Meet Holocaust survivor and La Jollan Edith Eger

If Anne Frank had survived the Holocaust — if she and most of her family weren’t slaughtered by the Nazis just for being Jewish — she might have grown up into someone like La Jolla’s Dr. Edith Eva Eger.

Eger is a celebrated psychologist and author who continues the work she began 50 years ago: flipping the pain of her own past into help for other victims of physical and mental trauma. (Her 2017 book, “The Choice: Embrace the Possible,” won both the 2017 National Jewish Book Award and 2018 Christopher Award.)

Eger greets this reporter with a tight squeeze from a warm hand while giving a tour of her beautiful La Jolla home. Perched atop Mt. Soledad, it houses the office where she sees her patients, many of whom are current and former military personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Decorated with artwork celebrating ballet, a childhood passion, the house used to be her daughter’s. Twenty years ago, Eger moved in with her late husband, Bela, to be close to their grandchildren.

“I think I’m in paradise,” Eger says. “I have an ocean view, I’m on top of the hill.”

Although she’s 91 now, Eger has the eyes of someone young and full of life. It’s easy to picture the 16-year-old girl she was on her first night in Auschwitz, in May 1944, when she came face-to-face with Dr. Josef Mengele for the first time. The monstrous “angel of death” was out trolling for fresh meat to entertain him when someone mentioned that Eger was a dancer. (Eger had been training to become a ballerina and an Olympic gymnast when her Hungarian family was herded into a wagon and off to a tragically different future.)

Mengele ordered Eger to dance and enjoyed what he saw. As a reward, she was tossed a loaf of bread, which she promptly shared it with her fellow prisoners. It was an act that would later save her life.

Eger’s parents and boyfriend were murdered in Auschwitz, although she and her older sister, Magda, survived their year there. (Their eldest sister, Clara, was accepted into the Music Conservatory of Budapest, which placed her out of Nazi grasp for the duration of World War II.) As Eger points out, however, surviving an experience like that is something that continues every day of the rest of your life.

Eger sits on the couch she reserves for her patients. This session is all about her for a change.

Would you consider yourself successful in escaping the hold that your past had on you?

I didn’t escape anything. I don’t get that word at all.

So you overcame…

No, I did not, no. I came to terms with it. I didn’t overcome it. I’m reminded every day. When I see the wires on La Jolla Village Drive, I’m back in Auschwitz. When I go to Costco, I’m back in Auschwitz. No, I didn’t overcome.

And coming to terms with it is what qualifies you so uniquely to be a psychologist.

Exactly. And when a woman (recently) told me, “I don’t know how to tell you that I was sexually abused because you were in Auschwitz,” I told her that she was more imprisoned than I was, because at least I knew the enemy.

How did you get yourself through Auschwitz as it was happening?

I said to myself, “If I survive today, then tomorrow, I’ll be free.” So I never really allowed the Nazis, ever, to break my spirit. They beat me, they tortured me, and they could have thrown me in a gas chamber in a minute. But I never allowed them to break my spirit.

What I found is that Auschwitz was a place for discovery — discovering inner strength, discovering that you could not really make it if you were just for yourself, discovering that you had to commit yourself to someone else. And Auschwitz was an opportunity to care for one another. When I got bread from Dr. Mengele, I shared it with the girls I was with. Then, when I was on the death march in Austria, where you were shot if you stopped, the girls that I shared the bread with carried me so I wouldn’t die. Isn’t that amazing? The worst brings out the best in us.

What was it like looking into Josef Mengele’s eyes?

It’s still with me — the piercing look. I’m scared of angry men, even today. I want a man to have integrity and kindness. If a man yells, that’s not a man in my eyes.

Sisters Magda, Edith and Clara pose on some long-forgotten vacation in the early 1930s.
Sisters Magda, Edith and Clara pose on some long-forgotten vacation in the early 1930s. COURTESY

Before the Holocaust, was your childhood happy?

I was a very lonely child. I was the third daughter. My parents wanted a son. I was painfully shy, and I think God put me in that family so I could develop my inner resources.

How far were you along to becoming an Olympic gymnast?

I was very limber and I practiced five hours a day. I was stretching myself all over the place. That was my life. And when I was told to train another girl, because I’m Jewish and couldn’t compete, it was the most heartbreaking experience of my life to that point.

Most of the concentration-camp survivors we have left were little children at the time. You witnessed the beginning of the Holocaust while old enough to know what was happening. With that unique perspective, is the current rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S. possibly the beginning of history repeating itself?

I didn’t know what was happening at the time. I never heard of Auschwitz or the Final Solution. But also, anti-Semitism has always been with us. When I was in elementary school, children were spitting at us and calling us Christ-killers, and that was before Hitler. Anti-Semitism has to do with prejudice, which is to prejudge. We are not born to be anti-Semitic. If I had been born in Germany, if I would have been brought up being told, ‘Today Germany, tomorrow the whole world,’ I may have been a very enthusiastic member of the Hitler youth. We learn to hate. We learn to judge. We are what we learn.

So everyone is a victim of their upbringing?

I think, in a way, we are all victims of victims. What we are taught needs to be examined, and parents need to know what kind of teachers are in their schools — hopefully teachers who teach you how to think rather than what to think.

Edith Eger in the late 1950s, about 15 years after she was liberated from Auschwitz and just before she decided to dedicate her life to psychology.
Edith Eger in the late 1950s, about 15 years after she was liberated from Auschwitz and just before she decided to dedicate her life to psychology. COURTESY

You never answered whether we should be worried that today’s anti-Semitism could be the start of a new Holocaust.

I don’t live with worries. Worry is in the future. I live in the present. I don’t live with worry or guilt. I had survivor’s guilt, survivor’s shame, and I went back to Auschwitz in 1980, and that’s the best thing that I did in my life — to go back to the lion’s den and look at the lion and reclaim my innocence. It’s very important to revisit the places where you’ve been, but not to get stuck in them. Go through the valley of the shadow of death, don’t camp there or set up house.

Have you forgiven the Nazis?

Well, I don’t have any godly powers to forgive anything for anybody. But I think forgiveness has to do with a gift that you give to yourself — that you don’t allow anybody to be in your body who is someone you don’t want to carry anymore. So it’s not me forgiving the Nazis for what they did to me. It’s me forgiving myself that I survived. I think self-forgiveness is most important.

How does a God exist who lets the Holocaust happen?

Oh, God didn’t kill my parents. People did.

So God’s not all-powerful then?

God gives us choices. Look at the polarities: There is no love without hate, no summer without winter. I just came from London. The leaves were falling. Pretty soon, those trees will be barren and, when I go back in the spring, they won’t be. And today, I think that maybe my parents had to die, and that they didn’t die in vain. Because the most beautiful gift of God is the gift of memory. And I am full of gratitude that I’ve come this far in life that I have the ability to guide people to get rid of the concentration camp that is in our own mind and show them that the key is in their own pocket.