By Kevin Ritchie
The trick to surviving the Covid-19 pandemic is choice, coupled to a vigilant guard over what you allow yourself to think, says Dr Edith Eger.
“In these times, pay a lot of attention to what we think, as what we think, we create. Pay attention to what you focus on because the chances are that (which you focus on) is what will happen,” she says.
Eger is a 92-year-old psychologist, based in the US. Born in Hungary in 1927, she’s the author of the best-selling The Choice, which she wrote two years ago; an account of her life as a 17-year-old forced to dance in front of Nazi Germany’s most infamous villain, Dr Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz death camp – or be sent like her mother to the gas chambers.
Interviewed by radio host Africa Melane, she delivered the keynote talk entitled “Rising Above Lockdown” at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies virtual Gauteng Council meeting on Sunday night (August 16, 2020), from her home in California. Her story, said Fani Titi, joint CEO of Investec which sponsored the talk, was one that had had a profound impact on his own life with lessons that were both particularly moving and relevant, which could help the country as a whole move forward.
“Despite the harrowing experiences to which the majority of people in this country were subjected to, this does not have to mean that we look at ourselves as victims but rather we can respond to this as freely choosing individuals who opt to live a positive life, not despite what we experienced, but because of it.”
The Holocaust would claim the lives of 6 million Jews, two-thirds of the European Jewish population at the time. Eger was sent to Auschwitz, where ultimately, 1.1-million people would be murdered – 960 000 of them Jews – out of the 1,3-million sent there between 1940 and 1945.
Eger was liberated by the American army on May 4, 1945. Soldiers thought she was dead until they saw her hand moving from beneath a pile of bodies. Disinterred and taken to army doctors, Eger was discovered to be suffering from a broken back, typhoid fever, pleurisy and pneumonia.
“The Nazis could beat me, torture me, throw me in the gas chamber at any minute, but they could never murder my spirit,” she says.
Eventually, she would recover, move to the then Czechoslovakia and marry before emigrating to the US in 1949, where she worked in a factory. Twenty years later she would graduate with her bachelor’s degree in psychology and do her doctoral internship, both in Texas. She would also join the NAACP and march with civil rights activist Martin Luther King.
A ballerina, she was able to dance “The Blue Danube” for Mengele by pretending she was dancing the waltz in Romeo and Juliet at the Budapest Opera House. He spared her life and gave her some bread, which she shared with her fellow inmates. Later on, during the death march, she stumbled and almost fell from hunger and fatigue. The concentration camp guards would have shot her, except the people she had shared her food with, reached out and carried her.
Arriving in America, penniless, unable to speak English she was consumed by anger – and survivor’s guilt. She was, she says, part of the conspiracy of silence.
“I never forgave myself that I survived.” It was so bad that she never showed up for her own graduation 20 years later in El Paso. But eventually, including becoming friends with the world-renowned Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl after reading his memoir “Search for Meaning”, that she began to break her silence.
“God had a plan for me; to survive (the death camps) and take people from darkness to light, from prison to freedom. The key is in your pocket. It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with it. I was a survivor, not the victim.
“Find the real you in this time of Covid. In Auschwitz when we went for a shower, we had no guarantee that there would be water or gas that came out. I teach people how to get up in the morning and love themselves because self-love is self-care it’s not narcissism. When people come to me with depression, I ask them to try to look within themselves.”
It’s important to have a purpose, Eger says, and to follow it, but to be a realist rather than an idealist. Happiness must come from within; it cannot be the product of another person. She’s never forgotten what happened to her, but she’s learnt to make sense of it. Surviving the Holocaust is her “cherished wound”.
“I still have nightmares, I still see Mengele’s evil eyes in my mind,” she admits. “I closed my eyes when I danced for him, so I wouldn’t see those eyes. As I danced, I prayed that I wouldn’t be sent to the gas chambers, but I also learnt to pray for my enemy too.”
“Life is very short; I am going to be very satisfied. This is the evening of my life, I don’t have time to waste in anger, my God gave me passion and purpose. I was told I was sub-human that I wouldn’t get out alive – every day. They took my blood and when I asked why I was told it was to give German soldiers who were going to win the war and take over the world.
“I wanted to jerk my arm away and say ‘with my blood? You’re going to win the war?’ I was a ballerina!”
The critical thing, she says, was not to react but to respond, to understand the difference between being a victim and being victimised. It’s an important distinction she says because far too often those who are victims often end up victimising others. And yet it was not easy, she was consumed by anger and rage after being liberated. She had to understand that the rage was underpinned by pain and fear.
“I refused to be a victim; it is what was done to me. Instead of revolving, we need to evolve, like butterflies metamorphose to fly free, by being the best you.”
It’s the same lesson that can be applied to overcoming lockdown and learning to live with Covid-19, she says.
“The worst condition brings out the best in us,” she says. Covid-19 is a time to rediscover the truth of the global family, the single humanity, but it won’t be easy, she cautions.
“This is a time to take stock of your life. These aren’t problems, these are challenges, opportunities to rise above me, me, me and commit ourselves to each other. All we have is each other.”