Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Alicia Worley

Interview With Dr. Edith Eva Eger

A clinical psychologist and survivor of Auschwitz reflects on the mystery of human nature.

Dr. Eger is a much-sought-after lecturer and clinical psychologist who instills hope and courage with her message that we can rise above our circumstances. A survivor of Auschwitz who was forced to dance before Dr. Mengel, her message goes beyond theory—Dr. Eger speaks from her own experience of transformation and healing. Arriving in the U.S. in 1949, Dr. Eger worked in a factory to support her ill husband and young daughter before going on to become a teacher.

She was named one of America’s top 15 teachers in 1972. While she enjoyed teaching, Dr. Eger felt compelled to pursue further studies in an area where her unique experience could be fully utilized for the benefit of others. Being a clinical psychologist has given her the opportunity to work with business, health care, military, governmental, educational, and civic organizations. Dr. Eger agreed to meet with Shabbat Shalom and reflect on her own experience and on what it means to be human.

Shabbat Shalom*: You have said that everything you know you learned from Auschwitz. What role did that experience play in your decision to become a clinical psychologist?

Eger: Well, I didn’t know if I should be an M.D., a Ph.D., or both. After I finished my Ph.D., I was considering becoming an M.D., but when I started my practice, I became so successful that, you know what happens, it’s hard to go back to school. But I was always fascinated in my childhood about what makes people tick, and I also wanted to find some answers for myself, to make some sense out of the nonsense, and to find some meaning and purpose in my life. I began to study right after I was liberated, but I was also an egghead kid. I remember starting my own book club. I went to a girls high school, and it was classical European education. I had five subjects in one year: Greek, Latin, French, German, and Hungarian. My mother told me when I was ten that it was good that I had brains because I had no looks. So I was the egghead. When I was fourteen, I discussed the interpretation of dreams by Freud. I was very fascinated by the whole concept of the unconscious and how the unconscious rules. When I went to the concentration camp, I became a sort of dreamer. I don’t know if I can use the word, but I was a successful schizophrenic. I think I developed a part of myself that no Nazi could touch. I referred to it as my inner resource, and I derived a tremendous amount of enrichment by talking to God, very angrily at first, and then changing hatred into pity. And then later on, I read Thoreau. He was a school teacher, a maverick kind of guy, and the school board didn’t like him and threw him in jail. In jail, he said, and I quote, “Even though I am surrounded by mortar, I am freer than my captors.” That gave me such tremendous insight.

Shabbat Shalom: Was that how you felt while imprisoned in Auschwitz?

Eger: Exactly. I prayed for the guards because they were more imprisoned than I was, but I didn’t have any words for it. So you know, I discovered many things there that I use today—like visualization, self-dialogue, and humor. I talk to myself all of the time. When they took my blood, I said to myself, In fact, I asked the guard, “Why are you taking my blood?” and he said to me, “To aid the German soldiers so we can win the war.” And I said to myself, “I am a ballerina, a pacifist. With my blood, you are never going to win the  war." I had this thing going that he could not take away from me. I couldn’t yank my arm away, or I wouldn’t be here telling about it, but I was so enriched by having that world that no Nazi could rob me of it.

Shabbat Shalom: What do you attribute this perspective to?

Eger: I think I attribute it to my childhood because, being the third child, I was never really part of my family—or at least I never felt a part of it. My two sisters were very talented. One played the Mendelssohn violin concerto when she was five years old. The other one accompanied her. So I never introduced myself by my name. I was always “the sister.” I attribute that perspective to the fact that I spent a lot of time alone. I was relying on getting things from the inside when nothing came from the outside, and I think that was actually my fortune. My misfortune became my fortune. When I was a ballerina, I had a very spiritual ballet master who told me that God built me in such a magnificent way that all my ecstasy comes from the inside out. So somehow, I was brainwashed, if you will, or conditioned...

Shabbat Shalom: You were almost prepared for your Auschwitz experience?

Eger: I was prepared for my experience. But I didn’t know that because, you see, I was the third yucky kid, and no one knew I existed. I was ugly and puny, and I was cross-eyed. My sisters always teased me, telling me that I was so ugly that I would never find a husband. Today, I talk to children and tell them that it isn’t what people tell you; it’s whether or not you internalize it. Whether or not you take it personally is up to you.

Shabbat Shalom: So at that time, did you internalize it?

