In September 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, Dr Edith Eger was asked to give a Tedx Talk titled The Journey of Grieving, Feeling and Healing. Dwarfed by a huge armchair, Eger — an exceptionally elegant lady with a slick of red lipstick and perfectly set hair — looks directly into the camera and tells her viewers: “Find hope in hopelessness and look for a gift in everything.”
Powerful words, but made more so because as a teenager, Eger survived Auschwitz. In her first book, The Choice, which she wrote five years ago in her late 80s and which became a Sunday Times bestseller, she recounts being wrenched from her home in Kassa, Hungary at the age of 16, taken to a factory with her family and later deported to Auschwitz, where her parents and teenage sweetheart were murdered. There, along with her sister Magda, she survived unimaginable horrors before being forced to go on a notorious death march. After liberation from Gunskirchen, Eger returned to Hungary and got married, before fleeing to America in 1949 with her husband, Béla, and young daughter to escape Communist persecution.
The Choice charts not only her physical but also mental survival of Auschwitz and its aftermath, as Eger, a renowned clinical psychologist, confronts her painful past and grieves her profound losses, but ultimately chooses not to be defined by them.
Speaking with a discernible Hungarian accent over Zoom from her home in La Jolla, California, she tells me: “I’m introduced as Dr Eger, a survivor of Auschwitz, but I say: ‘I am a human being who went through an experience. It’s not my identity. It’s not who I am. It’s what was done to me.’ I think that’s a big difference. I refuse to be a victim.”
Eger’s decision to embrace life as a survivor — or, as she puts it, “a thriver” — has earned her a huge global following, which counts among it Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow. After The Choice, her devotees appealed for “a more practical book”. The result is The Gift — 14 Lessons to Save Your Life, which she wrote at the age of 92. Two years on, it is being rereleased with two additional chapters, including one on lessons learnt from the pandemic.
The title of the book may sound far-fetched, but the teachings come both from Eger’s 50-plus years of working as a clinical psychologist and include compelling case studies, and also from her own strategies for survival in Auschwitz.
Eger recalls that it was some of her mother’s final words to her that sustained her in the camp. “When we were in the cattle car [to Auschwitz], my mum held me and she said: ‘We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Just remember no one can take away from you what you put here in your own mind.’”
In The Choice, there is a heart-stopping scene when Eger is forced to dance for Mengele on her first day in Auschwitz. By escaping into her own mind, she was able to transcend her fear: “The barracks’ floor becomes a stage at the Budapest opera house. I dance for my fans in the audience[.…]I dance for love. I dance for life.”
The aim of The Gift is to free people from their “mental prisons”, says Eger, such as guilt, unresolved grief, resentment and fear. “People lock themselves in [these mental prisons] and the key is in your pocket.”
Steering clear of psychobabble, the writing is highly accessible, regardless of whether or not the reader has had experience of the therapist’s couch.
One of the book’s key lessons is: “You can’t heal what you don’t feel.” This mantra and others such as “Honesty starts with learning to tell the truth to yourself” and “The opposite of depression is expression” have become synonymous with Eger, who uses them frequently in talks and interviews, including this one. Her daughter, Dr Marianne Engle, herself a clinical psychologist, and who is sitting in on the interview, has coined the phrase “Edie-isms”. She is now toying with the idea of putting them into a book, possibly with illustrations. “Her Edie-isms have really been something that people identify with,” says Engle.
Edith on her 90th birthday with Marianne (Photo: Paul Barnett Photography)
The closeness between mother and daughter is palpable, even from the other side of the Atlantic. Eger, who has another daughter and a son, calls Engle “a brilliant woman with a very warm beautiful heart” and their shared love of cooking traditional Hungarian dishes manifested in an extra chapter of recipes in the latest edition of The Gift. Eger writes that even in Auschwitz, when she was surviving on little more than crusts and broth, “we prepared feasts in our minds” and would argue over how much caraway should go in rye bread and the perfect amount of paprika for chicken paprikash. “During those heated arguments[….]we were back in the life of love and food.”
It is not only Engle who is keen to convey her mother’s message in perpetuity. One of Eger’s grandsons has founded the Edith Eger Foundation to give classes on Eger’s teachings. “Her ideas and her way of putting things into words are a gift” says Engle. “This is another way of preserving her way of communicating with the world.”
Edith Eger with four generations of her family (Photo: Jordan Engle)
Yet, for many years, Eger avoided acknowledging her own trauma and grief and instead found herself racked with survivor’s guilt.
It was only when she started working with veterans from the Vietnam War who were suffering from PTSD that she decided it was time for her to confront her past and return to Auschwitz. “I went with my late husband and I asked him to just wait for me as I went to the women’s [compound] to really do the healing.”
Engle recalls that on her return, her mother “was transformed. She had always had kind of a sad look in her face, not in a bad way, but I could always feel it. But she came back and she was joyful…she changed dramatically.”
Writing her memoir also proved to be a cathartic process. “It was very existential,” says Eger. “It gave me purpose and meaning in my life that I survived.”
While Eger has now done her own healing, she hasn’t buried her past and is “reminded of it almost daily”. She becomes visibly upset when the conversation turns to Passover plans as Seder was the last meal she had with her parents and her sister before being arrested by the Nazis. “We were having Passover and my father got up and he hugged us and he kissed us over the head. Then we went to bed and a couple of hours later, we were picked up.”
I can’t help but wonder if the war in Ukraine has unearthed distressing memories for Eger. While out of earshot, her daughter says that it “has triggered her, but it has also motivated her to give and give and give to try to help the people of the Ukraine as much as she can.” A couple of weeks ago, mother and daughter gave a talk on Zoom to women who had escaped Ukraine with their children. Settling back down in her chair, Eger says: “I will speak up and give people hope that you never give up because I’m a proud Jew […]I am very happy to carry the blood of our ancestors, to never give up and to find hope in hopelessness.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — the weightiness of the issues which occupy Eger’s professional life and, at times, her personal thoughts, she has a ready sense of humour. Discussing the eye-opening chapter in The Gift, “Would you like to be married to you?”, she jokes that “husbands like me because I tell women that orgasms prevent Alzheimer’s. It’s scientific. I didn’t make it up.”
Just before signing off with an invitation to come and eat chicken paprikash in her home in California, Eger asks me to “say: ‘Hello’ to the Chief Rabbi.” Not long ago, he contacted her to counsel someone in the community. “He thought I could be useful, and I like to be useful.”
With a lifetime of extraordinary events, a highly successful career that spans over half a century and now two books under her belt, you would be forgiven for thinking that at 94, Eger might be tempted by the idea of a quiet retirement. Far from it. The latest edition of The Gift will no doubt bring with it a flurry of interviews and talks and then there is the book of Edie-isms to start working on.
“The thing about my mother is that she never stops, in case you hadn’t guessed, “ says Engle. “Every day, there is always something else to think about, something else to do.”
Or as Eger puts it, in deference to another wise teacher: “‘Hillel said: ‘If not now, when?’ and ‘If I’m not going to do it, then, who will?’”
The Gift — 14 Lessons to Save Your Life by Edith Eger is published by Scribner on April 26