Holocaust survivor encourages students

WELLSBURG – Looking back on May 22, 1944, Eva Edith Eger can recall being led by German soldiers, with her sister and mother, into one of the Nazis’ infamous concentration camps in Auschwitz, Poland.

“My mother turned to me and whispered, ‘No one can take from you what you put in your mind,'” she said.

Eger said it was advice that enabled her to survive the atrocities of a concentration camp, where at least 1 million Jews and others died, and it was among advice she gave to Brooke High School students, staff and community members at three programs held Monday at the school.

“I’m a survivor. I don’t say ‘why me,’ I say, ‘what now?'” said Eger, who faced many struggles on the road from her imprisonment at Auschwitz at age 16 to a long career as a clinical psychologist in La Jolla, Calif.

Eger told how soon after her mother was separated from her and her sister, Magda, and she was directed to a “shower room” that really was one of the gas chambers the Nazis used to exterminate more than 3 million Jews and other prisoners.

They already had been separated from their father, who they never saw again. Another sister, Klara, was fortunate to have been smuggled into Budapest by her Christian music professor, Eger said.

Eger believes her own talent, as a ballerina, helped to save her from the gas chamber. Dr. Josef Mengele, a German officer and physician who earned the nickname Angel of Death for the experiments he performed on humans there, had an interest in the arts and would seek talented prisoners to perform for him, she said.

Eger said as she danced for Mengele, she closed her eyes and envisioned herself performing instead, as Juliet, in a ballet version of “Romeo and Juliet” at the Budapest Opera House.

“I decided they (the Nazis) were prisoners, not me,” she said.

Her graceful dancing aside, Eger said as a youth she was skinny and cross-eyed, the “ugly duckling” of her family. Her mother once commented that it was fortunate she was smart because she wasn’t good looking.

Eger told the students she’s forgiven her mother for that, but they shouldn’t let anyone define them.

She said her sister Magda was known for her beauty.

When Magda appeared before her, her blond hair shaved from her head, which bore cuts from the dull razor, and asked how she looked, Eger told her the loss of hair made her beautiful eyes stand out.

Eger told the students to consider the impact of their words when tempted to insult someone.

She noted there are two common coping mechanisms when faced with stress: Fight or flight. But neither was really available to her. If she attempted to fight, she would be shot and killed. If she attempted to flee, she would be electrocuted by the barbed wire fence, Eger recalled.

And she was beaten and tortured while at the concentration camp, she said, “but they couldn’t murder my spirit.”

Eger did encounter compassion from fellow prisoners and an unexpected source.

She, Magda and others were being marched from Auschwitz near the war’s end when Magda spied some carrots in a garden. When Eger attempted to retrieve them, a guard put his rifle up to her head but didn’t fire.

But as he looked at her, Eger sensed compassion, and he didn’t fire. Later he returned with a loaf of bread, saying she must have been very hungry to have made such an attempt.

Eger said she would have liked to have seen the guard after the war so she could thank him.

She did have an opportunity to thank indirectly members of the Army’s 71st Infantry, who rescued her, when she visited Fort Carson, Colo., home of the military division.

That was years after she and her husband fled communist rule in her new home in Czechoslovakia and immigrated to Baltimore. Her husband had been well to do, with several servants, but they left their riches behind and she went to work at a brick factory to help support the family.

When the family became financially secure, Eger, who had read Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams” as a youth, decided to enter college and study psychology at the University of Texas when she was 40.

Eger earned her doctorate at age 50 and has helped, among others, military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. At age 85, she has no plans to retire, she said.

“I consider it my duty, so my parents didn’t die in vain,” Eger said.

Following the first of two talks given by Eger to students at the school, several teens asked if she would pose for a photo with them.

Among them was senior Gerrica Earnest of Wellsburg, who said of Eger, “She’s a very inspirational person.”

Earnest said she is very interested in the Holocaust and visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and found it “very moving.”

Students in the advanced placement European history class taught by Greg Rothwell visited the museum also last fall and spoke to a Holocaust survivor there.