Eger:Well, I know I internalized some of it because when I walked in the streets of Hungary, I would look at the pavement; I didn’t want anyone to see my ugly face. I was convinced that I was ugly. I was smart, but I was ugly. And when you look at me today,

Shabbat Shalom: You are not ugly at all!

Eger: I am not so ugly; I am okay.

Shabbat Shalom: More than okay. And the years have been kind to you.

Eger: I was sixteen in Auschwitz, and I don’t lie about my age.

Shabbat Shalom: How has your experience in Auschwitz influenced you professionally—the way that you have gone about studying human nature and psychology?

Eger: At that time, I really wanted to understand life. Today, I want to live life. In those days, I wanted to understand. Today, I don’t look at things I want to understand; I just want to live life moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. In those days, I wanted to understand, so I took it upon myself to study all the theories—whether they were Freudian, behavioral, or existential—and to study philosophy and history. I think my education at the University of Texas, especially my clinical training at the William Bulmont Medical Center (I have 6,000 clinical hours), had a tremendous impact. I found some answers through the POWs (today, I am on the Advisory Committee of the Veterans Administration for Prisoners of War). They helped me to really put the pieces together—the broken pieces that together constitute the survivor’s personality versus the victim’s personality.

Shabbat Shalom: Acts of hatred like those that you witnessed and experienced in Auschwitz raise issues about what it means to be human. What do you see as the essence of human nature?

Eger: Well, I believe in love and in being in love. Love is difficult, marriage is difficult, and life is difficult. Yet, I believe people are basically good, just like Anne Frank was. Even with all the things that I have experienced, I think that the essence of human nature is goodwill. The idea of tolerating differences and practicing the art of giving and receiving—prizing the differences we have so that I can be me and you can be you—. Giving up the need to kick someone into submission because that is the beginning of the end of democracy. I prize Thomas Jefferson, who said all men are created equal. He didn’t say all men were created the same. Sameness is not the critical quality, and that is why I insist on the generation gap. I’m not like the kids, and they are not like me. You know, it took me a long time to speak like this and give keynote speeches without notes. I know I have 68 years of tremendous experience in life that I paid dearly for, and I would not want to make other people be like me. As the wise man put it, When you die, God is not going to ask you why you weren’t like me. God will ask you why you weren’t you. Why wasn’t I Edie? I cannot be Alicia, and Alicia cannot be Edie.

Shabbat Shalom: Is there any kind of “sameness” that runs through all of us that is at the heart of our human nature?

Eger: I think that we all have the ability to accept one another and to give up the need to change one another; to grow, as Kahlil Gibran said, side by side without overshadowing one another, like the big tree that overshadows the little tree, taking away its sunshine. I do a lot of parent training so that children’s feelings will be validated and their uniqueness will be recognized in such a way that children will be treated not equally but uniquely. Children are all cut from different cloth, and they don’t all mature at the same time. To be able to respect children, parents need to be parents. I prefer the authoritative approach versus the authoritarian approach, not the permissive, and not to go from one extreme to the other. We had too much discipline and not enough love. Then, after the war, we had too much love and not enough discipline; then, too much laissez-faire, do what you want.

Shabbat Shalom: Which isn’t really love?

Eger: Which is really neglect? Children do not know what to do with their freedom. They need a knowledgeable leader, but not a dictator. They need a captain of the ship, but not a Hitler.

Shabbat Shalom: You have been described as a “spiritually beautiful, warmly compassionate woman” who was refined rather than broken by the “fires of emotional hell.”

Eger: How beautifully said.

Shabbat Shalom: Beautifully said and true.

Eger: Thank you. My dissertation supervisor said, “Edie, what I like about you is that you’re not damaged goods,” and I like that. I am not damaged. I have just as much passion and joy as anyone. I can cry, and I can be jealous. I can be sad and scared just like anybody else. I met a widower, and I talked like a sixteen-year-old! I didn’t know how to talk on a date. I never had a teenage dating experience, and I was scared. I’m strong sometimes, and I can stop a bull, but you can also blow me away with a feather.

Shabbat Shalom: What would you say is the difference between you and people who have not been able to integrate memories of such painful experiences?

