By Dolores Davies
La Jolla resident and Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eger will never forget the day she arrived in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944 with her mother and sister. Her mother was immediately whisked away to the "showers," never to be seen again. They were stripped of their clothing and shaved head to toe.
"I remember looking at my sister Magda and all of her long, beautiful hair was gone," Eger said. "Then she asked me how she looked and the only thing I could think of was how beautiful her eyes were, so I said: 'Your eyes are so beautiful, Magda. I couldn't see how beautiful they were with all that hair.' "
To Eger, who was liberated from Auschwitz by American troops in 1945, she was able to survive the brutal concentration camps of Nazi Germany by not being a victim. While she was most certainly victimized, she says, she never thought of herself as a victim.
Eger shared her experiences and her strategies for coping at UCSD's Holocaust Living Workshop, a joint program sponsored by the UCSD Libraries and the Judaic Studies Program. Eger, who came to the United State with her husband and daughter in 1949, has a psychotherapy practice, and counsels patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. She survived the Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Gunskirchen concentration camps.
At Auschwitz, Eger, who was a talented gymnast as a child, was selected by SS officer and physician Josef Mengele to dance for him when he visited the barracks. As a token of thanks, Mengele, known as the Angel of Death, would give her a piece of bread.
"I told myself I was dancing to Tchaikovsky," Eger said. "It was the only way I could do it. I always shared the bread with my inmates because cooperating with your fellow inmates was necessary for survival. It was essential."
Eger's resourcefulness and inner strength no doubt saved her life countless times. Surrounded by what she calls "the walking dead," people who had just given up, it was not uncommon to witness suicides, people running into the electric wires that surrounded the camp to electrocute themselves. She even foiled an attempt to drag her to the gas chamber by disorienting a guard by doing a cartwheel and the splits. Eventually, she and Magda ended up carrying ammunitions for the Nazis on the infamous "Death March."
Four years after her release from Auschwitz, Eger arrived in Baltimore with her husband and daughter, penniless and speaking no English. Later, she became "addicted to higher education," recalling her mother's words to her on the cattle car to the camps: "No one can ever take away what you put in your mind."
When she received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas, she decided she would use her experience and knowledge to help others deal with emotional pain and trauma. She spent more than a decade counseling military families; today, she works with soldiers who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan who are battling post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I was working with two different soldiers, both paraplegics," Eger said. "One could think of nothing but 'why me?' The other noticed how much better he could see the flowers from his wheelchair."
In guiding her patients, Eger tries to coach them to the point where they say "what now?" and not "why me?"
"You have freedom of choice. It's not what happens to you; it's about what you do with that experience."
Holocaust Living History Workshops
- Speakers: Fred Schenk, Feb. 24; Dr. Robert Frimtzis, March 3
- When/Where: 5 p.m. in the Seuss Room on the main floor of the Geisel Library, UCSD campus
- Cost: Free
- Information: email@example.com, (858) 534-7661, http://orpheus.ucsd.edu/sites/hlhw