In Auschwitcz At Sweet 16
Recounting The Events That Led To The Death Camp
Edith Eger, 93-years young, spry and with a ballerina’s posture, recounts the events that took she and her family by train to the death camp at Auschwitz. In the midst of this horrific experience, she chose to consider it an opportunity to discover the perseverance and strength within herself, which allowed her to carry on and give support to her sister as they together suffered and witnessed a near intolerable cruelty that resulted in death for millions.
In which country were you raised? I was born in Kosice, Czechoslovakia - my city was part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy. Czechoslovakia was created after WWI and then in 1938, Hungarians took over the city again, and the city became Kassa, Hungary. My mother tongue is Hungarian and I went to Hungarian schools.
Did you have brothers and sisters? I have two sisters, and I was the youngest. Magda came with me to Poland when we were taken by train to Auschwitz, while Clara was saved by her Christian professor in Budapest. My heart goes out to the many people who helped save Jewish lives during those difficult days and they will always be my true heroes.
What might be your earliest childhood memory? My earliest memory is that when at age 3, I suffered from the Spanish fever, the result of which left one eye slanted. My sisters used to blindfold me when they took me for a walk to hide what was thought to be a deformity. My Mother actually told me that she was glad that I seemed a smart child, since I could use my brains instead of my looks. Being my earliest memory, which has never left me, I actually am grateful that she inspired me to study and not rely on my looks because with that motivation in mind, I had formed my own book club as a youngster, acquired my Ph.D., and have written 2 books.
When did you first hear of the threat from Germany? I never heard anything of it - my Father actually had tickets for us to go to America, however, changes were occurring rapidly and we never were able to leave. I remember that it was Passover at the time, and we had our family meal that evening, my sister Clara was away in Budapest. My father came to each of us, kissing us on the forehead and comforting us, which in retrospect I can only imagine that he knew of the threat before us. The very next morning, there was banging on the door and we were forced to leave with very little of our belongings to board a truck which drove us to a factory in the city of Kassa. It was said that we would be working in the nearby fields, however, within the month we found ourselves on a train to Auschwitz. On the train, my father told us that we were just going to work there for a while and then return home, but that is not what happened.
We saw our Father led away never to see him again.
What was your first impression upon arriving at Auschwitz? Chaos, complete and utter chaos. We were immediately told to form a line. They said that if we were not feeling well, we should step to the rear. Every child under 14, Mothers with very young children and everyone over 40 was told to stay behind. I later found out that soon thereafter they were taken to the gas chamber. A man that I now know to be Doctor Mengele stood at the head of the lines making selections among those who stood before him. He actually took my arm and asked whether the lady between my sister and me was my Mother or my sister. I said it was my Mother. He told her to step out of line and advised me that I would see her again soon, and that she was just going to take a shower. I have never forgiven myself for having answered that it was my Mother.
That day I was wearing a beautiful vest that was handmade for me, and I can so vividly recall the doctor looking into my eyes and perhaps thinking not to send me away to the gas chamber at that moment. We saw our Father led away, never to see him again.
How were the guards at Auschwitz? To begin with, all of the women were sent to Buchenwald and the men were kept at Auschwitz. We were kept under control by other Polish Jewish inmates who had been in the camps since 1942. They were the cruelest of the guards as they seemed to take out their anger on the new arrivals. They first grabbed my earrings from me and would beat us with a dog leash if we tried to stray from our assigned shelter. As a psychologist, I now understand that these very guards, actual victims of the same ordeal identified with the aggressors and treated us as poorly or worse. This emotional alliance that occurs between a victim and their captors we now label as the Stockholm Syndrome.
Were you able to stay with your sister? Yes, I was and should you ask her to this very day who took care of who, she will say that she took care of me and I say that I took care of her. She always seemed hungry, so I would eat the small portion of soup given to us and hide the bread to give to her the following morning saying that I was not so hungry. All we had was each other then, and all we have is each other now.
Did you know what was happening to others being killed? Actually, I asked one of the guards when I would see my Mother again. She pointed to the chimney where there was ash and smoke coming out and she said your Mother is burning there. You should talk about her in the past tense. My sister helped me cope when she told me that the spirit never dies and our Mother would live within us forever. I have never forgotten her words.
Were others helpful to you as a child? Everyone was trying to survive as best they could and there was absolutely so little to share. I was independent as a youngster so I found the strength within myself to survive and tried not to seek help from others. I was determined not to let it get the better of me and often would recall the days when I lived at home, busy with the book club I had started, and remembering my boyfriend who had partnered with me in opening the club and who had truly doted on me. I imagined being with him once again and those bright memories fueled the hope within me that somehow, at sometime my sister and I would be free of this misery.
I also have a very close relationship with God who allowed me to turn my hatred into pity for those who were so cruel to us. It re-channeled a tremendous amount of negative energy into a positive, and that allowed me to focus on how to survive this insanity and thereafter return to a life of freedom.
There came a time when you actually danced ballet for Dr. Mengele? Yes, one day he came to our barracks and asked who among us had a talent. The girls around me knew that I had danced ballet so they volunteered me to be the one who was selected. I was taken to a site outside where an orchestra was playing. I had danced ballet when living in Hungary, so I danced to the music and at the end I was given a loaf of bread, which I brought back and shared with the girls.
Months later, at a time when we were on the death march through Austria – from Mathausen to Gunskirchen, I was slowing down, which could get me shot then and there. Some of these very same girls with whom I had shared the bread, came and formed a chair with their arms and carried me the rest of the way. Isn’t it amazing how the worst can bring out the best in us? Memories that one can never forget. There was despair in the eyes of so many.
