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Edith Eger’s account of surviving the Holocaust shows us all how to embrace freedom, writes Nikki Temkin

Published in the Sunday Times

The Choice
****
Edith Eger, Rider, R320

Edith Eger was a 16-year-old ballet dancer in 1944 when, together with her Hungarian family, she was forced into the hell of Auschwitz. The last words her mother ever said to here as they were wrenched apart were, “Remember – no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”

Eger survived unimaginable trauma in the camp, including being singled out by the infamous Josef Mengele, who ordered her to dance for him.

She closed her eyes and transported herself to the opera house in Budapest, dancing Romeo and Juliet, petrified that if she displeased him she would be killed.

“I dance. I dance. I am dancing in hell.”

At the end of the war she and her sister were sent on a death march, ending up at a camp in Austria. Unable to walk (it later emerged that she had broken her back), she was thrown onto a pile of corpses. She was found, barely alive, by an American soldier who saw her hand move.

After the war she suffered severe depression and what she realised was survivor’s guilt. She married and emigrated to the US.

Before reading Man’s Search for Meaning by fellow Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, Eger shut away this part of her life and attempted to forget about it, not even discussing it with her children.

But then, influenced and mentored by Frankl, she decided to heal herself by consciously facing her inner shadows. They can only control or destroy us if we fear them and leave them to rampage.

Nelson Mandela’s quote, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” chimed strongly while I read this book.

Is it the ability to transcend the unforgivable, the unacceptable and the abhorrent that leads to humans achieving greatness? Being able, amid despair and depravity, to retain hope and wrest meaning and purpose from life?

This is a Holocaust memoir and so much more besides. It’s predicated on the belief that we always have a choice. We may not be able to control what happens to us, but we can choose how to respond to it.

Eger eventually returned to Auschwitz in 1990, where she made a choice: “To forgive my flaws and reclaim my innocence. To stop asking why I deserved to survive.”

There’s no changing what happened, “but there is a life I can save. It is mine. The one I am living right now, this precious moment.”

In her 50s she became an internationally acclaimed psychologist focusing on abuse survivors and soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, some of whose stories of healing she shares.

Deeply affecting and inspiring, Eger’s book is a plea for all of us to find true freedom in whatever way is meaningful for us. It’s not about how she survived despite what happened, but how she thrived because of it. – @NikkiTemkin

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