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An Auschwitz Survivor’s Guide to Healing

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How do you move on after trauma? That is a question that has plagued humans for years, and one that many of us will unfortunately have to grapple with at some point in our lives. And within the clutches of a pandemic that is still looming, the question seems more relevant than ever. The bad news is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The good news, however, is that some brilliant people out there in the world have committed themselves to try to answer that humdinger of a quandary. One such individual is Edith Eger, a psychologist and Auschwitz survivor whose book The Choice: Embrace the Possible does a remarkable job at providing insight into how humans can heal.

The book is partly a memoir and partly a guide to processing trauma and working through grief. The story begins with Edith’s early life experiences and memories of growing up in pre-World War II Hungary. She recalls scents of homemade streusels, friendly sibling feuds and family gatherings around Seder tables. She took ballet lessons and had dreams of one day pursuing professional dancing. Dreams that were cut short by the Gestapo: Edith was only a teenager when her family was taken from their home in Hungary and sent to the death camp at Auschwitz. She was separated from her parents, whom she never saw again, but managed to stay close to her sister, and they spent the following year navigating the horrific landscape of concentration camp life.

Following liberation, Edith and her sister went back to chaotic post-WWII Hungary, where they were haunted by the shadows of a life that was long gone, and Edith remained a victim long after her rescue. Ultimately, she met the man who later became her husband and, with him, found her way to the United States. That proved an arduous experience in and of itself, for Edith had to deal with the challenges immigrants face while trying to reckon with the trauma she experienced in Auschwitz. She was eventually able to learn enough English to begin studying psychology at the University of Texas, El Paso, and that was the first step toward a career that would span decades.

Through her studies, Edith came upon a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning (which I also highly recommend!), a book by another psychologist and fellow Auschwitz survivor named Victor Frankl. Frankl was a prisoner at Auschwitz at the same time as Edith, and his writing became the inspiration for her philosophy as a therapist. The lesson she says she took from it is that, “Each moment is a choice. No matter how frustrating or boring or constraining or painful or oppressive our experience, we can always choose how we respond.”

Embarking on a journey to heal both herself and her patients, Edith starts drawing from her own experiences when treating patients in her practice. This is where the book becomes more of a guide, as Edith starts describing some of her cases and how her own experiences helped her successfully maneuver the challenges of therapy. One interesting point Edith homes in on is that not all her patients have experienced huge traumatic events, but her approach still applies to patients dealing with everyday disappointments. There is no hierarchy of suffering. If someone is struggling with something, that struggle is real — regardless of the perceived caliber.

The experiences and cases mentioned in the book are too vast to be individually covered by a small blog piece, and I highly encourage readers to pick up a copy of the book. Whether you’re going through something small or big, Edith reminds us that there is always a path to getting better. When she was in Auschwitz, Edith was asked to dance for Josef Mengele, the notorious “Angel of Death” infamous for his brutal wartime experiments on camp subjects. Presently, whenever Edith gives a talk, she dances to a different tune and ends the talk with her famous ballerina high kick. Here’s to hoping we can all find our high kicks.

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