Edie Egers is more than she appears.
She is too blond and vivacious to be a great grandmother. She is too energetic to be eighty-five years old. She is too gregarious to be a doctor. She is too tiny to regularly speak to elite soldiers about survival skills. She is an unlikely fit to counsel young people contemplating suicide. It is hard to imagine her as likely to survive an encounter with an evil madman in the most infamous death camps in history.
But she is more than all of these.
Dr. Edith Eva Eger is a psychologist with a busy practice in La Jolla, California. She sees patients at her home on Mount Soledad with its sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. In the corner of her immaculate white sanctuary stands a bronze sculpture of a gracefully spinning ballerina. Enclosed in glass along a wall are more ceramic dancers which silently allude to her unbelievable past.
Ben Sherwood describes her as having charisma that is outsized for her five foot four frame. Ben’s book, “The Survivor’s Club – The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life,” was the first mention I’d heard of “the Anne Frank who lived.”
What attracted me to Edie’s story wasn’t the amazing fact that she survived but more how she survived. Her solution is unique. She made choices. It’s not that these choices protected her from bullets or gas. There is much about her survival that even other survivors would attribute to luck. But her choices empowered her with a sense of control.
“People must acknowledge not what happens with us, but what we do with that.
You can turn tragedy into victory.” Dr Edith Eva Eger
Using her mother’s words as inspiration, her first choice was to dance for “The Angel of Death”, Dr Josef Mengele, rather than fall apart from the shock of her parent’s death and her own imprisonment.
She chose to become her older sister’s caretaker, watching out for her daily. Once, when her sister was being taken away to another work camp, Edie cartwheeled and summersaulted to her side. An amused guard looked the other way when she pulled her sister back to her line. This was sheer bravery in a place where an untied shoelace could result in death.
When their hair was shaved, sixteen-year-old Edie “chose” to see the beauty in her sister’s eyes rather than the beautiful hair she had lost.
Edie chose to risk death to steal some carrots from a garden for her starving sister. A soldier caught her and placed his rifle to her head three times but could not shoot her after her bravery.
Edie chose to share her bread with others in the camp with no thought for herself. Later, on a 366 mile death march to Gunskirchen Lager concentration camp in Austria, Edie collapsed. Rather than let her be shot, the others she had helped formed a human chair and carried her.
Once in the camp, conditions were even worse than Auschwitz. Starvation was so rampant many chose cannibalism over death. Edie chose to eat grass instead. She even made a concerted effort to choose the best blades of grass. Her ability to choose gave her hope for the future that tomorrow she would survive.
“I decided never to touch another person’s flesh and I remember asking God to help me. I chose to eat grass. Even then, I chose. That’s why I believe we have choices. I chose one blade of grass over another,” she said.
On May 4th, 1945, exactly ten years before my own birthday, American forces liberated the camp. Edie weighed 40 pounds and was so sick she was believed dead. A soldier saw her hand move in a pile of bodies in the woods and saved her life. She has looked for that man ever since, without success.
When asked how she resolved her feelings and memories of her past, Edie said:
“It took me 40 years. I can’t erase the experience but I can integrate it, come to terms with it. In Auschwitz I learned to become compassionate and forgiving. You must be strong to forgive. Forgiveness is not condoning or excusing. Forgiveness has nothing to do with justice. Forgiving is a selfish act to free yourself from being controlled by your past”.
“At the end I remember feeling sorry for the German officers and soldiers as I watched them flee through the open camp gates. I remember thinking to myself, ￼ I will have painful memories of what happened, but they will always have to live with memories of what they did. I lost my family in Auschwitz. It was very traumatic. But I have integrated the experience, and I’m the person I am because of it.
From The SURVIVOR Personality by AI Siebert, Ph.D
Next we’ll see how Edie the survivor became Dr. Edith Eva Eger, psychologist, professor and speaker.