Eger: Well, I think I can only speak for myself. What made sense to me was: I gave the Nazis my parents, my ability to become a ballerina (because I was beaten very severely), my whole family, and my dreams, but I would not give another inch. For that reason, I needed to clear my body from being against or for something. So I think it was necessary for me to see the Nazis and develop compassion for the child who was innocent and was taught to hate me and to see me as a cancer to society. This is how I came to believe that they were more in prison than I was. It was important for me not to allow them to take residence in my body anymore. For me, forgiveness meant just that. I was able to release that part of me that had the need for revenge and to punish—to give up the need to have the wrongdoer punished.

Shabbat Shalom: What has made you able to do this when so many are not able to?

Eger: I don’t know, but when I was in the hospital after the war with five kinds of typhoid fever (a young GI, 71st Infantry Regiment, found me among the dead in Gunzkirchen), I was suicidal, and that’s when I really broke down. That’s when I said to myself, “If I live, I will not live in hate.” Inside, I forgave... but I didn’t tell anyone because, at the time, everyone was too angry, and I was afraid my own people would turn against me.

Shabbat Shalom: Forgiving?

Eger: Forgiving. So, I kept it a secret. I didn’t tell anyone. I had my inner world, which I still have. Now that I have been a widow for two years, I find that this part of me is really keeping me very, very well grounded and anchored. I have me. I enjoy being with other people, but I am not afraid to be alone. I’m not that needy.

Shabbat Shalom: What would you say are the biggest obstacles to that kind of healing and freedom for people who share these kinds of experiences?

Eger: First, the addiction of being right—of holding on to anger and saying, “I am going to be angry until someone comes and apologizes for their wrongdoing.” But the anger is in me and is killing me, so when I am angry at them, they don’t suffer; I do. And that is why I am saying, "I gave them my whole family, so why should I give another inch?” While I hold on to the anger, I am still not free. Forgiveness is the ultimate form of spiritual freedom.

Shabbat Shalom: What keeps people from being able to forgive?

Eger: I think they would rather be right than happy. You know how the question comes up: “Do I want to be right, or do I want to be loved?” I think we always have to make choices in life, and that’s what I do. I give people choices.

Shabbat Shalom: Why do so many of us make the choice to be right rather than to be happy and loved?

Eger: Because of the fear of becoming vulnerable. Anger protects and is used as a weapon, like a sword. Once you let go of the anger, you feel worse. You are going to feel the hurt, the pain, and the grief. You are going to feel worse, but you are going to get better. That’s the kind of work I do. It’s the beginning of the stages of growth. I talk about the shock, the denial, and the anger that Elizabeth Keubler-Ross talks about, but then I talk about the existential—the feeling of meaninglessness, the Victor Franco idea of finding purpose and meaning, and the whole existential restructuring of our lives. That is why I am called the midwife of the soul. I facilitate the movement from victimization to empowerment. It’s a journey; it's a lovely journey of healing.

Shabbat Shalom: Lovely, but painful.

Eger: Painful. It takes a lot of pain to grow up. Suffering is feeling, and without feeling, we just go through the motions of life. We use a lot of anesthesia in life, like falling in love. Falling in love is like falling into a hole. Falling in love is a chemical high that lonely people get from chocolate. Falling in love is not love; it is infatuation; it is sexual desire. Love takes time. It’s not how I feel; it is what I do and how I commit myself to someone else’s welfare.

Shabbat Shalom: You felt sorry for the German soldiers because they had to live with the crimes they had committed. How are the issues of healing different for perpetrators of crimes in contrast to the recipients of those crimes?

Eger: Well, I met some of the children of the perpetrators. I remember treating one who became a member of the Unification Church, and when she asked her parents what happened during the war, they threw her out of the house. I don’t really think we have enough to say about the children whose parents were Nazis. They did not really care for the children, their own children, to know the truth, and they refused to answer the children’s questions. Many of those children felt rejected from their households.

Shabbat Shalom: What about the perpetrators themselves? If they were to search for change and healing, how would their journey or healing process be different from their children's or from those whom they have hurt?

Eger: I have not directly interviewed Nazis. I was going to... I was hoping to find Dr. Mengel because I danced for him in Auschwitz. I had these dreams of dressing up as a sophisticated journalist from America and interviewing him and then telling him that I was the dancer, but that never happened. And I don’t know about the contrast. All I know is that today I studied about the white supremacy groups, the militia, and the “true believers"—I believe Hitler was very sincere. He believed the Jews were a cancer to society and that he was really doing the world a favor by cutting out the Jews—and now the white supremacy groups are saying that Hitler was a saint, but he just didn’t finish the job.

