Eger: How to survive evil and restore emotional freedom

The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger; Scribner, 289 pages including index; $27.

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO – This book, no doubt, will be remembered as important for going beyond the realm of a  Holocaust memoir and becoming a Holocaust life lesson. For Eger, the retelling of her experiences at Auschwitz and Mauthausen, in itself might have been therapeutic, but being a psychologist, she went beyond that, to places deep within herself.  She isolated the events that left her feeling guilty, enraged, scared, and resentful, and told how she freed herself from those emotions, which she likened to the walls of another kind of concentration camp.

At age 90, Eger still practices in La Jolla. She gives much credit for both her career and coming to grips with her past life to Viktor Frankl, the late, fellow Holocaust survivor who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning and much later become Eger’s mentor and friend. In The Choice, Eger has built upon Frankl’s philosophy, and in liberating herself from the emotional pain of the Holocaust, she is able to pass on psychological insights to her patients.

We see Eger as a teenager in the concentration camps, later as a bride whose husband had fought alongside the partisans, and later still as an immigrant to the United States. When she was in the camps, to ward off her psychological sense of powerlessness, deprivation, and humiliation–for example, when the murderous camp doctor Josef Mengele made her dance in front of him—she would concentrate her thoughts internally, enabling her to escape to inside herself, to the happier, pre-Holocaust memories and experiences of her childhood. However, while this technique was somewhat successful during the Holocaust, it did not help her much afterwards as she was dealing with life as a non-English speaking immigrant in the United States, and a troubled marriage. At that point in her life, to go inside herself meant that she had to deal with Holocaust memories, which were far too painful.

Eventually, Eger came to the conclusion that the only way to be free was to realize that she could not change the past, but that she had choices about how she would live in the present.  What choices?  “The choice to accept myself as I am: human, imperfect. And the choice to be responsible for my own happiness. To forgive my flaws and reclaim my innocence.  To stop asking why I deserved to survive.  To function as well as I can, to commit myself to serve others, to do everything in my power to honor my parents, to see to it that they did not die in vain.  To do my best, in my limited capacity, so future generations don’t experience what I did.  To be useful, to be used up, to survive and to thrive so I can use every moment to make the world a better place.  And to finally, finally stop running from the past.  To do everything possible to redeem it, and then let it go.”

She can, and did, choose to be a mensch.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected]


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One Response to “Eger: How to survive evil and restore emotional freedom”

  1. Eva Trieger says:

    Thank you for reviewing this courageous woman’s book. Having met and marveled at Dr. Eger, I look forward to reading her story and gleaning her sage advice about survival and maintaining sanity and compassion. She is 21st century heroine and aishes chayil.


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