Changes: Edith Eva Eger
The audio version of this episode is available here.
Annie [00:00:00] Before we start, a word of warning that this episode contains some upsetting content. Please check the show notes for full details. Hello and welcome to Changes, It's Annie Macmanus here. Thank you so much for being here with me for what I hope will be an unforgettable episode for you. This week, our very special Guest on Changes is Edith Eva Eger, who is 95 years old and a Holocaust survivor. Edith is not just a survivor, as you will hear. She doesn't like to play the role of victim. She has dedicated her entire life to using her experience at Auschwitz to help others by becoming a psychologist specialising in post-traumatic stress disorder. Edith Eger is a Hungarian Jew born in 1927, the youngest daughter of Lajos and Ilona Elefánt. She had two older sisters, Clara and Magda. Her father was a tailor. Edith or Edie, as her friends call her, was a ballet dancer and part of the Hungarian Olympic gymnastics team. But in 1944, during the Second World War, when Edith was just 16 years old, she was sent by the Nazis to Auschwitz with her mom, her dad and her sister, Magda. Her sister, Clara was hidden by her music teacher. Only Edith and Magda survived. Edith and Magda spent over a year in different concentration camps, mainly in Auschwitz. But towards the end of the war, as the Americans and Russians approached, Edith was sent on a death march to the Gunskirchen concentration camp, which was about 55 kilometres from where she was in Mauthausen. Edith was so ill she couldn't walk. So her sister and one of the girls who she had shared some bread with earlier on in Auschwitz carried her together to Gunskirchen. Conditions in Gunskirchen are unimaginably bad. In her book, Edith says, "I lie out in the heavy air, my body entwined with strangers bodies, all of us in a heap. Some already dead, some long dead, Some like me, barely alive". And when the camp is eventually liberated in May 1945, Edith is found in a pile of corpses by a soldier who happened to see her hand move ever so slightly as he walked past. Edith now lives in America, where she moved in 1949 with her now late husband, where she became a psychologist. She still practices today at 95 years old. At 90, she wrote her first book, which I just quoted from. The Choice: Embrace The Possible. It's a memoir essentially. Telling her story in her own words. There's stuff in there that you will never be able to forget, but it's such an important read. And obviously it became an international bestseller and made Edith famous all over the world and in demand for her talks and learnings. She's been interviewed by Oprah. Her second book is called The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life. What is so unbelievable about Edith, as you will hear, is her grace. Obviously, she's 95 now so she's had a long life to process what happened to her. But hearing her speak, there's not a hint of bitterness or resentment over what has been done to her and her family. And as you will hear, even when she was in Auschwitz, she possessed this very powerful inner strength that's so difficult to imagine summoning when surrounded by the most unimaginable horror, and which undoubtedly kept her alive. This is what makes her story and life so miraculous, not just that she survived, but how she survived and how she chose to live her life after what happened to her, and how she chose to look at what happened to her as some sort of a gift. She's a total inspiration and we can all learn something from her. I'm so, so delighted to bring you this conversation. Welcome to Changes, Edith Eva Eger... Edith, hello and welcome to Changes. I am so grateful to have some of your time. Thank you for being here.
Edith [00:04:33] Thank you.
Annie [00:04:35] This podcast focuses on change and changes that people go through in their lives. And I wanted to start by asking your relationship to that word change, if I may?
Edith [00:04:46] I think change is synonymous with growth because if you don't change, you don't grow and you're revolving rather than evolving. You can talk about the metamorphosis and shedding the chrysalis. My definition of love is the ability to let go. And then you fly freely like a butterfly.
Annie [00:05:12] You've said that you're not a shrink, you're a stretch. And I wanted you to tell us what you meant by that.
Edith [00:05:19] I mean by comfort zone. That I'm stretching your comfort zone. When I go to church, I talk about Jesus. And Jesus said, love thy neighbour as thyself. So self-love is self-care. It's not narcissistic. And secondly, Jesus was able to meet with people where they were and then treat them as if they were what they are capable of becoming. But the most important thing is that when he said 'turn the other cheek', it means that you look at the same thing from a different perspective. And I think that's what I do. I look at problems as a challenge. I look at change as as a transition. So it's not what happens, it's what you do with it. People say time will heal. No that time doesn't heal, it's what you do with the time that does.
Annie [00:06:29] Your books are so, so brilliant when it comes to learning about suffering and how you can transform, how you can change your perspective of what suffering does and how you can use it. But if we are to look at that childhood change that you went through, what was your home life like before the German occupation of Hungary? What are your memories of that time in your early teens before the Germans arrived?
