Edith Eva Eger, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, carries one last memory of her mother: they’re in line at the entrance to the camp, and Dr. Josef Mengele — the notorious”Angel of Death” — points her mother to the left, while Edith and her sister have been pointed to the right. Believing their mother was just going to have a shower, they didn’t say goodbye.
Edith was only 16, and the memory haunts her to this day.
Your mind is your space of freedom
Among her mother’s parting gifts was a simple idea that carried her throughout the hell of the upcoming few years, until liberation came in 1945: We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Just remember, no one can take from you what you’ve put in your mind.
This single thought — that what is in our thoughts is the key to inner liberty, even in the midst of the concentration camp — could eventually be the secret to her endurance during the upcoming few years. However much misery and suffering surrounded her, penetrated her, burdened her, she could always find a place of inner liberty where her heart can soar.
After several years of hell, liberation did come, however, she soon found that after she was out the camp walls, an interior burden persisted. It was as if the inside space of freedom that had sustained her through Auschwitz and Birkenau had turned into a hidden room of guilt, anguish, and buried suffering.
Like most former concentration camp victims, initially she opted for complete silence about the past, and was grimly determined to move on without looking back.
However, as she found, the past can not just be buried; trauma has its own way of leaking around the edges and survivor’s guilt was a concealed motor behind everything she did.
Her achievements in the years following the camps were tremendous. She transferred to the United States along with her husband and baby as refugees, starting out in grinding poverty. She finally earned a teaching degree and became a high school teacher, winning awards along the way.
However, no matter how many accolades, she won, she was haunted by a feeling of unworthiness.
And she understood:”I am so obsessed with proving my worth, with earning my place in the world, that I don’t need Hitler anymore. I have become my own jailor, telling myself, ‘No matter what you do, you will never be good enough'”
Over time, and partly through her friendship with fellow Auschwitz survivor Victor Frankl — author of the bestselling classic Man’s Search for Meaning — she recognized she had to open up about her past.
Speaking about it turned into the very first step to the interior liberation that was pending for decades following her release from the camp.
Additionally, it became the secret that would help her “liberate” many more people from the traumas that retained them in the grasp of guilt, shame, and paralysis.
She went on to earn her doctorate in psychology, and drew deeply from her own experiences in charting a path forward for her patients — while being careful not to project herself too much on them, and to honor the individual route each needed to take.
Two secrets to interior recovery
One of the primary secrets to her own interior liberation, she discovered, was to “take responsibility” for her feelings, to “stop repressing and avoiding them,” and to stop blaming them on other people.
Only then can we accept responsibility for our part in the dynamics of our closest relationships. Barring cases of abuse, she says we shouldn’t make our joy determined by what our nearest and dearest do or neglect to perform. Rather, we ought to be accountable for our own happiness.
Another step, she discovered, is learning how to take risks to achieve a greater freedom on the other side. For Edith, the greatest threat of all was returning to Auschwitz, decades later, to walk that recognizable landscape with an open heart. To not relive the terror, yet to accept, to forgive, to let go.
Returning to Auschwitz… to sing a song of freedom
The trip was difficult and she turned back at the last moment.
She had been bombarded with waves of feelings which came unbidden; as she herself admits, trauma lodges in the body and may never be completely eradicated.
In their hotel, she and her husband had been assigned to the exact same room Goebbels had inhabited, and slept in precisely the exact same bed he’d used. The following day, she walked into the site of the Berghof — the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s old home — now rubble.
There, amidst all the silent psychological turmoil, she had a moment of clarity:”I am alive. I made it. ” She was eventually able to let go, not to live in the shadow of the past, yet to exult in the fact that she is free today, flourishing today. And she managed to forgive — not just Hitler, but herself… for having survived when so many others did not.
Time does not heal us but our choices do
“Time doesn’t heal,” she wrote in The Choice. “It’s what you do with the time. Healing is possible when we choose to take responsibility, when we choose to take risks, and finally, when we choose to release the wound, to let go of the past or the grief.”
Even now, almost 90 years old, Edith is frequently called to talk to Navy SEALs, POWs, and soldiers returning from combat in war zones such as Afghanistan; a lot of those units that call on her to speak have witnessed high suicide rates among their soldiers.
After discussing her testimony, she tells them”To run away from the past or to fight against our present pain is to imprison ourselves. Freedom is in accepting what is and forgiving ourselves, in opening our hearts to discover the miracles that exist now.”
And she writes to all of us: “I can’t heal you — or anyone — but I can celebrate your choice to dismantle the prison in your mind, brick by brick. You can’t change what happened, you can’t change what you did or what was done to you. But you can choose how you live now.”
“My precious, you can choose to be free.”