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The Choice by Edith Eger, a Holocaust survivor

In this moving extract, trauma psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Edith Eger makes peace with the past as she returns to Auschwitz  

I stay on the train for another stop, and another, through Berlin, through Poznan. I think of Dr. Hans Selye—a fellow Hungarian—who said stress is the body’s response to any demand for change. Our automatic responses are to fight or to flee—but in Auschwitz, where we endured more than stress, where we lived in distress, the stakes life and death, never knowing what would happen next, the options to fight or flee didn’t exist. I would have been shot if I’d fought back, electrocuted if I’d tried to run away. So I learned to flow, I learned to stay in the situation, to develop the only thing I had left, to look within for the part of me that no Nazi could ever murder. To find and hold on to my truest self. Maybe I’m not losing skin. Maybe I am only stretching. Stretching to encompass every aspect of who I am—and have been—and can become.

When we heal, we embrace our real and possible selves. I had a patient who was obese, and she was cruel to herself every time she saw her reflection or stepped on a scale. She called herself a cow, disgusting. She believed her husband found her disappointing and her children found her embarrassing, that the people who loved her deserved better. But for her to be the person she wanted to be she first had to love herself for who she was. We sat in my office and I would ask her to pick a part of her body—a toe, a finger, her stomach, her neck, her chin—and talk about it in a loving way. It looks like this, it feels like this, it is beautiful because . . . It was awkward at first, even painful. It was easier for her to bash herself than to spend time attentively, willingly, in her own skin. We went slowly, we went gently. I began to notice little changes. She came to see me one day wearing a beautiful bright new scarf. Another day she had treated herself to a pedicure. Another day she told me she had called the sister she had grown distant from. Another time she had discovered that she loved walking on the trail around the park where her daughter played soccer. As she practiced loving all parts of herself, she discovered more joy in her life, and more ease. She also began to lose weight. Release begins with acceptance.

To heal, we embrace the dark. We walk through the shadow of the valley on our way to the light. I worked with a Vietnam veteran who came home desperate to resume the life he had before the war. But he returned with physical and psychological wounds: He was impotent, he couldn’t find a job. His wife left him. When he sought my help, he was lost in the chaos of divorce and what felt to him like the death of his sexuality and identity. I gave him all of my compassion, but he was stuck, he was angry, caught in the quicksand of his loss. I felt powerless to help him out. The more I tried to love him back from the pit of despair, the deeper he sank.

As a last resort I decided to try hypnotherapy. I regressed him back to the war, when he was a bomber pilot, when he was in control, before he came home and lost it all. In his hypnotic state, he told me, “In Vietnam, I could drink as much as I wanted to. I could fuck as much as I wanted to.” He got red in the face and screamed, “And I could kill as much as I wanted to!” In the war he wasn’t killing people; he was killing “gooks,” he was killing subhumans. Just as the Nazis weren’t killing people at the death camps; they were eradicating a cancer. The war had brought about his injury and altered his life, and yet he missed the war. He missed the sense of power he gained in fighting an enemy, in feeling himself to be in an invulnerable class, above another nationality, above another race.

None of my unconditional love did any good until I gave him permission to express the part of him that he was grieving, the part that was both powerful and dark, the part he could no longer express. I don’t mean that he needed to kill again in order to be whole. I mean that to end his way out of victimhood he needed to come to terms with his impotence and his power, the ways he had been injured and the ways he had hurt, his pride and his shame. The only antidote to brokenness is the whole self.

Maybe to heal isn’t to erase the scar, or even to make the scar. To heal is to cherish the wound.

It is the middle of the afternoon when we reach Kraków. We will sleep here tonight—or try to. Tomorrow we will take a cab to Auschwitz. Béla wants to tour the Old Town, and I try to pay attention to the medieval architecture, but my mind is too heavy with expectation—a strange mix of promise and dread. We pause outside St. Mary’s Church to hear the trumpeter play the hejnał that marks the top of every hour. A group of teenage boys jostles past us, joking loudly in Polish, but I don’t feel their merriment, I feel anxious. These young men, a little older than my grandchildren, remind me how soon the next generation will come of age. Has my generation taught the youth well enough to prevent another Holocaust from occurring? Or will our hard- won freedom capsize in a new sea of hate?