Edith [00:06:55] I remember that my sister played the piano. Magda and Clara played the violin, and I was a runt *Annie laughs*. And I remember very clearly when my mother looked at me very seriously and she said, 'I'm glad you have brains because you have no looks'. And you know what? I lived with that. I became very learned, very educated. I studied the interpretation of dreams by Freud when I was 13, 14. I grew up very fast, and thank God I was operated on my left eye. I was cross-eyed. And that's when my life really changed, that I was able to look up, because until that time I was always looking down. So people won't see me cross-eyed.
[00:07:57] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:08:10] In March 1944, you went to live in the Kosice Ghetto- you were forced to live in the Kosice ghetto with your parents and with Magda. Then in April, you had to stay in a brick factory, and then you got sent to Auschwitz. When you were on that cattle train heading for Auschwitz with your parents, With Magda, what age were you, Edith? Was it 16 when you went to Auschwitz?
Edith [00:08:33] Yes, I was 16.
Annie [00:08:34] So when you got there, you were separated from your mom by Dr. Josef Mengele, otherwise known as the Angel of Death, who was renowned for being the person who selected who went to the chambers. But before that point, your mother had said something to you, something really beautiful, almost like she knew that you needed these words. What is it that your mother said?
Edith [00:09:00] My mother told me, we don't know where we 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. I was following my mother and Dr. Mengele came after me, grabbed me. I'll never forget those eyes. And he said, 'you're going to see your mother very soon. She's just going to take a shower'. So when I was drawn to the other side, which was called Birkenau, I asked a couple, when will I see my mother? She pointed at the chimney and she said, your mother is burning there. And my sister, Magda hugged me and said, 'the spirit never dies'. And that's how I remember entering Auschwitz. And then she looked at me, we were completely naked and asked me, how do I look? Instead of telling her how she looked in her nakedness, I remember telling her, Magda, you have beautiful eyes and I didn't see it when you had your hair all over the place. So I think it's good to say 'yes and' rather than 'yes but' because you say 'yes but' you cancel everything you said before the but.
Annie [00:10:37] So you mentioned Josef Mengele there, that first few days in Auschwitz, he somehow heard that you were a ballerina and came to you and demanded that you dance for him. Can you tell us about that, please?
Edith [00:10:51] I didn't know who he was. I had no idea that he came to the barracks and how he wanted to be entertained. And my teacher was there from my Jewish school, and she said 'do as I told', threw me in front of him, and he said 'dance for me'.
Annie [00:11:15] You said in your book that you could hear him discuss with another officer which of the hundred girls present should be killed next. You wrote, If I miss a step, if I do anything to displease him, it could be me. I dance. I dance. I am dancing in hell. How do you think you kept going?
Edith [00:11:34] I had a wonderful ballet master, but they used the word ecstasy, and I never knew what that meant. And when I was in Auschwitz, it reminded me of the word ecstasy. How I can somehow recognise that I don't like what is happening, and it's temporary and I can survive it. Anyway Dr. Mengele gave me a piece of bread and that was an amazing thing. And I didn't know what to do with that bread. And of course, I could have gobbled it up but then I saw my sister with the girls, and thank God I climbed up and I shared the bread. And when I was walking in a death march from Mauthausen, Austria, to GunsKirchen where I was liberated, I was going to actually stop. And, you know, when you stop, you will shot and you die. And then the girls that I shared the bread with came and got me and carried me so I wouldn't die. Isn't that amazing?
Annie [00:12:52] Yeah. You talk about that moment when you're dancing for him. What you had to go through in your head to realise the separation between you and him and how you were able to do it. And you said, 'I am free in my mind, which he can never be. He will always have to live with what he's done'. So, I just find it remarkable, Edith, that that way of thinking, like the way that you were able to put yourself in his head. And equally what you said to your sister, being able to know what was right for her to hear at that point is so wise for someone who is going through so much stress and panic and hunger and, you know, in their mid-teens. And I wonder where that comes from, this constant kind of awareness of other people's needs and wants, that you're able to put yourself in their heads.
Edith [00:13:38] I think Auschwitz was an opportunity, for an opportunity, to discover your inner resources. If you want to say anything, I ask you to ask yourself, is it important? Is it necessary? But most of all, is it kind? And if it's not kind, I don't say it.
Annie [00:14:08] What else did you learn in Auschwitz about human nature?
