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The Holocaust Survivor Using Her Trauma to Help Veterans

After escaping Auschwitz, Dr. Edith Eger went on to become a world-renowned clinical therapist who's creating new tools to tackle PTSD.

Mitchell Sunderland

Mitchell Sunderland

Photo by Jordan Engle

At 16 years old, Edith Eger was sent to Auschwitz with her family. After her parents were killed in a gas chamber, Eger—a trained ballerina and gymnast—was forced by Nazi officer Dr. Josef Mengele to dance for his entertainment. She obeyed, and received a load of bread as a reward from Mengele. Eger later shared the bread with her fellow prisoners, which led to her survival.

That is the premise for Eger's new book, The Choice, out this week from Scribner, but her tome is more than a Holocaust memoir. Eger escaped Auschwitz and went on to become Dr. Edith Eger—a world-renowned clinical therapist, who Desmond Tutu has praised for using her childhood trauma to treat other trauma survivors battling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In the last few years, she has consulted for the US Army and US Navy, helping them develop new tools to treat veterans returning from war. The Choice uses Eger's journey to teach readers how they, too, can triumph over trauma.

Eger spoke to Broadly about her treatment practice, The Choice, and the similarities between Holocaust survivors' and veterans' experiences of PTSD. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read more: The Forgotten Horror of Ravensbrück, the Nazi Concentration Camp for Women

How did your experiences at Auschwitz teach you about the choice?
Edith Eger: I was told every day the only way I would get out is as a corpse. I said to myself, "If I survive today, then tomorrow I will be free. They can beat me, throw me in the gas chamber. I can't change that." They could never ever touch what I discovered at Auschwitz: my soul and my spirit. That's the choice we have today: to acknowledge the spirit is with us when we are born and the spirit never dies. That's what my sister told me when I was told my mother was burning in a gas chamber. She hugged me and said, "Just remember the spirit never died."

Why are you using this experience to work with the army?
The military is really difficult. They tell you, "Military comes first and family comes second." When I've worked with military with PTSD, they tell me two things: "We were put in [a] place we weren't prepared for. We were told one thing and found another." When we get angry, we aren't angry at what is happening. We are angry because our expectations aren't met. I examine the expectations on one hand and reality on the other, [so they can] see that somehow [their] expectations may not be realistic. It may be idealistic, [but] I guide people to be realistic. When you are idealistic and don't find what you're looking for, I see people being cynical, very sarcastic. I'm guiding my patients with an idea that people don't come to me, [but] they're sent to me. The most obnoxious person will be my best teacher. My patients are my teachers.

What are they teaching you?
Patience, unconditional love, to provide an atmosphere where people can feel any feeling without fear of being judged. My work is really giving me the meaning in my life. Not only [did] I survive but now I'm able to guide others to move on and not to be stuck in their own concentration camp—in their own mind.

How was your trauma similar to that experienced by Iraq War veterans?
It takes one to no one. I have PTSD myself. I remember that when I go anywhere, even to the grocery store and I see barbed wires because they're going to build something on the next block, immediately I'm back in Auschwitz. I've yet to overcome or forget, but I've come to [deal] with it. That's where I lead them. Hopefully we can go through the rage to forgiveness, which gives you the ultimate freedom—not revenge.

That's why I chose to go back to Auschwitz when I worked with two Vietnam veterans. I could not go further than where I had gone myself. I needed to do my own homework. I'm most grateful to the Vietnam veterans who made me look within me and find that 16-year-old girl and go back to Auschwitz to claim my innocence. I began my own journey of forgiving myself—that's the hardest thing.

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Is PTSD affecting female veterans?
I'm definitely working with female veterans, especially to acknowledge that they're not going to be affected. [Men are the] bullies. They're the cowards. There's a bunch of men running around, and they're not feeling like men unless they can [dominate] someone else. I'm very much close to the women who are really recognizing that their power is going to come within, [who learn] not to react but to respond.

What's the biggest misconception about trauma?
We are all victims. It's very important for us not to blame because only children do that. I refuse to be a victim. I was victimized, and that's what was done to me. But I'm not a victim. I go into [the] valley of doubt, but I don't get stuck. I don't camp there. I provide an arrow: You go through the rage towards self-love, which is self-care, which is not narcissistic. If you don't love you, why should I? I love to put women together in a group and see how much we women have in common and how are ancestors suffered probably much more. They didn't have it as good as we did, and look at it: They survived.

We come from good blood. What I found at Auschwitz is everything in life is an opportunity. I discovered my power within me that no Nazi could ever, ever get to. They took my blood twice a week. I asked, "Why do you take my blood?" They said, "To aid the German soldiers and take over the world." "I was a ballerina. You're never going to win the war [with that blood]!" I created the humor within me. Many people attacked the guards, and they were shot. Many people were touching the barbed wires, and they were electrocuted. I couldn't fight or flee. I had to learn to flow. I had to learn to acknowledge, "I'm limited here but everything is temporary." I can survive it.

I teach my patients: "No don'ts, only do's and yes's."