The Choice by Edith Eger

I would have been shot if I’d fought back, electrocuted if I’d tried to run away. So I learned to look within for the part of me that no Nazi could ever murder

The Choice by Edith Eger

I have had many opportunities to influence young people— my own children and grandchildren, my former students, the audiences I address around the world, individual patients. On the eve of my return to Auschwitz, my responsibility to them feels especially potent. It isn’t just for myself that I’m going back. It’s for all that ripples out from me.

Do I have what it takes to make a difference? Can I pass on my strength instead of my loss? My love instead of my hatred?

I’ve been tested before. A fourteen-year-old boy who had participated in a car theft was sent to me by a judge. The boy wore brown boots, a brown shirt. He leaned his elbow on my desk. He said, “It’s time for America to be white again. I’m going to kill all the Jews, all the niggers, all the Mexicans, all the chinks.”

I thought I would be sick. I struggled not to run from the room. What is the meaning of this? I wanted to shout. I wanted to shake the boy, say, Who do you think you’re talking to? I saw my mother go to the gas chamber. I would have been justified. And maybe it was my job to set him straight, maybe that’s why God had sent him my way. To nip his hate in the bud. I could feel the rush of righteousness. It felt good to be angry. Better angry than afraid.

But then I heard a voice within. Find the bigot in you, the voice said. Find the bigot in you.

I tried to silence that voice. I listed my many objections to the very notion that I could be a bigot. I came to America penniless. I used the “colored” bathroom in solidarity with my fellow African American factory workers. I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to end segregation. But the voice insisted: Find the bigot in you. Find the part in you that is judging, assigning labels, diminishing another’s humanity, making others less than who they are.

The boy continued to rant about the blights to America’s purity. My whole being trembled with unease, and I struggled with the inclination to wag my finger, shake my fist, make him accountable for his hate—without being accountable for my own. This boy didn’t kill my parents. Withholding my love wouldn’t conquer his prejudice.

I prayed for the ability to meet him with love. I summoned every image I had of unconditional love. I thought of Corrie ten Boom, one of the Righteous Gentiles. She and her family resisted Hitler by hiding hundreds of Jews in their home, and she ended up in a concentration camp herself. Her sister perished there—she died in Corrie’s arms. Corrie was released due to a clerical error one day before all of the inmates at Ravensbrück were executed. And a few years after the war, she met one of the most vicious guards at her camp, one of the men who were responsible for her sister’s death. She could have spit on him, wished him death, cursed his name. But she prayed for the strength to forgive him, and she took his hands in her own. She says that in that moment, the former prisoner clasping the hands of the former guard, she felt the purest and most profound love. I tried to find that embrace, that compassion, in my own heart, to fill my eyes with that quality of kindness. I wondered if it was possible that this racist boy had been sent to me so I could learn about unconditional love. What opportunity did I have in this moment? What choice could I make right then that could move me in the direction of love?

I had an opportunity to love this young person, just for him, for his singular being and our shared humanity. The opportunity to welcome him to say anything, feel any feeling, without the fear of being judged. I remembered a German family that was stationed for a while at Fort Bliss, how the girl would climb into my lap and call me Oma—Grandma—and this little benediction from a child felt like the answer to the fantasy I’d had as I passed through German towns with Magda and the other inmates, as the children spat at us, when I dreamed of a day when German children would know they didn’t have to hate me. And in my own lifetime, that day came to pass. I thought of a statistic I read, that most of the members of white supremacist groups in America lost one of their parents before they were ten years old. These are lost children looking for an identity, looking for a way to feel strength, to feel like they matter.

And so I gathered myself up and I looked at this young man as lovingly as I could. I said three words: “Tell me more.”