Edith [00:14:12] I learned that I didn't like what was going on, and it was very important to say, 'but it's temporary and I can survive it'. But I did not ever even imagine that I'm not going to get out of here. It was just a question of time. Every moment was precious. Every moment was an opportunity for us to form a family of inmates. Because if you were only for the me, me, me, you didn't make it.
Annie [00:14:52] Yeah, you said 'cooperation is the name of the game'.
Edith [00:14:55] You have to transcend, transcend your ego needs. That's so important, even today I'm able to guide people to transcend the me, me, me. Because the ego is our false self, that's why you call it the false self. Because it is false. So imagine that you're pregnant and you're going to give birth to the you that was meant to be free. You know, people get angry very quickly. But anger is not the primary emotion, because underneath the anger is fear. So it's good to write down all your fears from the least anxiety producing, to the most. And then you can turn anxiety into excitement.
Annie [00:15:53] How do you think you were able to constantly turn that fear of what you were feeling that time into something positive? You know, you talk about always this awareness of this is temporary, this is temporary, this will end. But a lot of people weren't able to think that way. They were overpowered by their fear and by their anger, maybe. How do you think you were able to keep coming back to that hope?
Edith [00:16:18] Because my ancestors were slaves ,and then they were liberated, and then they found this guy called Moses and they took off and they went to the desert to walk. And walk. And walk. And walk. And guess what? Never gave up. I come from dead blood. That is so, so important to find hope in hopelessness. That there is a gift in everything. I never even imagined that I will not, even though I was told that the only way I will get out of here, as a corpse. So I said to myself, I know better, because they took my blood, you know. And I asked, why are you taking my blood? To aid the German soldiers so we can win the war and take over the world, that's what he told me. And I said to myself, I know better. I know I could have been thrown into the gas chamber any minute. I had no control over the externals. I grabbed on to every moment that guided me not to ever give up. But the way I learned to respond rather than react, that was useful. I think it's important to pay attention to your inner dialogue. Focus on something that will be in alignment to get you closer to your goal. It's good to have goals. And I remember saying to myself, If I survive today, then tomorrow I'm going to see my boyfriend. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
Annie [00:18:19] And your boyfriend, you were going out with him all the way up- he was in the ghetto with you. You were going out with him all the way up to being in Auschwitz. And what were the last words he said to you, Edith?
Edith [00:18:28] When he saw me, when I was put on the --- he said, I'll never forget your eyes and I never forget your hands. So that kept me alive, asking everyone 'tell me about my eyes and tell me about my hands'. That if I survive today, then tomorrow, tomorrow became a very important thread, that I will see, Imreb was his name, and he was killed a day before liberation, unfortunately. I never saw him.
[00:19:08] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:19:20] Magda, your sister, you describe her as bossy, sarcastic, flirtatious. What did having her with you on this journey do for you?
Edith [00:19:32] It was between life and death. People who were alone died much more quickly than people who- even today, when someone comes in with another person in my waiting room, I know I'm going to have a better chance than if they come alone. I think it's very important for us to form a human family so we can finally survive on this planet.
Annie [00:20:07] And of course, Magda was one of the people who helped to carry you to Gunskerchen, the final point before liberation. You were so ill. You had a broken back, typhoid fever, pneumonia, pleurisy. So, so ill. But you still managed to stay alive until that point.
Edith [00:20:27] Yes suffering, if you survive of course, makes you stronger and hopefully you can guide people to prevent- to prevent suicide because I was very suicidal after I was liberated because my parents didn't come back. And so I really wanted to die. But thank God. I think God spoke to me to be for something, rather than be against something.
Annie [00:21:02] Yes. I mean, that's such a huge choice, isn't it? You know, because you come out of this, you're in hospital. I suppose this idea of the liberation- feeling like, you know, maybe you should be happy. But then there's a huge sense of guilt because you survived and the reality of what happened kicking in. I can imagine it must have been so, so, so hard to keep going. But that choice that you made, that you wanted to be for something that you wanted to be for life, again is so wise for 17 you were!
Edith [00:21:34] Love conquers all and self-love is self-care. There is one thing we cannot change, is the past. My parents had tickets to come to America and they never used it. They took it to Auschwitz with them. My father told me, we're just going to work and go home. That didn't happen. I'm here to tell you that every moment is precious because, sometimes we don't appreciate what we have until we lose it. So if you take me out to dinner, chances are I'll eat your food along with my food *Annie laughs* and then I'll take it home what you leave behind. It's very hard for me to throw away a piece of bread.
