Embracing Choice: The Autobiography of Edith Eger

Edith Eger

Essay by Kerstin W. Shands

How much do we choose in life? Is it possible to choose our own reactions to what happens to us? If we had the answer to these questions, we could accept or dismiss most of the life philosophies written from ancient times to today.

For Edith Eger, the answer is yes. In The Choice: Embrace the Possible, she argues that we always have the possibility to choose, even in times of cruelty, powerlessness and suffering. The power to choose is something no one can take away from us. As one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors, Eger has known the darkest possible experiences, and hers is a voice to take seriously.

While The Choice is an autobiographical account of Edith Eger’s life, it is also a philosophical work whose central theme concerns our ability to choose. Much of Eger’s life wisdom stems from her experiences in the concentration camp and from working through this trauma for decades afterwards. Her inner strength helps her move on and create a new life in the South in the United States, where she and her husband, Béla Eger, move in 1949 and where Edith becomes a psychologist focusing on trauma therapy.

Edith Eger was born in a Hungarian-Jewish family in 1927 in Košice. Even though conditions there were somewhat better than in many other places, there was an antisemitism that affected Eger. In the spring of 1944, the family was forced to move to the ghetto in Košice. Later on, they were sent to Auschwitz, where the young Edith, a teenager, was separated from her parents and was never to see them again. But Edith’s sister Magda was with her in Auschwitz, something that was of life-saving importance for them both.

Even though the time in the concentration camp and the marches at the end of the war are unspeakable and profoundly unfathomable experiences, Eger’s account is written with an objective and realistic eye and with a love of life that nothing can quench. After Auschwitz, Edith and Magda are moved to Mauthausen and later to Gunskirchen in Austria, where they are expected to die. Life hangs on a fragile thread, and Edith herself is dying when American soldiers arrive in May 1945, something she sees as in a hallucination, as through a quivering heat. Since she has no force to move, it is frightfully close that the soldiers do not see that she is alive.

For those who, like Edith Eger, survive and return home, there are many factors that play a part, from strength and courage to luck and coincidence. As Viktor Frankl states in Man’s Search for Mean­ing (1946), there were many who survived because they felt that important tasks were awaiting them (in his own case, to recreate and finalize a book manuscript). For Eger, the presence of Magda, her sister, means everything. That they have each other helps both of them survive; and when they return home, they are reunited with the third sister, Klara, who has also survived.

Eger remembers a situation in Auschwitz in which she realizes, perhaps for the first time, that we always have a choice. Magda asks Edith what she looks like. The truth is that Magda looks awful. She is dirty and her hair has been cut off. But Magda has very beautiful eyes, and that is also a truth! So this is what Eger chooses to focus on, telling Magda that she hadn’t seen just how beautiful her eyes were before when Magda had so much hair. The lesson Edith learns is that there is a choice: we can focus on what has been lost or on the precious things that are still there.

Young Edith is also returning to her mother’s words: ?“Just remem­ber, no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.” In contrast to the brutal and unpredictable reality in the concentration camp, Eger creates her own inner world.  She dreams of freedom, she thinks about her favorite dishes, she dwells on the loving words uttered by her boyfriend, and she remembers the words of her ballet teacher when she managed to go down in split: that all ecstasy comes from within.

Very early, Eger learns that success and competence come through perseverance and inner focus, and the courageous attitude she develops is impressive. The story of how her husband Béla is imprisoned after the war and liberated thanks to Edith’s smart and bold action is thrilling.

Trauma can lead to the feeling that something is terribly wrong and that disaster is about to strike, evoking a permanent sense of disquiet and a mental preparation for catastrophe. But human suffering should never be compared or ranked, in Eger’s view. Something that may seem banal but that bothers someone may be related to past traumatic experiences, and one may suffer from being in a situation one cannot control or from the realization that life has not become what one has wished.

Certainly, the ability to handle difficulties depends on one’s personality and family background. Edith Eger comes from a family of talented and successful people who also find strength in a rich Jewish tradition, parts of which Eger later brings into her therapeutic approach. Eger herself has been endowed with great emotional intelligence and an extraordinary talent for communication with people in all kinds of difficult situations.