I didn’t say much more than that during his first visit. I listened. I empathized. He was so much like me after the war. We had both lost our parents—his to neglect and abandonment, mine to death. We both thought of ourselves as damaged goods. In letting go of my judgment, in letting go of my desire for him to be or believe anything different, by seeing his vulnerability and his yearning for belonging and love, in allowing myself to get past my own fear and anger in order to accept and love him, I was able to give him something his brown shirt and brown boots couldn’t—an authentic image of his own worth. When he left my office that day, he didn’t know a thing about my history. But he had seen an alternative to hate and prejudice, he was no longer talking about killing, he had shown me his soft smile. And I had taken responsibility that I not perpetuate hostility and blame, that I not bow to hate and say, You are too much for me. 

The Choice by Edith Eger

I remind myself that each of us has an Adolf Hitler and a Corrie ten Boom within us. We have the capacity to hate and the capacity to love. Which one we reach for—our inner Hitler or inner ten Boom—is up to us.

Now, on the eve of my return to prison, I remind myself that each of us has an Adolf Hitler and a Corrie ten Boom within us. We have the capacity to hate and the capacity to love. Which one we reach for—our inner Hitler or inner ten Boom—is up to us.

In the morning, we hire a cab to drive us the hour to Auschwitz. Béla engages the driver in chitchat about his family, his children. I take in the view I didn’t see when I was sixteen, when I approached Auschwitz from within the dark of a cattle car. Farms, villages, green. Life continues, as it did all around us when we were imprisoned there.

The driver drops us of, and Béla and I are alone again, standing before my former prison. The wrought-iron sign looms: arbeit macht frei, work will set you free. My legs shake at the sight, at the memory of how these words gave my father hope. We will work until the end of the war, he thought. It will last for just a little while, and then we’ll be free. Arbeit Macht Frei. These words kept us calm until the gas chamber doors locked around our loved ones, until panic was futile. And then these words became a daily, an hourly irony, because here nothing could set you free. Death was the only escape. And so even the idea of freedom became another form of hopelessness.

The grass is lush. The trees have filled in. But the clouds are the color of bone, and beneath them the man-made structures, even the ones in ruins, dominate the landscape. Miles and miles of relentless fence. A vast expanse of crumbling brick barracks and bare rectangular patches where buildings used to stand. The bleak horizontal lines—of barracks, fence, tower—are regular and orderly, but there is no life in this geometry. This is the geometry of systematic torture and death. Mathematical annihilation. And then I notice it again, the thing that haunted me those hellish months when this was my home: I can’t see or hear a single bird. No birds live here. Not even now. The sky is bare of their wings, the silence deeper because of the absence of their song.

Tourists gather. Our tour commences. We are a small group of eight or ten. The immensity crushes. I sense it in our stillness, in the way we almost stop breathing. There is no fathoming the enormity of the horror committed in this place. I was here while the res burned, I woke and worked and slept to the stench of burning corpses, and even I can’t fathom it. The brain tries to contain the numbers, tries to take in the confounding accumulation of things that have been assembled and put on display for the visitors—the suitcases wrested from the soon to be dead, the bowls and plates and cups, the thousands upon thousands of pairs of glasses amassed in a tangle like a surreal tumbleweed. The baby clothes crocheted by loving hands for babies who never became children or women or men. The 67-foot-long glass case filled entirely with human hair. We count: 4,700 corpses cremated in each re, 75,000 Polish dead, 21,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Soviets. The numbers accrue and accrue. We can form the equation—we can do the math that describes the more than one million dead at Auschwitz. We can add that number to the rosters of the dead at the thousands of other death camps in the Europe of my youth, to the corpses dumped in ditches or rivers before they were ever sent to a death camp. But there is no equation that can adequately summarize the effect of such total loss. There is no language that can explain the systematic inhumanity of this human-made death factory. More than one million people were murdered right here where I stand. It is the world’s biggest cemetery. And in all the tens, hundreds, thousands, millions of dead, in all the possessions packed and then forcibly relinquished, in all the miles of fence and brick, another number looms. The number zero. Here in the world’s biggest cemetery, there is not one single grave. Only the empty spaces where the crematories and gas chambers, hastily destroyed by the Nazis before liberation, stood. The bare patches of ground where my parents died.

We complete the tour of the men’s camp. I still must go to the women’s side, to Birkenau. That is why I am here. Béla asks if I want him to come with me, but I shake my head. This last piece of the journey I must travel alone.