[00:22:26] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:22:37] Edith, you came to America five years after you moved to the USA with your husband. You then had three children, and there's a very moving part of your story where you talk about this point in your life as an adult, where you realise that you were ready to change. That you realised that you were holding on to your anger. Can you tell us about that turning point? What was it? When was it in your life when you realised that you had a change that you needed to make in terms of your anger and ridding yourself of that?
Edith [00:23:10] I had this tremendous need to tell my therapist to sit on me and not allow me to get up. I really had problems with anger. In the 80s when I went back to Hungary that I really felt that void that I ran away from the past.
Annie [00:23:38] So your therapist obliged you, sat on you, let you rage and let you kind of open the door to becoming free in your mind.
Edith [00:23:49] I think you give yourself justice to really concentrate on your thinking that will create your feelings. You don't feel first and then think. You think first. So what goes on in your ears is very important. Your self dialogue is extremely important, how you talk to yourself. So you will never cover up garlic with chocolate. It doesn't taste good *Annie laughs*. When I had two paraplegics coming from Vietnam, and one of them was in a foetal position. Why me? Why me? Cursing, cursing, country, cursing, anything, everything, God included. And then, conversely, the other one said, hey God, I'm in a wheelchair and I'm so happy that I can see my children's eyes much closer, and I see the flowers. So I could see that I do have a choice. And that's when I decided to go back to Auschwitz and find that 16 year old that I ran away from to become a Yankee Doodle Dandy. And so I remember when I asked my sister to come with me and she told me I'm an idiot and she refused. So that's the work I do today to revisit the places where you've been and relive that experience as if it would happen now.
Annie [00:25:41] You talk about- in your book The Gift, you talk about the moment when you go back and you get in this kind of replica of the cattle car. You get back into that train carriage. You stay there for a few hours and you allow all of the feelings to return and come up and release themselves from you.
Edith [00:26:01] First of all, my book has a lot of tears. Every page has a lot of tears. So I hope you write the book and cry and cry because what comes out of your body will never make you ill, what stays in there does. That was the best thing I've ever done, that I went back to the lion's den to look at the lion in the face, to reclaim my innocence, to assign the shame and guilt to the perpetrator. There is no forgiveness without rage! Screaming out, especially when you're in a car. Scream it out, cry it out, and then laugh like a hyaena and you're going to feel better. I guarantee. I ask young people, just think not positively, but realistically. Because when the idealists come and they don't find what they are looking for, they become very pessimistic and give you all the hopelessness rather than recognising that it's not 'yes but', it's 'yes and'. Furthermore, that the suffering will leave me stronger. To be a survivor and not the victim of anything or anyone at any time. I'm not a victim. It's not who I am. It's what was done to me.
[00:27:45] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:27:55] When you went to America and you were busy bringing up your children, being a wife, trying to survive, trying to thrive, at what point did you want to start talking about what happened to you? I know you were silent for quite a while as an adult. At what point did you want to start telling people what happened to you?
Edith [00:28:18] I was invited to speak at the University of Texas. There were about 200 some people. And then I started to talk about Auschwitz. I asked how many of you remember or talked about it? And they were just a handful of people. And I decided it's my responsibility. I owe it to my parents to let people know what happens when good people do bad things. We are not born to fear. We are not born to hate. And fear and love does not coexist.
Annie [00:29:03] When you went back to Auschwitz in 1990 to go and revisit that 16 year old girl in your head, did you even spend any time trying to make sense of why people were able to have the capacity to harm and hurt people that they did?
Edith [00:29:20] I wish I knew. I think when a country doesn't win the war, they are going to have economic problems and people are going to be hungry. And I think that's when scapegoats come in and they began to call me a --- and --- to society. And that's why it's important not to take things personally.
Annie [00:30:02] You have made it your life's work to tell the world what happened to you and to help people using your own experiences of pain and what you've been through. I wanted to ask how you want the world to learn from the Holocaust. What do you want people to learn from what happened to you and so many other people?
Edith [00:30:23] I was sitting at the latrine and the girl next to me found the mirror. And that was so unusual, finding a mirror.
Annie [00:30:33] Is this in Auschwitz?
Edith [00:30:35] In Auschwitz, in the latrine. And a few minutes later she said to me, 'I am Marie Antoinette in my boudoir fixing my bed'. There she was in her makeup now. And imagine that she's in --- being Marie Antoinette. So your imagination is so important to look at what's between your ears and see how you can change your thinking, that everything becomes an opportunity for growth.