With an amazing intuition and perceptiveness (and sometimes unorthodox methods arising in the moment), Eger is able to reach people in the most complex situations. She is able to address traumatized military and get through to closed-off anorectics, and she manages to disarm a man who is about to kill his wife. Relying on her own experience of trauma as well as on her studies of the works of Albert Ellis, Martin Seligman, and Carl Rogers, Eger has an ability to reach and help other people that is legendary.

Eger is also strongly influenced by Viktor Frankl and the existential analysis found in his logotheraphy. For decades, she thinks that the only way to move forward is to turn away from her painful memories. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Mean­ing becomes a turning point, and she finds a different way to deal with her traumatic past and even see a purpose with her suffering. Eger discovers a way to freedom that may also help others liberate themselves from suffering and traumatic memories.

This can, of course, be done in different ways. In Facing Trauma in Contemporary American Literary Discourse: Stories of Survival and Possibility (2019), Laura Castor explores what it means to read and write about trauma. Analyzing historically situated trauma as described and renegotiated in novels, autobiographical writing, and poetry, Castor finds that even if literature in itself cannot be a cure, it can play an important role in the healing process.

For Eger, the solution is to confront her own recurrent panic attacks in therapy. In a session with her therapist, she lets out an abysmal scream of rage. In 1990, after great hesitation, she returns to the places of horror in Europe. Her journey is difficult and leads to an inner confrontation. Eger has a complete understanding for all those who are unable or unwilling to forgive the horrors of the Holocaust, and it takes decades for herself to arrive at forgiveness, but when she does, she sees that forgiveness is not about diminishing or denying horrible and criminal acts. Instead, as Eger suggests, it is an inner victory over her torturers and a liberation from her own inner prison.

It is often most difficult to forgive oneself. For decades, Eger has suppressed a memory of a choice she made on her arrival at Auschwitz. Edith, her mother, and her sister Magda were awaiting selection when Mengele asked Edith if her mother was her mother or her sister. When Edith replied truthfully, her mother was moved to the line leading to the gas chamber. If only she had said that her mother was her sister, Eger reproaches herself later, that might have changed history and saved her mother. But in the menacing and stressful situation young Edith could hardly have understood the implications of her choice or even grasp what the question and answer really meant. When she returns to Auschwitz and mentally reexperiences the last moments with her mother, she can finally question her own guilt-ridden conviction that she could or should have made a different choice.

For Eger, freedom is found in an acceptance of what has actually occurred. This means letting go of resistance, the non-acceptance that spiritual traditions regard as the principal source of our suffering. We need to mourn our losses and disappointments; otherwise, we will just reexperience them, as Eger says. But if we hold on to what has happened, we will develop a victim mentality that keeps us stuck in the past and makes us pessimistic and guilt-inflicting. That is when we become our own jailors.

Do we all have the same ability to choose wisely and act on our choices, then? From a legal perspective we do not, since an individual’s mental and psychological ability to assume responsibility for his actions is taken into account in legal proceedings. Trauma may also have different consequences depending on when in life it occurs, and trauma specialists have suggested that both physical illness and mental suffering may have roots in childhood trauma.

In her mid-nineties, Edith Eger is still an exceptional person who continues to work and lecture, ending her lectures with the high kick that has become her own life-affirming signature. Every week she goes swing-dancing with her boyfriend, who is also past his mid-nineties. Being able to choose: that is the principal key to freedom and change, according to the life philosophy that Eger wishes to hand on to her children, grandchildren, clients, and readers. Regardless of what we think of everyone’s capacity to choose, Edith Eger’s multi-faceted personal and philosophical account is profoundly moving and deeply thought-provoking.

Works Cited

Castor, Laura Virginia. Facing Trauma in Contemporary American Literary Discourse: Stories of Survival and Possibility. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2019. Print.

Dr. Edith Eger’s home page. https://dreditheger.com/. Accessed February 8, 2022.

Eger, Edith. The Choice: Embrace the Possible. New York: Scribner, 2017. Print.

Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. 1946. Fourth edition. Part one translated by Ilse Lasch. Preface by Gordon W. Allport. Boston: Beacon Press. 1992. Print.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: