The Profile Dossier: Edith Eva Eger, the Holocaust Survivor Who Escaped the Prison of Her Mind
"Freedom without responsibility is anarchy."
“No one can take away from you what you've put in your mind.”
Those were the words that carried Edith Eva Eger through the darkest time in her life. Those were the words she repeated to herself over and over again when she felt like she was losing the will to live. Those were the words that saved her.
In 1944, Eger was a 16-year-old who had a promising career in ballet and a boyfriend she loved dearly — until the day when everything changed. Her family was ushered out of their home by the Nazis, put on a train in Hungary, and taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Once they arrived, her parents were sent to the gas chambers, while Eger and her sister Magda were left to fend for themselves in what appeared to be hell on earth. She was beaten by a Nazi soldier so badly that he broke her back, she saw desperate cellmates resort to cannibalism, and she witnessed unimaginable acts of cruelty and torture.
Eger was aware that even if her physical body survived, she was at risk of losing her mind. So she remembered the words of her mom: "No one can take away from you what you've put in your mind."
Eger began constructing an inner world that would allow her to preserve her sanity. She would remember the first time that she and her boyfriend held hands, she thought about the smell of her mom's cooking, and she visualized a future where she has kids and a life she loves.
“It was the first time I saw that we have a choice: to pay attention to what we’ve lost or to pay attention to what we still have," she says.
About a year into her imprisonment, Eger was covered in sores and slowly dying of starvation. She weighed only 40 pounds when on May 4, 1945, a young American soldier noticed Eger's hand moving in a pile of dead bodies. He summoned medical help and pulled her back from the brink of death.
"Surviving Auschwitz was only the first leg of my journey to freedom," Eger says. "For many decades, I remained a prisoner of the past."
Eger went on to get married, have kids, move to the United States, and become a clinical psychologist and lecturer, helping people heal from trauma. Through her experiences, she helps her patients see that ultimate freedom lies in the power to choose.
“You can't change what happened, you can't change what you did or what was done to you," she says. "But you can choose how you live now. My precious, you can choose to be free.”
Here's how Eger survived the impossible, escaped the prison of her own mind, and learned to heal from the wounds of the past.
On surviving Auschwitz: In her memoir, Eger recounts the unimaginable experiences she endured, including being made to dance for the infamous "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele. She explains how the horrors of the Holocaust helped her learn to live again with an unshakeable mental resilience. This is one of the best books I've ever read.
On dealing with negative emotions: In her practical guidebook, The Gift, Eger shows us how to stop destructive patterns and imprisoning thoughts to find freedom and enjoy life. She describes the twelve most pervasive imprisoning beliefs she has known—including fear, grief, anger, secrets, stress, guilt, shame, and avoidance—and the tools she has discovered to deal with these universal challenges.
On escaping the prison of our mind: In this powerful conversation, Eger helps us understand the nature of trauma, anger, resilience, and the power of choosing how we see ourselves. The worst prison, Eger says, is the one we build in our own minds. "Freedom is very scary," Eger says. "Freedom without responsibility is anarchy." If you listen to one thing today, let it be this.
On recovering from trauma: In her 90s, Eger reminds us what courage looks like in the worst of times. She helps us to understand that our circumstances don’t define what makes us free and that being free is a choice we must make every day. In this Oprah podcast, she shares her healing process and explains how serving others in her work as a psychologist helped her to formulate a healthy relationship with her own trauma.
On finding a calling: As a clinical psychologist, Eger says she was lucky to find a calling — not a job. "If you have a job, you want to make the most amount of money with the least amount of work," she says. "But with your calling, I never look at the clock. Love is a four letter-word spelled T-I-M-E."
On the journey to healing: Grieving is a process that involves feeling your feelings, Eger says. You should cry until you can't cry anymore. If you feel anger, you should scream, you should laugh. This is all normal. "You'll feel better, because what comes out of your body doesn't make you ill," she explains. "What stays in does." Once you give yourself permission to feel the emotions that arise, the healing process begins.
On mastering your self-dialogue: Each morning, Eger looks at her reflection in the mirror and says, "Edie, I love you." It's not narcissistic to start your day with self-love and self-care. "Self-dialogue is so important," she says. "What you practice is who you become, and the way you think is how you will feel."
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
No one can make you a victim but you: Suffering is universal, Eger says, "but victimhood is optional." We're all likely to be victimized in some way through the course of our lives. At some point, we will suffer some kind of affliction or abuse, caused by circumstances or people over which we have little or no control. "This is victimization," she says. "It comes from the outside. It's the neighborhood bully, the boss who rages, the spouse who hits, the lover who cheats, the discriminatory law, the accident that lands you in the hospital." On the flip side, victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. "We become victims not because of what happens to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimization. We develop a victim's mind — a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, and without healthy limits or boundaries. We become our own jailers when we choose the confines of the victim's mind.” If you don't give in to victimhood, you can develop a kind of mental resilience that will carry you through the most difficult situations.
Resist adopting other people's labels: There is so much power in choosing how we see ourselves and rejecting the labels that others put on us. "I refuse to say I'm a victim because it's not my identity," she says. "It's not who I am. It's what was done to me." You have to be very careful not to internalize the labels others slap on you. As Toni Morrison once wrote, "The definitions belong to the definers, not the defined."
Recognize that you make a choice every day: When Eger was young, a boy in Texas told her that he wanted America to be white again and that he wanted to kill all the Jews. "I had a choice to react or respond," she says. "There is a difference." If she would have reacted, she likely would've punched him and said, "Who do you think you are?" But she chose to respond. "I took a deep breath," she says. "My empathy took a hold of me, and I said, 'Tell me more.'" Over time, she learned that she can choose how to respond to her past. "I can be miserable, or I can be hopeful—I can be depressed, or I can be happy," she says. "I’m here, this is now, I have learned to tell myself, over and over, until the panicky feeling begins to ease.”
Find a window: Eger's mom used to tell the kids: "When you can't get in through the door, go in through the window." There is no door for survival or recovery. "It's all windows — latches you can't reach easily, panes too small, spaces where a body shouldn't fit, but you can't stand where you are. You must find a way," Eger says. Examine the situation, find the tiny glimpse of hope, and start moving in that direction no matter how difficult or uncomfortable it may feel.
Choose your thoughts carefully: If you've been receiving The Profile for a while, you know that I'm obsessed with the idea of improving your content diet. What you put into your brain directly affects how you think and how you act. When Eger and her family were on the train to Auschwitz, her mom told her: “We don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but no one can take away from you what you put in your own mind.” Every time she felt despair, she tried to imagine a better reality that would inject joy into her brain. Your thoughts will determine how you feel and who you become.
Create a family constitution: As a parent, she says, you should aim to be authoritative and not authoritarian. The former encourages open communication while the latter is strict with no leeway for input. Eger suggests sitting down with your family and drafting a "family constitution. "You write a constitution, and the kids have to take part in the decision process," she says. The more you involve your children in a democratic process where their ideas are listened to, challenged, and respected, the more they'll learn to do the same for others.
There is no light without darkness: We often do everything in our power to avoid feeling pain. But Eger reminds us: It's OK to take the risk of being vulnerable — even if you end up getting hurt. There is no forgiveness without rage. There is no love without fear. There is no light without darkness. "It's good to feel the feeling rather than medicate it away," Eger says. "You may not like [how you feel]. It may be inconvenient. But you'll learn that it's temporary and that you can survive it. Everything is temporary." If you're not able to overcome your fear of getting hurt, you won't be able to have intimacy — remember, fear cannot co-exist with love.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“The only place where we can exercise our freedom of choice is in the present.”
“Perfectionism is the belief that something is broken - you. So you dress up your brokenness with degrees, achievements, accolades, pieces of paper, none of which can fix what you think you are fixing.”
“When we seek revenge, even non-violent revenge, we are revolving, not evolving.”
“We cannot choose to have a life free of hurt. But we can choose to be free, to escape the past, no matter what befalls us, and to embrace the possible.”
"The opposite of depression is expression. What comes out of our body doesn't make us ill. What stays in there does."
“To forgive is to grieve—for what happened, for what didn’t happen—and to give up the need for a different past.”
"Love is a four-letter word spelled T-I-M-E."
“Taking risks doesn’t mean throwing ourselves blindly into danger. But it means embracing our fears so that we aren’t imprisoned by them.”
“Just be you — [a] one of a kind, unique, authentic person that never ever was in a million years before or after you. That’s really something to wow about.”
“You can live to avenge the past, or you can live to enrich the present.”
"Self-love is where everything begins and ends."
“Survivors don't have time to ask, 'Why me?' For survivors, the only relevant question is, 'What now?'"