When Edith Eger was sent to Auschwitz with her family, she was 16 years old. Like many kids and teens who survived the Holocaust, her parents did not. The trauma she endured, however, seems so severe, it’s hard to imagine how she was able to move past it in a healthy way.
Eger was a trained ballerina and gymnast–which was partially why she survived, as she was “forced by Nazi officer Dr. Josef Mengele to dance for his entertainment,” according to an interview with Broadly. She received bread as a reward.
Her new book, The Choice, which is coming out next week, details her time at Auschwitz, her escape, and how she became a groundbreaking clinical therapist who has paved the road for treatment of trauma survivors battling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Currently, Eger has been working with the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy in order to help them treat veterans returning from war. She uses her past traumas, and how she chose to survive, as a way to help others. She explained this:
I said to myself, “If I survive today, then tomorrow I will be free. They can beat me, throw me in the gas chamber. I can’t change that.” They could never ever touch what I discovered at Auschwitz: my soul and my spirit. That’s the choice we have today: to acknowledge the spirit is with us when we are born and the spirit never dies. That’s what my sister told me when I was told my mother was burning in a gas chamber. She hugged me and said, “Just remember, the spirit never died.”
She went on to say how she uses this for her current work experience–and how she still has PTSD:
The military is really difficult. They tell you, “Military comes first, and family comes second.” When I’ve worked with military with PTSD, they tell me two things: “We were put in [a] place we weren’t prepared for. We were told one thing and found another.” When we get angry, we aren’t angry at what is happening. We are angry because our expectations aren’t met.
I have PTSD myself. I remember that when I go anywhere, even to the grocery store and I see barbed wires because they’re going to build something on the next block, immediately I’m back in Auschwitz. I’ve yet to overcome or forget, but I’ve come to [deal] with it. That’s where I lead them. Hopefully we can go through the rage to forgiveness, which gives you the ultimate freedom—not revenge. I began my own journey of forgiving myself—that’s the hardest thing.
One of the more compelling things Eger pointed out is the fact that we’re all victims but that victimhood doesn’t have to be our identity.
It’s very important for us not to blame, because only children do that. I refuse to be a victim. I was victimized, and that’s what was done to me. But I’m not a victim. I go into [the] valley of doubt, but I don’t get stuck. I don’t camp there. I provide an arrow: You go through the rage towards self-love, which is self-care, which is not narcissistic. If you don’t love you, why should I? I love to put women together in a group and see how much we women have in common and how are ancestors suffered probably much more.
Eger has a piece of advice that we could all use–and there’s honestly no better way to put it: “I teach my patients: ‘No don’ts, only do’s and yes’s.'”
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.