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New Beginnings: Holding on and Letting Go of 2006
Local Psychologist Talks About Lessons Learned in Captivity at Auschwitz

Ioana Patringenaru | December 18, 2006

This coming year, try asking yourself “what now” rather than “why me.” Then you’ll be well on your way to becoming a survivor rather than a victim.

That was the message that Edith “Edie” Eger, a La Jolla psychologist and assistant clinical professor in UC San Diego’s Department of Psychiatry, delivered during a 90-minute talk Tuesday, entitled “New Beginnings: Holding on and Letting Go of 2006.

Edith 'Edie' Eger
Edith "Edie" Eger

“I’m your midwife today,” she told her audience at Bonner Hall on the Revelle campus. “You’re going to give birth not to your new self, but to your real self.”

Eger knows all about survival. Her family was deported to Auschwitz when she was just 16. She lost her mother and father on her first day there. She and her sister, Magda, were left behind to struggle from day to day. Yet Eger is now a successful therapist. She has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and has spoken in front of audiences all over the world.

During her talk at UC San Diego, Eger often came back to her time at Auschwitz to explain some of the guiding principles that allowed her to survive. These are the same principles she uses as a licensed counselor and certified sex educator and therapist.

What happens on the inside is more important than what happens on the outside, she said. At Auschwitz, she was asked to dance for Dr. Josef Mengele, who was known for conducting deadly experiments on prisoners. She got through the performance by pretending she was dancing the lead part in Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” back home in Budapest, where she used to be a dancer and a gymnast. She got a piece of bread for her troubles. She shared it with her sister and several other girls.

Later, these girls saved her life. They were marching from Auschwitz to a camp in Austria. Those who couldn’t keep up where shot on the spot. Eger had soldiered on, but then her strength left her. She was about to collapse, when girls around her formed a chair with their arms and carried her the rest of the way. Cooperation beats competition or domination, Eger told her audience.

Her hardships didn’t end when American soldiers liberated the Austrian death camp where she spent the last months of World War II. She married in Czechoslovakia and soon found herself fleeing that country’s communist regime. She arrived to the United States in 1949 with her baby daughter. They were almost penniless. Eger took a job as a factory worker.  Finally, she enrolled at the University of Texas. Then her son was born with cerebral palsy and she dropped out of school to care for him. She finally received a degree in psychology from the University of Texas, El Paso in 1969.

But Eger only experienced catharsis when she returned to Auschwitz as a visitor more than four decades after the end of World War II. She thought of her dead mother and told her she was right. “They could take me to the gas chamber any minute but they couldn’t take my spirit away,” she said. Then she finally found the strength to forgive herself for surviving.

For more on Eger’s story:

During her talk, Eger handed out a flier with a list of “Edie’s Keys to Survival.” They are:

  1. The worst conditions can bring out the best.
  2. Dire conditions allow opportunities for inner growth.
  3. Freedom to chose your attitude.
  4. Empathy instead of sympathy.
  5. Find an answer when none seem available.
  6. See the enemy as more in prison than you are.
  7. See your most obnoxious person as your best teacher.
  8. Give up the need to punish the wrongdoer.
  9. Get strength from within using the spiritual dimension.
  10. Find hope in hopelessness.
  11. Cooperation rather than competition or domination.
  12. Spirituality and self esteem.
  13. See the world the way it could be, not the way it is.
  14. Present- and future-oriented rather than past-oriented.
  15. Be responsible for your responses.
  16. No blame, only self-responsibility.
  17. Take negative stimuli and make them positive.
  18. What happens on the inside is more important than what happens on the outside.
  19. Turn problems into challenges, turn crises into transitions.
  20. Look at the same situation from a different persepective.
  21. Humor. Self-dialogue.
  22. Forgiveness – give up the need for revenge.
  23. Turn hatred into pity.
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