The Key to Healing is Within You
The biggest concentration camp is your own mind and the key is in your pocket. — Dr Edith Eger
Two years ago, at age 90, renowned psychologist and holocaust survivor, Dr Edith Eger published her first book and memoir, The Choice: Embrace the Possible. She recently published her second book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life.
I didn’t know anything about Dr Eger until I listened to her interview with Lewis Howes. At age 92, Dr Eger has mesmerizing energy and optimism. The stories she shared in this hour-long interview astonished me. I rewind the video several times to listen to bits and pieces of her extraordinary fight for survival in Auschwitz and the lessons she learned from her experience there.
I was particularly touched by three stories that promoted her survival and healing.
A rule of survival: Commit yourself to others
Love isn’t what you feel, it is what you do. — Dr Edith Eger
Shortly after her arrival at Auschwitz at age 16, she saw that it wasn’t a competition but cooperation that increased the inmates’ chances for survival. After intuiting this crucial rule, she committed herself to help her sister Magda and other inmates.
Once, ruthless Dr Mengele gave her a loaf of bread after he commanded her to dance for him. In her memoir, she writes,
“ … I dance. I dance. I am dancing in hell. I can’t bear to see the executioner as he decides our fates. I close my eyes ...”
She didn’t know then how sharing that loaf of bread with other inmates would save her life later on. In April 1945, the Germans evacuated her and other survivors and forced them to do a death march to Austria. When she could no longer walk, the women she shared the bread with formed a chair with their arms and carried her so that she didn’t get out of line and shot.
A rule of survival: Find hope in hopelessness
I don’t have time to hate because if I would hate, I’d still be a hostage and a prisoner of the past. — Dr. Edith Eger
When talking about forgiveness, she reminisces about one event that happened after Germans moved her to Austria. In April of 1945, she ended up in a community hall with other inmates including her sister Magda. The guards told them to not leave the premises or they’d be shot right away.
But they were all starving and Magda told Edith that they would die if they didn’t find food. Edith went outside and jumped over a fence to steal carrots from the next garden. She says, “I met God with a gun.”
She began praying when she heard the click of the gun. Then she somehow managed to make eye contact with the guard who turned his gun around and pushed her inside. She gave the carrots to Magda. The following morning the guard came and asked, “Who dared to break the rules?”
Fearing that he would kill all of them, Edith crawled over to him and told him it was her. The guard gave her a loaf of bread and said, “You must have been hungry to do what you did.”
Edith says, “There were good people. I met a diamond in that garbage.”
She still dearly wishes to see this guard again and thank him for saving her life.
A rule of survival: Turn hatred into pity
We have the capacity to hate and the capacity to love. Which one we reach for is up to us. — Dr. Edith Eger
Turning hatred into pity has been a big part of Dr Eger’s healing and search for forgiveness. Once a judge sent a troubled 14-year-old boy to Dr Eger for therapy. Not knowing anything about her past, the boy said, “It is time for America to be white again. I am gonna kill all the Jews, all the … [using the N-word], all the Mexicans, and all the Chinks.”
Dr Eger remembers how she talked with God in Auschwitz. God told her to turn hatred into pity. She refused to let dehumanizing labels used by Germans penetrate her mind. Her body was trapped, but she still owned her inner sanctuary of mind. Instead of overwhelming herself with hatred, she chose to view those who imprisoned her with pity. She chose to see them as more imprisoned than herself — they were the ones who were brainwashed or forced to follow heinous orders in order to stay alive.
This memory reminded her to not react angrily to what the boy had said. A voice repeatedly told her, “Find the bigot in you.” At first, she tried to silence the voice as she couldn’t conceive herself of being a bigot after what she had gone through. But the voice insisted: “Find the part in you that is judging, assigning labels, diminishing another’s humanity, making others less than who they are.”
She wondered if the racist boy was sent to her to teach her about unconditional love. She prayed for an ability to meet him with love. She remembered a statistic that most of the boys who joined white supremacist groups had lost one of their parents before they turned 10.
She writes in her memoir,
“So I gathered myself up and looked at this young man as lovingly as I could. I said three words. Tell me more.… I listened and I emphasized. He was so much like me after the war. We both lost our parents. His to neglect and abandonment. Mine to death…. When he left my office that day, he didn’t know a thing about my history, but he had seen an alternative to hate and prejudice. He was no longer talking about killing. He had shown me his soft smile.”
Dr Eger says that it’s not time but what we do with it that heals. She believes that we cannot heal without feeling all of our feelings, including rage, before letting go. Like her mentor Victor Frankl, she turned her suffering into strength. Her experiences taught her that “the biggest prison is in our minds and the key is in our pocket.”