Even in a concentration camp, she accentuates the positive
By Jon Miller
Clinical psychologist, holocaust survivor, inspirational speaker, there are a lot of titles that fit Edith Eger, but the one that brought her to La Jolla is one of her favorites: Grandma.
Eger moved to her home atop Mount Soledad in 1992 to be with her grandchildren. The proud grandmother of five, Eger lists off their accomplishments. One granddaughter just received her psychology license, making her the third generation of Egers with a Ph.D. Eger’s daughter Marianne is a psychologist and professor at New York University and is married to 2003 Nobel Prize winner Robert Engle.
One grandson is using his birthday money to fly from Texas to San Diego because he would rather see his grandma than spend the money. Grandma chokes up a bit when she tells this story.
“Isn’t that the most beautiful
compliment a grandmother can get?” Eger gushed.
Her friends call her Dr. Edie, which means most people call her Dr. Edie. She has a habit of putting people at ease, the fruits of psychological study and training. For years now she has worked with battered wives, shell-shocked soldiers and abused children to teach them to become survivors instead of victims.
In her late 70s, Eger is a small woman, once a ballerina and gymnast. She was even selected for the 1944 Hungarian Olympic team as a gymnast, but when the war reached her home city of Kassa, her father was sent to work in a German labor camp. Eger was kicked off the team because she was Jewish.
It wasn’t long before her family was brought to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. She was 16 then and remembers watching her mother being led to the gas chamber. One of the last things her mother told Eger was, “No one can take from you what you put in your mind.”
That simple idea sparked hope for Eger in a place where it was as rare as bread. Many prisoners walked in a trance, already accepting their fates as victims in a Nazi furnace. Eger resolved to be a survivor, not a victim. In the despair, she always found a choice for a better life.
“Even when there was no food and we had to eat grass, we could still choose which blade of grass was the best,” she says. “There are no problems in life, only challenges.”
Josef Mengele, the Nazi war criminal that performed obscene medical experiments on the Jews at Auschwitz, chose Eger to entertain him personally. Already known in her barracks as the ballerina, Eger was called to Mengele to dance. Her only escape was to close her eyes and imagine herself dancing in the Budapest Opera House, to see the world as beautiful for what it can be, not for what it is.
Months before Auschwitz was liberated, Eger was selected to carry ammunition on Nazi supply trains.
“They thought that the British would not bomb the trains with people in striped uniforms,” Eger remembered. “They bombed anyway.”
Hard months passed. Overworked and undernourished, her weight slipped to only 40 pounds. She lost consciousness. When the guards found her tiny body, they mistook her for dead and threw her in a mass grave.
On May 4, 1945, Americans were searching the area and a soldier noticed a small hand moving among the bodies. Eger was saved. She recovered in a hospital and fell in love with her first husband, a wealthy young Czech. When the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia, her husband was jailed. Immediately, she bribed the warden and smuggled her husband and infant daughter to the United States.
“I put this bracelet in my daughter’s diaper and we fled,” said Eger, as she holds up a gold bracelet she still wears with pride. “We are survivors. I don’t have time to say, ‘Why me.’ Survivors say, ‘What can I do?’ ”
She arrived in America poor, unable to pay $6 to get off the boat. The Red Cross paid the fee, and Eger started a new life.
“Today, I have this wonderful story to tell,” Eger says. “I went to school at night, graduated with honors, and today my name is Dr. Edith Eva Eger. I paid back the $6 to the Red Cross and volunteered 2,000 clinical hours.”
Eger has scars. She startles very quickly. She is terrified of being stopped by police. But, she has learned to integrate her terrible past into her life. She has learned to forgive, and she teaches her patients to do the same.
“There is a Hitler in all of us,” Eger says. “It’s up to us who we reach for, who we try to be.”