Many must have lost hope in the camp? We arrived at Auschwitz in May, 1944. Although I primarily kept to myself, with my sister nearby, I did make a special friend within the camp. She continuously would tell me that we would be free by Christmas, which ultimately came and passed without liberation, and shortly thereafter she died. You would witness the despair in the eyes of so many and it took tremendous effort to rid yourself of the horrifying thought that it would be your turn next to enter the chamber and thereafter be taken to the ovens.
What was your darkest hour while there? One need understand that once transported to Auschwitz, there were no opportunities to ensconce yourself, free from the many dangers and threats that surrounded you. It has been said that when faced with a challenge, one has the opportunity to fight or flee, however, in the camps, fleeing was near impossible, since you would either be electrocuted by the barbed wire fencing or chased down and shot by the guards. Fighting back physically, when totally drained by near starvation was equally hopeless.
I personally look back at my time at Auschwitz, and for me, Auschwitz was a time of discovery. It was this opportunity to find within me the resources that would keep me alive until such time as the horror might end. Although I knew the guards could beat me or take me to the gas chamber at will, they could never take away my spirit. That very same spirit lives within me today. There is a difference between stress and being distressed. Stress can be good as a motivator to accomplish a goal, but with distress, you are not certain of what is to happen and that is overpowering for most.
Although I faced the unknown, perhaps even the reality of the gas chamber, I was determined, even as a young child not to give into what was in many ways a hopeless situation, but to rekindle that spirit within me time and again, which in its own way kept alive that glimmer of hope.
Where and when did you finally gain freedom? There came a day when many of the youngsters were taken from Auschwitz, and set on top of railroad box cars that were filled with German military supplies. The Germans were of the mind that with children atop the train, the allied forces would not bomb the rails. Not so, since the train rail was hit and the train screeched to a halt. My sister and I jumped from the train and ran as quickly as we could, but were unable to escape.
This was May of 1945 and the Americans were coming from one direction and the Russians from another. On the journey westward and away from the advancing Russians, we were housed in villages with local Germans and were taken to a house and told to stay there and not leave, however, we had nothing to eat. I slipped out of the house and came across a garden where I went in and took some carrots. As I was leaving, a German soldier stood before me with a rifle and I was frozen solid. I so clearly remember looking into his eyes, trying my best to communicate my distress and appeal to his humanity. He motioned me away, and when on the next day I saw him, he handed me a loaf of bread. The locals were also without food, and I wish to this very day to meet that man once again who shared with us what very little they had for themselves. Liberation came on May 4, 1945 in Gunskirchen, Austria when an American GI with the 71st infantry noticed me on the side of the road near death. He saved my life.
I did have to overcome feelings of guilt to have been a survivor.
Once free, did it take long to acclimate to daily life away from the horror of the camp? I didn’t know how to face reality at first. I was in the hospital for months. I had a broken back, Typhoid, pneumonia, and was very depressed. It took a long time to do the most ordinary of things that I had been so accustomed to as a child, such as walking and writing.
Were there feelings of guilt having been a survivor? Yes, of course. Certainly the thought of having told Dr. Mengele that it was my Mother beside me troubles me to this very day. Perhaps she could have stayed with my sister and I had I said no. Some years later, after attending college, I chose not to go to my graduation ceremony. I simply could not attend the ceremony having felt the loss of so many that I had come to know that did not make it out and were denied the same opportunity.
Some have chosen to forgive, saying that it has given them freedom from the hatred toward their captors. Have you chosen that path? I believe that forgiveness is a gift . One might have to go through a period of actual rage to reach that point, but getting there provides a sense of freedom, to be free of all of the hatred and no longer be a hostage to the past.
My best revenge to Hitler was to have 3 children, 5 grand- children and 7 great-grand-children.
Although I may have been victimized, I have never considered myself a victim. I have no time nor desire to waste my precious time with such thoughts. I do have a disappointment in humanity. How is it that 15 highly educated men might sit each night at dinner celebrating their genius in creating a scientific and systematic effort that ultimately resulted in the killing of some 6,000 victims each day at Auschwitz, which in their minds they considered to be the final solution. And to think that some to this very day even question that it happened, while others have never been educated that it occurred. My focus and goal these many years has been to keep that spirit alive within me, and do everything in my power to make certain that it can never happen again.
I do have an inner peace and consider myself a good Jewish-Buddhist
You obtained a Ph.D. in psychology. Has your time in Auschwitz guided your approach in practice? I do not consider myself a shrink. I prefer the word stretch. I want to give birth in my clients to that special “you” within them. Many might be able to do what they do, but only they do it their way. When I am dealing with victimization, I want to take them through the darkness and into the light. Two words that I do not allow to be heard during a consultation. “Always” and “Never”. Things do not always have to remain as they are and seldom, if ever, say never.
You project a calm inner-self. Would you consider yourself a Jewish- Buddhist? I am a good Jewish-Buddhist having a strong inner spirit and one who never gives up on anything or anyone at any time, and I have great faith in today’s youth.
You have written two books, one “ The Choice” and the latest one “ The Gift ,” which is just now out online and in the bookstores.
Yes, “ The Choice” was written as a memoir of my experiences at Auschwitz, overcoming its trauma and how that experience played a role in my helping to heal clients with their own everyday challenges and a affictions. “ The Gift ” is more of a how-to book, guiding principles from my experiences and years of practice as a psychologist.
If there is a single word in which one should live by, what is that word? I really have so many that it is hard to choose just the one. Hope to me is crucial. No matter how bad it may look, one should try their utmost to find a ray of hope. It certainly did me well in Auschwitz on days when darkness abounded and I had to find that sliver of light within myself. ■