I leave Béla at the entrance gate and I am back in the past. Music plays through the loudspeakers, festive sounds that contradict the bleak surroundings. You see, my father says, it can’t be a terrible place. We’ll only work a little, till the war’s over. It is temporary. We can survive this. He joins his line and waves to me. Do I wave back to him? O memory, tell me that I waved to my father before he died.

My mother links her arm in mine. We walk side by side. “Button your coat,” she says. “Stand tall.” I am back inside the image that has occupied my inward gaze for most of my life: three hungry women in wool coats, arms linked, in a barren yard. My mother. My sister. Me.

I am wearing the coat that I put on that April dawn, I am slim and at-chested, my hair tucked back under a scarf. My mother scolds me again to stand tall. “You’re a woman, not a child,” she says. There is a purpose to her nagging. She wants me to look every day of my sixteen years and more. My survival depends on it.

And yet, I won’t for the life of me let go of my mother’s hand. The guards point and shove. We inch forward in our line. I see Mengele’s heavy eyes ahead, the gapped teeth when he grins. He is conducting. He is an eager host. “Is anyone sick?” he asks, solicitous. “Over forty? Under fourteen? Go left, go left.”

This is our last chance. To share words, to share silence. To embrace. This time I know it is the end. And still I come up short. I just want my mother to look at me. To reassure me. To look at me and never look away. What is this need I hand to her again and again, this impossible thing I want?

It’s our turn now. Dr. Mengele lifts his finger. “Is she your mother or your sister?” he asks.

I cling to my mother’s hand, Magda hugs her other side. Although none of us knows the meaning of being sent left, of being sent right, my mother has intuited the need for me to appear my age or older, for me to look old enough to get through the first selection line alive. Her hair is gray but her face is as smooth as mine. She could pass for my sister. But I don’t think about which word will protect her: “mother” or “sister.” I don’t think at all. I only feel every single cell in me that loves her, that needs her. She is my mother, my mama, my only mama. And so I say the word that I have spent the rest of my life trying to banish from my consciousness, the word that I have not let myself remember, until today.

“Mother,” I say.

As soon as the word is out of my mouth, I want to pull it back into my throat. I have realized too late the significance of the question. Is she your mother or your sister? “Sister, sister, sister!” I want to scream. Mengele points my mother to the left. She follows behind the young children and the elderly, the mothers who are pregnant or holding babies in their arms. I will follow her. I won’t let her out of my sight. I begin to run toward my mother, but Mengele grabs my shoulder. “You’ll see your mother very soon,” he says. He pushes me to the right. Toward Magda. To the other side. To life.

“Mama!” I call. We are separated again, in memory as we were in life, but I will not let memory be another dead end. “Mama!” I say. I will not be satisfied with the back of her head. I must see the full sun of her face.

She turns to look at me. She is a point of stillness in the marching river of the other condemned. I feel her radiance, the beauty that was more than beauty, that she often hid under her sadness and disapproval. She sees me watching her. She smiles. It’s a small smile. A sad smile.

“I should have said ‘sister’! Why didn’t I say ‘sister’?” I call to her across the years, to ask her forgiveness. That is what I have returned to Auschwitz to receive, I think. To hear her tell me I did the best with what I knew. That I made the right choice.

But she can’t say that, or even if she did, I wouldn’t believe it. I can forgive the Nazis, but how can I forgive myself? I would live it all again, every selection line, every shower, every freezing- cold night and deadly roll call, every haunted meal, every breath of smoke-charred air, every time I nearly died or wanted to, if I could only live this moment over, this moment and the one just before it, when I could have made a different choice. When I could have given a different answer to Mengele’s question. When I could have saved, if even for a day, my mother’s life.

My mother turns away. I watch her gray coat, her soft shoulders, her hair that is coiled and shining, receding from me. I see her walk away with the other women and children, toward the locker rooms, where they will undress, where she will take o the coat that still holds Klara’s caul, where they will be told to memorize the hook number where they’ve stored their clothes, as though they will be returning to that dress, to that coat, to that pair of shoes. My mother will stand naked with the other mothers—the grandmothers, the young mothers with their babies in their arms—and with the children of mothers who were sent to the line that Magda and I joined. She will le down the stairs into the room with showerheads on the walls, where more and more people will be pushed inside until the room is damp with sweat and tears and echoing with the cries of the terrified women and children, until it is packed and there is not enough air to breathe. Will she notice the small square windows in the ceiling through which the guards will push the poison? For how long will she know she is dying? Long enough to think of me and Magda and Klara? Of my father? Long enough to say a prayer to her mother? Long enough to feel angry at me for saying the word that in one quick second sent her to her death?

