“Part of me was left in Auschwitz, but not the better part,” Dr. Edith Eger said.
“Auschwitz was, to me, an opportunity for discovering my inner resources. I learned not to wait for someone else to make me happy.”
That’s all you need to hear to understand that Dr. Eger is an extraordinary human being.
This Holocaust survivor, still actively working at 93, is a psychologist and the author of 2017 New York Times bestseller, “The Choice: Embrace the Possible” — a book that Oprah Winfrey said left her “forever changed” — and the 2020 follow-up “The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life.”
On March 18, Dr. Eger will speak, on Zoom, in an evening sponsored by Valley Chabad’s Eternal Flame program and the JCC of Northern New Jersey. Her talk will be introduced by teens from Eternal Flame and is meant especially for teenagers and their families, although people of any age are welcome join in.
Rabbi Yosef Orenstein, the director of Valley Chabad’s Teen Leadership Initiative and Eternal Flame programs, explained that Eternal Flame “is about taking horrors and memories from the Holocaust through survivors’ testimony, and making them tools for positive Jewish action and making our world a better place.”
For the last seven years, 20 high school teens have been selected each year for the Eternal Flame Teen Fellowship program, in which they explore personal stories of the Holocaust, learn about Israel, and are taught ways to confront anti-Semitism on campus. The fellowship includes an annual trip to Washington for a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a meeting with survivors, and volunteering. (This year’s trip will be replaced by a series of interactive virtual events.)
Dr. Eger, who lives in La Jolla, California, is a clinical assistant professor who teaches third-year UC-San Diego medical students. Her topic is grief, an emotion she knows only too well.
Dr. Eger was deported to Auschwitz when she was 16 years old. Over and above the everyday horrors she endured there, she was ordered to dance for the man who killed her parents, the notoriously sadistic physician Josef Mengele. When American troops liberated the camp in 1945, they pulled her, barely alive, from a pile of corpses.
“Never in the history of mankind was there such a scientific systematic annihilation of people,” she said. “And unfortunately, genocide is still with us today. But I don’t have time to blame or be a victim. That’s not my identity.
“If you’re blaming, you’re still a child. You have power over how you react. I had no control over what the Nazis did to me, but I had control over how I reacted. I think it’s not what happens that matters but what we do with it.”
In “The Choice,” Dr. Eger tells her own story and the stories of people she has helped heal. Thousands of readers wrote to tell her how the book inspired them to confront their own pasts and try to heal their pain, and many asked her to write a follow-up how-to book.
“That’s how ‘The Gift’ came about,” she said. “Every page in ‘The Choice’ was written with a lot of tears, and I thought I was done — but I wasn’t.”
In “The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life,” Dr. Eger describes “imprisoning beliefs” — including fear, grief, anger, secrets, stress, guilt, shame, and avoidance — and how she overcame them and helped others to do so.
Reflecting on her strength to endure, she remarked that she believes “women are much better survivors than men. We do not have ego needs. Just watch ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and you’ll see what I mean: the women are not necessarily smart but they’re wise.”
But she also said that Jews are natural-born survivors.
“I am carrying the blood of my ancestors, who were suffering in the desert, and yet they were able to walk to the promised land,” she said. “It took about 40 years and they never gave up. That’s why we Jews are able to make the impossible possible and find some good in everything.”
Dr. Eger added that she is eager for opportunities to speak to teenagers.
“Because there aren’t too many survivors left, I’m totally committed to talking to the young people and letting them know they are the future,” she said. “I tell them, ‘God only made one of you. Celebrate your uniqueness, and the blood that we carry from our ancestors.’ In Auschwitz all we had was each other. We had to unite and empower each other with our differences.”
She tells her medical students, “We diagnose too much in America. We label people. My diagnosis is that people are hungry for attention and affection and approval.”
Despite her age, she is perfectly comfortable speaking to audiences over Zoom.
“I love Zoom,” she said. “All I have to do is put on a beautiful scarf and underneath I can wear my underwear. I don’t have to stand in line at the airport.”
She also loves Chabad, she added, because she has a son with special needs who always was made to feel welcome at the local Chabad. “They take care of anybody, anytime. I am very proud to be part of the Chabad family.”
Rabbi Dov Drizin, executive director of Valley Chabad, said Eternal Flame “seeks to inspire teenagers and their families to use the history and personal stories of the Shoah” — the Holocaust — “to live more centered and productive lives, with a strong focus on Jewish identity and continuity. We are proud to be partnering with the JCC to bring this important event to our community.”
Barry Kissler, the chairman of the board of the JCC of Northern New Jersey, said the JCC “greatly values the voices of Holocaust survivors; their stories are an integral part of our understanding of our own past, present and future.
“It is our honor to support this program and bring Dr. Eger’s experiences to the hearts and minds of our JCCNNJ community.”
What: Zoom event with Holocaust survivor, psychologist and author Dr. Edith Eva Eger
When: Thursday, March 18 at 7 p.m.
Who: Open to the public; targeted to teens and their families
Sponsors: Valley Chabad’s Eternal Flame program and the JCC of Northern New Jersey
How to register: Go to Eternalflame.org