The Choice

The Choice

Finding freedom and ultimately inspiring others

Posted on March 6, 2019

At just 16 years old, Dr. Edith Eva Eger suffered unspeakable hardship at Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp where her parents were among an estimated 1.1 million prisoners who were killed or died there during World War II. She managed to survive, rescued from a pile of corpses by an American soldier who offered Eger her first sweet taste of freedom: a handful of M&Ms.

The Choice

Dr. Edith Eva Eger

Now 91, Eger (“Dr. Edie” to her patients and friends) is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego Medical School with a private practice in La Jolla. She is an inspiring lecturer and speaker, headlining Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a fundraiser on
March 6 at La Valencia to benefit Miracle Babies, the nonprofit formed to support critically ill newborns and their families. Founded in 2009 by Dr. Sean Daneshmand, a beloved, board-certified obstetrician, the organization provides financial assistance, care bags, and prevention-focused programs. The event is chaired by Elaine Becerra and MJ Wittman.

Eger is the author of The Choice, a searing memoir that details how she survived the horrors of Auschwitz and after the war, a harrowing escape from Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia to freedom in Austria and eventually, the United States. She sat down with Ranch & Coast at her La Jolla home to talk about her book and her extraordinary life, which she has dedicated to guiding others. She is perfectly coiffed and smartly dressed in black with a silk scarf draped around her neck. Her slender wrist is encircled by a gold bracelet — linked squares the size of postage stamps — referenced in her book.  It was a gift from her husband, Béla, to celebrate the birth of their daughter Marianne. It is the same bracelet she tucked into her daughter’s diaper when the family fled to Austria after the war, with little else but the clothes they were wearing. Long gone is the diamond ring she used to bribe a warden to win her husband’s freedom from a Czech prison.

Dr. Eger is asked the question that she has asked herself many times over the years: Why did she live? “My answer is that God had a plan for me to commit myself to others,” she replies. “Auschwitz was a school room.” It was a “school room” filled with hate and hunger and fear, of seeing people die all around her, watching the smoke billowing from the crematories, and wondering when she would be next. “I never got a tattoo,” Dr. Eger recalls, referencing the number tattoos that prisoners received to identify them. “They didn’t want to waste ink on me because I was going to the gas chamber.” Her inner strength, hope, and faith pulled her through this dark period in her life. “I was beaten and tortured. But they couldn’t break my spirit, my defiant spirit,” Dr. Eger says. “That’s how I survived.”

 


You can live in the prison of the past, or you can let the past be the springboard that helps you reach the life you want now

 


 

It took her decades to ask herself a different question: “Not: ‘Why did I live?’ but ‘what is mine to do with the life I’ve been given?’” She went on to raise three children, gain an education, and guide others, including soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. Her experiences and studies have taught her that barbed wire and prison guards aren’t the only barriers to freedom — that people can be imprisoned in their own minds. “As my fellow survivors taught me, you can live to avenge the past, or you can live to enrich the present,” she writes in her memoir. “You can live in the prison of the past, or you can let the past be the springboard that helps you reach the life you want now.”

More than three decades after liberation, Dr. Eger returned to Auschwitz. She observed that even though more than a million prisoners had died there, not a single grave marks the site, just the empty spaces where gas chambers and crematories once stood. She left the camp knowing she had not only survived the horrors there, she had eventually thrived by doing her own inner work and helping others. She had made a choice. “We can choose to be our own jailers,” she had learned. “Or we can choose to be free.”   Andrea Naversen

Header Image: Photo by Jordan Engle     Dr. Eger: Photo courtesy of Paul Barnett Photography