If I’d known my mother would die that day, I would have said a different word. Or nothing at all. I could have followed her to the showers and died with her. I could have done something different. I could have done more. I believe this.

And yet. (This “and yet” opening like a door.) How easily a life can become a litany of guilt and regret, a song that keeps echoing with the same chorus, with the inability to forgive ourselves. How easily the life we didn’t live becomes the only life we prize. How easily we are seduced by the fantasy that we are in control, that we were ever in control, that the things we could or should have done or said have the power, if only we had done or said them, to cure pain, to erase suffering, to vanish loss. How easily we can cling to—worship—the choices we think we could or should have made.

Could I have saved my mother? Maybe. And I will live for all of the rest of my life with that possibility. And I can castigate myself for having made the wrong choice. That is my prerogative. Or I can accept that the more important choice is not the one I made when I was hungry and terrified, when we were surrounded by dogs and guns and uncertainty, when I was sixteen; it’s the one I make now. 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. I can make the choice that all of us can make. I can’t ever change the past. But there is a life I can save: It is mine. The one I am living right now, this precious moment.

I am ready to go. I take a stone from the ground, a little one, rough, gray, unremarkable. I squeeze the stone. In Jewish tradition, we place small stones on graves as a sign of respect for the dead, to o er mitzvah, or blessing. The stone signifies that the dead live on, in our hearts and memories. The stone in my hand is a symbol of my enduring love for my parents. And it is an emblem of the guilt and the grief I came here to face— something immense and terrifying that all the same I can hold in my hand. It is the death of my parents. It is the death of the life that was. It is what didn’t happen. And it is the birth of the life that is. Of the patience and compassion I learned here, the ability to stop judging myself, the ability to respond instead of react. It is the truth and the peace I have come here to discover, and all that I can finally put to rest and leave behind.

I leave the stone on the patch of earth where my barrack used to be, where I slept on a wooden shelf with five other girls, where I closed my eyes as “The Blue Danube” played and I danced for my life. I miss you, I say to my parents. I love you. I’ll always love you.

And to the vast campus of death that consumed my parents and so very many others, to the classroom of horror that still had something sacred to teach me about how to live—that I was victimized but I’m not a victim, that I was hurt but not broken, that the soul never dies, that meaning and purpose can come from deep in the heart of what hurts us the most—I utter my final words. Goodbye, I say. And, Thank you. Thank you for life, and for the ability to finally accept the life that is.

I walk toward the iron gate of my old prison, toward Béla waiting for me on the grass. Out of the corner of my eye I see a man in uniform pacing back and forth under the sign. He is a museum guard, not a soldier. But it is impossible, when I see him marching in his uniform, not to freeze, not to hold my breath, not to expect the shout of a gun, the blast of bullets. For a split second I am a terrified girl again, a girl who is in danger. I am the imprisoned me. But I breathe, I wait for the moment to pass. I feel for the blue American passport in my coat pocket. The guard reaches the wrought-iron sign and turns around, marching back into the prison. He must stay here. It is his duty to stay. But I can leave. I am free!

I leave Auschwitz. I skip out! I pass under the words arbeit macht frei. How cruel and mocking those words were when we realized that nothing we could do would set us free. But as I leave the barracks and the ruined crematories and the watch houses and the visitors and the museum guard behind me, as I skip under the dark iron letters toward my husband, I see the words spark with truth. Work has set me free. I survived so that I could do my work. Not the work the Nazis meant—the hard labor of sacrifice and hunger, of exhaustion and enslavement. It was the inner work. Of learning to survive and thrive, of learning to forgive myself, of helping others to do the same. And when I do this work, then I am no longer the hostage or the prisoner of anything. I am free.

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