Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eger offers tools for finding release from our personal prisons.
Posted in , Aug 10, 2020
Dr. Edith Eger is an extraordinary woman—a 92-year-old clinical psychologist, born in Hungary to a Jewish family. As young teen she was a budding gymnast and dancer. Then on a cold April day in 1944, she and her parents and one of her sisters were loaded into a cattle car and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. Her parents were killed in the gas chambers that first day.
How did she survive? How did she become the vibrant, engaging therapist she is today, helping people suffering from anxiety and depression, PTSD and the trauma of sexual abuse? As she says in her new book, The Gift, “The worst prison is not the one the Nazis put me in. The worst prison is the one I built for myself.” Here are some tools Dr. Eger offers for breaking out of our own personal prisons:
Don’t Run from Your Past
For many years Dr. Eger did just that. She married, became a mom, escaped from Communist Hungary, came to America and worked in a textile factory. She went to college, became a high school teacher, returned to college to study psychology—all the while hiding from the misery of her earlier years, keeping it secret even from herself.
At the University of Texas, a fellow student urged her to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. She resisted it. Why read someone else’s account of Auschwitz? She’d been there. “Why revisit hell?” she said. Finally, she opened that book and instead of running away from the past, she began to reclaim it. “Until I could face the truth, I had my secret and my secret had me.”
You Can’t Heal What You Don’t Feel
As a trauma specialist, she would often go to Washington, D.C., for meetings. People would ask her if she had visited the Holocaust Museum. By then she’d already returned to Auschwitz once and had stood in the spot where she’d been separated from her parents. “Been there, done that,” she told herself. But then wasn’t she an expert? “Dr. Eger” her nametag said. Shouldn’t she make that little trip?
As you can imagine, it was excruciating. Just seeing the photos on the museum walls was more than enough. Then she noted the cattle car, a replica of the German train car, built to transport livestock, that prisoners were jammed in on their ride to the camps. She hesitated for the longest time, then with every ounce of strength she could muster, stepped inside.
“I curled up in a heap,” she writes, “reliving the final days I saw my parents alive.” In that car on the way to Auschwitz, she didn’t know where they were going, didn’t know what would happen. That was almost easier than reliving it now. “This time I had to feel it.” She cried as she sat there in the dark. But when she walked out, she felt a little freer. She had faced her grief.
No One Rejects You but You
I love looking at current photographs of Dr. Eger. She’s a beautiful woman, with an immaculate complexion and luminous eyes. Hardly a wrinkle on her face. In The Gift, she makes no secret about what she does to take care of herself, delighting in nice clothes, makeup, massages, hair treatments. Because loving yourself is part of what we’re meant to do, the way God loves us.
She’s frank about her insecurities. How she might be giving a speech and when she sees one person walk out, she thinks he doesn’t like what she says. Until he comes back a few minutes later. Or when she gets a standing ovation and throngs come up to her, thanking her, why is it that it’s the one critical comment that sticks in her mind?
“Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to,” she says. Listen to criticism respectfully but don’t let others’ evaluations define you. “You weren’t born with shame. You were born with love and joy and passion, and you can rewrite your internal script and reclaim your innocence. You can become a whole person.” As she has. What a gift.