Annie [00:31:15] You must have spoken to and helped so many people in your work that are very principled with regards to how they feel about the world and different people in the world. What do you do if you have a client who comes in and is anti-Semitic?
Edith [00:31:35] Antisemitism has been with us since the beginning and people need scapegoats and somebody to blame. I think children blame. But adults look at the situation and they're looking out for responsibility with freedom. There is no freedom without responsibility. It's anarchy. So I think it's very important whether you want to sit in the back car like you did when you were a child and somebody was driving their car, or are you willing to be the driver rather than being driven and going through the valley of the shadow of death. ------. And what you learn, you can unlearn.
Annie [00:32:40] Is there a change you would still like to make, Edith? For your life or beyond.
Edith [00:32:47] I never think about what happens after I die. I have no time for that. But today, I wanna use every moment to be a good guide to people. From victimisation to empowerment. The prison of your mind and the key is in your pocket. So write down all your fears and then knock them down one by one. Because you were not born with fear.
Annie [00:33:24] It's something you talk about so much, this idea of being imprisoned by your own thoughts and this idea of being able to unlearn everything in terms of the patterns of how you think and how you react or respond to things. How do you unlearn? If you spend your whole life thinking a certain way.
Edith [00:33:44] I learned that when people say that time helps, and time does not help at all, what you do with the time, that is important. So ask yourself, what am I doing now? And how is it working for me? You may want to switch gears, like in a car. You know, it's talking to you. You switch gears, that means you release the clutch. So what are you holding onto and what are you willing? That's a great word. Willing, willing to be willing, to let go. And one of the things that you want to be willing is to give up the need for other people's approval. Not everybody's gonna love you, If I come to you and I tell you I hope you and I are going to be friends and you tell me uh uh, I'm not interested, It doesn't mean I was rejected because rejection is an English word that people make up to express a feeling when you don't get what you want. So give up the drama. No one rejects me but me.
Annie [00:35:04] Edith, what do you still want to do?
Edith [00:35:07] Write a book for teenagers.
Annie [00:35:10] Wow.
Edith [00:35:11] I'm hungry to do that. I have a lot to say to teenagers so they could be survivors and never victims of anything or anyone at any time. Thank God that I'm 95 years old, with my whole family. I have three children, five grandchildren and seven great grandsons. And that's my revenge to Hitler.
Annie [00:35:43] Wow. And do you still do the high kicks?
Edith [00:35:46] I still do the high kick. I'm happy to do it for you, too. Yes.
Annie [00:35:52] And you still dance, Edith, right? Do you still do the swing dance?
Edith [00:35:56] My boyfriend of six years unfortunately died.
Annie [00:36:00] Oh, I'm so sorry.
Edith [00:36:01] He would go two to the right, two to the left, and then turn around and ask me, was it the rumba or the samba? Whatever I threw out it didn't matter because he only knew two to the right and two to the left.
Annie [00:36:22] *Laughs*.
Edith [00:36:22] He had his routine with me.
Annie [00:36:24] Yeah.
Edith [00:36:24] He was a kind, beautiful man, and I miss him very much. His name is Eugene Cooke.
Annie [00:36:33] Well, I wish you all the best. I am so grateful to you for your time and telling us some of your story. Thank you so much. Keep up with the high kicks. That's all I say. If I can be doing a high kick when I'm 95, I will be a very happy woman.
Edith [00:36:46] Thank you so much. And I hope that I will be, hopefully a good role model so people never, ever give up, no matter what happens. There is hope in hopelessness.
Annie [00:37:06] There is hope in hopelessness. Something to remember there. I thank Edith so much for her time and I really hope that this conversation stays with you and is something that you can come back to and find useful and find helpful and find constructive in terms of how you look at adversity How you move through it, those changes that come and flatten you, that rupture your life. How can we live through those things? Edith did do a high kick before she left the zoom. Unbelievable. A high kick, her leg all the way up to her head. *Laughing* what a legend. Go and watch it on Instagram. It's really something to behold. If you want to hear more of Edith's thoughts and processes and experiences, then please do go get both books. Get The Choice first and then get The Gift. Then buy them for everyone you know *laughs*. We'll put the link to both of the books in the show notes, of course. Thank you so much for listening to Changes. Please don't forget to rate, review, subscribe to it if you haven't already. And please share this episode far and wide to anyone who you know who would be inspired and moved by it. We will be back next week, of course, with a very different episode. Changes is produced by Louise Mason through DIN Productions. Take care.