for a degree in psychology, that it reached a turning point. With a copy of Man's Search for Meaning, a memoir from fellow survivor of Auschwitz Viktor Frankl, Edith was impressed by her message: that everyone has the freedom to choose their attitude in any circumstance. "It was a real wake-up call to recover and not be a prisoner of my past."

Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor in the field known as the "Angel of Death"

Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor in the field known as the "Angel of Death"

Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor in the field known as the "Angel of Death"

He obtained a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and became a therapist, using his experiences to help others and encouraging his patients to feel the feelings, since he can not heal what he does not feel. I create an environment with them where they are sure to feel everything. I cry with my patients and I find them where they are. "

In 1980 he returned to Auschwitz to perform the rite of grief that has eluded me all my life. "Magda told me I was an idiot to go back, but I wanted to be free, I needed to go back to the lion's den and stop fleeing the lion." When I was there, I saw a man in uniform and thought he was a Nazi, but then I looked In my pocket and I saw my American passport and I began to recognize that I did not have to live there in my mind, I could choose to be free. "

Edith still had one more option to do: forgive herself or not. When a girl entered Auschwitz with her mother and sister, she saw women being guided in two separate lines: the one on the left for those over 40 and 14; the rest turning to the right. When Mengele asked Edith if Ilona was her mother or her sister, she replied: "Mother & # 39; and Ilona were immediately sent to the row on the left, for those condemned to death. For decades, Edith was tormented by the thought, unfounded as it was, that if she had answered: "Sister", her mother could have survived.

& # 39; Have I forgiven myself? I'm still working on that, "he smiles." It was not just the survivor's fault, I also had the shame of the survivor, but nobody else was doing that to me. I was. We are our worst enemies. I'm much better now, but I still have to get there [at self-forgiveness]. "As humans," says Edith, "it does not hurt what happened, but what did not happen." I remember buying my granddaughter a dress to dance and start crying. I could not understand why until I realized it was because I never went to a dance when I was a little girl. "

Now, however, Edith dances elated with her vigorous 93-year-old boyfriend, Eugene. & # 39; Let's dance every Sunday. & # 39; Béla [who died in 1993] and Edith had divorced and then remarried. "The first time I married him he was like a girl, the second time I was a woman.

Edith tries to live in the present. I do not understand the coulda, shoulda, wouldas of life. I'm just saying: what now? But I think I'll see Eric again, "he smiles," I still think about him, and I'll also see my parents, what will he say to his mother? "" Oh, I do not need to think about that. " , she replies. "My mother is always with me."

The Choice by Edith Eger will be published in paperback on Thursday by Rider, price £ 8.99. Tor request a copy for £ 7.19 (a 20 percent discount) until August 30, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; p & p is free on orders over £ 15

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