Thursday 22 February 2018

The Holocaust survivor who beat death by learning how to live

Memoir: The Choice, Edith Eger, Rider, hardback, 400 pages, €14.99

Renowned therapist: Edith Eger
Renowned therapist: Edith Eger
The Choice

Eilis O'Hanlon

The author of this book was just a teenager when her family was hauled off to Auschwitz in 1944. Her parents were quickly killed; she and her sister, Magda, survived, but suffered terribly before the camp to which they'd subsequently been sent was liberated at the end of the war. She's now one of the last living survivors of the Holocaust.

The experience left her with "an anxious, dizzy feeling every time I heard sirens, or heavy footsteps, or shouting men". This, she learned, is what trauma means. It's a "nearly constant feeling in my gut that something is wrong, or that something terrible is about to happen".

Rather than being defeated by it, however, Eger chose to use her understanding of trauma to help other people. Emigrating to post-war America, by her forties, Edith Eger had qualified as a clinical psychologist and went on to become a professor and a well-known public speaker who works with the US army in the treatment of post-traumatic stress.

She's now almost 90. This memoir has been a long time in the making. The first part relates her ordeal at the hands of the Nazis, and is, naturally, the most compelling. No matter how often the story of the Holocaust is retold, it never loses its awful power.

In Auschwitz, she danced for the notorious Dr Josef Mengele. Sent from there with her sister to a factory as slave labour, she risked her own life to steal food to keep Magda alive.

They endured a forced march which only 100 of some 2,000 prisoners survived. She saw a boy tied to a tree and used as target practice by the SS. She saw prisoners becoming cannibals in order to survive. Her back broken, she was thrown on to a mound of corpses to die.

Magda dreamed of revenge. Edith was sustained by the possibility of a better world after the war. Only 70 of 15,000 Jews in her home town made it back alive. She married quickly, and had a child against medical advice ("Doctor, I am going to give life").

This is her philosophy in a nutshell: there is always a choice. That's what the later part of her book is about.

As a survivor, newly arrived in America as an immigrant, doing menial work and raising a family, she initially kept her experiences to herself, before deciding she had a duty to speak out, saying: "People can be sorted two ways: survived; didn't. The latter are not here to tell their tale."

As a renowned therapist, she now teaches other traumatised people: "We had no control over the most consuming facts of our lives, but we had the power to determine how we experienced life after trauma."

It's about accepting the past and living "in the sacred present."

That message would be cloying, almost facile, if it didn't come from a woman who'd witnessed the worst of human nature. The Choice is a curious mixture of Holocaust testimony, feminist coming-of-age memoir, and self-help book, but it's underpinned by unquestionable integrity and grace.

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