Dr. Edith Eva Eger is an incredible human being. She had her life and loved ones savagely ripped away from her and yet, she managed to survive the concentration camps and create a life full of love and healing. She is truly an inspiration and I’m so grateful she openly shares so much of herself and her wisdom with the world.
The Choice: Embrace the Possible is Dr. Eger’s memoir and a first hand account of the astounding strength and resilience of the human spirit. Like so many others, Dr. Eger wasn’t content to just survive after her horrific ordeal. She learned to thrive. She faced her fears, she felt her pain and she made the choice to no longer be a prisoner.
When hearing the subject matter, one would think this book would be depressing and difficult to read. I felt a bit of dread when I picked it up. It was a similar dread I felt when I first began reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. However, Frankl and Eger both possess the ability to tell nightmarish stories in a way that gets to the heart without devastating the reader. It’s just detailed enough to put you in the scene but told in such an inspirational way that you must know what happens next.
The life Dr. Eger describes in The Choice is a difficult one. It was a painful life even before she was sent to Auschwitz. Even before she unknowingly said the word that condemned her mother to the gas chamber. Even before she suffered to the point of near death, only to be rescued at the last moment. Liberation didn’t end her suffering. She suffered in silence for many years, keeping her pain to herself. As many traumatized people do, she ran from the past and tried to move forward. But an unresolved past has ways of chasing you and taking over the present. Dr. Eger ran for decades but she eventually realized that the only way out of the pain is by going through it.
Dr. Eger stated, “We become victims not because of what happened to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimization.” I was trapped in my own victimization for many years. As a chronically ill child, I would often ask myself the question Dr. Eger claims survivors don’t have time to ask, “Why me?” It wasn’t until I accepted my circumstances that I began to ask myself the only question Dr. Eger finds relevant for survivors, “What now?” This shift changed my life. Being able to accept and look for the next step forward, no matter how small, created a whole new life for me. That was when I went from being a victim of my own life to a survivor that slowly learned how to thrive.
“There is always a worse hell,” Dr. Eger claimed. I’ve certainly experienced this in my life. Wishing that what was happening would change or end because then everything would be better. But then you get what you asked for and realize that things are actually much worse now. I think that has been the experience of many during the pandemic. So many hated their pre-pandemic lives. Dreaded dealing with things as they were. Then suddenly, everything changed and all people want is for things to go back to “normal.” We have realized that there is always a worse hell then the one we had previously experienced.
Dr. Eger wrote, “Mundane life is life too. As is painful life, and stressful life.” So often, we want to skip over the parts of life that feel boring and burdensome. While reading this, I thought of the Adam Sandler movie, Click. He thinks he’s doing himself a favor by fast-forwarding through the parts of his day that are repetitious, difficult and unpleasant. Before he knows it, the remote goes on autopilot and he has missed his whole life. Because much of life is mundane, painful and stressful. But those moments are life! Those moments are the ones that make the happy moments that much more amazing. We need it all. The struggle and the success. The pain and the pleasure. Life is life, and it will pass you by before you know it.
After she and her sister are liberated, they are staying with a German family while they recover enough to go back home to Hungary. Dr. Eger was near death. So weak and frail she was put in a crib and cared for as if she was a baby. One night, she describes a terrifying incident where a drunk American GI came in and almost raped her. “That night, I believe he was so lost in the darkness that he almost became it.” Pain and fear can push us to do awful things. That GI had also been in hell. Luckily, he regained control over himself before he caused her more harm. After that night, he became her protector. Bringing her food and helping however he could on her journey to recovery. He worked hard to prove to himself and to her that he wasn’t the monster the world tried to make him.
Eventually, Dr. Eger and her sister returned home and started to pick up the pieces of their broken lives. They reunited with their surviving family and began moving forward. Marriage, children, a new life in the United States, and a psychology practice. However, she had been silent about her past and continued to feel like a prisoner. Dr. Eger expressed, “I had lost my childhood to the war, my adolescence to the death camps, and my young adulthood to the compulsion to never look back.” Then she discovered Viktor Frankl. He inspired her to look inside. To escape her lifelong prison and finally set herself free.
“Each moment is a choice,” Dr. Eger wrote. She chose to stop running. She chose to shine a light on the darkness. She chose freedom. Out of her own struggles, she created C.H.O.I.C.E (Compassion. Humor. Optimism. Intuition. Curiosity. Self-expression) Therapy. The sessions described with her patients are so beautiful. She helps them understand what is at the heart of their struggles and why they maintain destructive behaviors. She teaches accountability and acceptance. “Expression is the opposite of depression,” Dr. Eger claims. As depression rates continue to climb, we need to put an emphasis on expression. Too many people suffer in silence, slowly being eaten away by the past.
Decades after being liberated, Dr. Eger made the incredibly brave decision to return to Auschwitz and confront the ghosts that had been haunting her for all those years. She faced down the specter of Josef Mengele, the monster who forced her dance for him just hours after he sent her mother to the gas chamber. “To heal is to cherish the wound,” she wrote. She left Auschwitz for the second time, but this time she was actually free.
Dr. Eger stated, “Time doesn’t heal. It’s what you do with the time.” So true! This is such an amazing book. So much wisdom and compassion are shared in these pages. Dr. Eger is a treasure and I feel so fortunate to have found her work. This will be a book I read many times throughout my life.
Rating: 5/5 Stars
If this book sparks your interest, join my online book club! We read and discuss many life-changing books.