Shabbat Shalom: Are there any of these people who wake up, realize what they are doing, and suffer because of what they have done?

Eger: This is the question. Doctor Scott Peck talks about people who have an overinvested conscience, and he calls them neurotic. Then, there are people who don’t have a conscience. That is the character disorder of the sociopathic personality—the person who can kill and yet truly believe. I interviewed some of these people in jail, and they said that they killed someone because they wanted to go from here to there and that the person got in their way—the person shouldn’t have been there. So, in other words, I’m always okay, and you’re not. That’s the kind of stance they take. They never really have any remorse.

Shabbat Shalom: So they wouldn’t even search for healing because they don’t realize their needs?

Eger: personality character disorder.

Shabbat Shalom: So if human nature is essentially good, then do these people represent a pathological condition?

Eger: I believe that there is genetics, and I know the nurture issue comes up. There is genetics, and there is the environment. I take the third stance, which involves the manner in which I choose to respond to the other two. So, I very much believe in freedom of choice and attitudinal changes. We are not responsible for what is done to us; we are responsible for our responses.

Shabbat Shalom: You are a psychologist trained to facilitate healing in others. What would you say the role of the untrained member of the human family is in bringing healing and restoration to the lives of others? People like me: what is my responsibility?

Eger: To listen.

Shabbat Shalom: To listen?

Eger: To listen. Not to deny people three magic little words: “Tell me more.” Also to provide an environment where people can feel any feelings without the fear of being judged or having to deny those feelings. See, people who are just moralizing and judging lose out on feelings. We lose out on life and love. We have a protective shield, and we are afraid to let go. Intimacy is really called “into me, see.” Intimacy is not sex; it is connectedness, and there is no way I can connect with another person unless I am connected with me. So the spiritual side is that third dimension, which is like lifting the fog. People who don’t have a spiritual dimension are in the fog. But we can go through the fog; the blue skies have been there all along.

Shabbat Shalom: You mention the spiritual dimension. Do you see a clear distinction between the physical and the spiritual?

Eger: Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” and I believe that my thinking triggers my feelings. It is important to think about our thinking so that we can change our thinking and, through this, change our feelings, like turning hatred into pity. We will always attract what we dish out. No matter what I put out into the universe, I will always find what I look for. If I believe that in this dog-eat-dog world there is no hope, then chances are I will become addicted to finding evidence to prove that my hunches are correct. This is called a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. People have this doomsday philosophy that somehow, no matter what I do, the end is going to be bad, not good. I refuse to adhere to that philosophy. I believe that everything happens for a purpose. Auschwitz happened so that I could be here today, being much more compassionate and much more appreciative of the present moment—to never take anything for granted, to be able to have three generations in my family now, and to know that the best event is success. When my granddaughter was born, the physician examined her and said to me, “Grandma, this little girl is very flexible, and some day she may become a ballerina.” I said, “Thank you, God.” Now I have three generations. That’s the best revenge for me. My granddaughter danced at the San Francisco Ballet Theater, and she is now a sophomore. God also blessed me with three other grandchildren. After two daughters, He blessed me with a son who was born with cerebral palsy—a child with a special need. The doctors told me that he would never make it to high school, and with the defiant power of the spirit, I asked the doctor what to do, and he told me, “This child is going to be what you make of him.” I dropped out of school at the University of Texas, and my son, John, graduated in the top ten at the University of Texas. I believe that God gave me what I really needed to rise to the occasion and not give up. That is what this mother is able to tell you about success.

Shabbat Shalom: You mention the spiritual dimension. Do you see a clear distinction between the physical and the spiritual?

Eger: Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” and I believe that my thinking triggers my feelings. It is important to think about our thinking so that we can change our thinking and, through this, change our feelings, like turning hatred into pity. We will always attract what we dish out. No matter what I put out into the universe, I will always find what I look for. If I believe that in this dog-eat-dog world there is no hope, then chances are I will become addicted to finding evidence to prove that my hunches are correct. This is called a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. People have this doomsday philosophy that somehow, no matter what I do, the end is going to be bad, not good. I refuse to adhere to that philosophy. I believe that everything happens for a purpose. Auschwitz happened so that I could be here today, being much more compassionate and much more appreciative of the present moment—to never take anything for granted, to be able to have three generations in my family now, and to know that the best event is success. When my granddaughter was born, the physician examined her and said to me, “Grandma, this little girl is very flexible, and some day she may become a ballerina.” I said, “Thank you, God.” Now I have three generations. That’s the best revenge for me. My granddaughter danced at the San Francisco Ballet Theater, and she is now a sophomore. God also blessed me with three other grandchildren. After two daughters, He blessed me with a son who was born with cerebral palsy—a child with a special need. The doctors told me that he would never make it to high school, and with the defiant power of the spirit, I asked the doctor what to do, and he told me, “This child is going to be what you make of him.” I dropped out of school at the University of Texas, and my son, John, graduated in the top ten at the University of Texas. I believe that God gave me what I really needed to rise to the occasion and not give up. That is what this mother is able to tell you about success.

Shabbat Shalom: So how do you see the physical and spiritual aspects of our humanness related?

Eger: It’s all together. You know, the triangulation—the physical, the emotional, the relational, and the spiritual—the body and the mind and the spiritual working together. My spiritual side was fully developed in Auschwitz. I think God was on my side, showing me how to have hope in hopelessness, to turn hatred into pity, and to pray for the guards, to see them as more victims than I was.

Shabbat Shalom: How do you relate spirituality to religion and to God?

Eger: Well, you know there is “Churchianity.” Then there is “Christianity.” People use and misuse religion. I think the people who burn the cross, the KKK, who call themselves Christians, use their own power, politics, and economics to kick people into submission. I would hope that religion has a lot of spirituality in it so it can give people order in life. There is good religion, and there is perverted religion.

Shabbat Shalom: What is the relationship between God and spirituality for you?

Eger: To me, God is love. I believe in a loving God, a forgiving God, and a God who uses me as an instrument to raise my children. I trust that everything that happens to me is happening for the greater good. I believe I am here for a purpose, and for that, I don’t need a controlling power; I just need to surrender.

Shabbat Shalom: It sounds like your experience has greatly affected your concept of God.

Eger: Yes, and that is why I am able to speak at churches and synagogues and in all denominations. I was in Alaska in a charismatic church, and I went to the Mormon bishop, the Catholic bishop, and the Protestant bishop. Every kind of denomination that you can think of is truly accepting the idea that God is good, and there is a polarity in life. There is no resurrection without a crucifixion. You know, it took Moses so many years to find the Promised Land. There is no love without hate. There is no life without death. There is no summer without winter. I think we need to accept both. It is not all good or all bad to pull the two together. Unfortunately, today, families polarize too much. My work is very much involved in parenting parents and myself. You need to find the family within you, the kid in you, and the teenager in you. You need to find the Hitler in you, the Christ in you, and the God in you, regardless of your denomination. You know, when Elie Wiesel was asked where God was in his experience, he said that that was the wrong question. “Where was the man?” And I believe that God is everywhere, and I became far more enriched knowing that in Auschwitz, I was not alone.

Shabbat Shalom: Was God there?

Eger: That he was.

Shabbat Shalom: Your experience in Auschwitz came as a result of your being Jewish.

Eger: Well, you see, Hungarian and German Jews were very much assimilated into the culture. I grew up in an assimilated Hungarian home, so I was beaten up by my inmates because I didn’t speak Yiddish. You know, we had our own misfortunes among us.

Shabbat Shalom: In what ways has your Jewish heritage impacted your work and approach to psychology?

Eger: I did not grow up in an orthodox home. I grew up in a very reformed home. My parents taught me to love mankind, regardless of denomination. I carry this with me. They were not prejudiced. I had people in my home from all nations. My sister was a child prodigy. We had famous musicians in my home speaking many languages, and I became very much a citizen of the world.

Shabbat Shalom: So your unique approach to psychology comes more from what you have experienced than from your nationality or ethnicity.

Eger: I am more than that. I am more than a Hungarian woman, a mother, or a psychologist. That’s my doing, not my being. I think I am a grandchild of God who doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. Every moment is precious, and I just celebrate the moment. I live in the present, integrating the past—not living in the past, through the shadow of the valley, not camping or setting up home there. I never forget the past, but I don’t live there. I don’t live in Auschwitz. I live here today.

This interview was conducted by Alicia Worley, a physical therapist and graduate theology student at Andrews University.

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