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Leading After Auschwitz

April 2, 2020 by

The Choice is one of the best books I have read in years. The author, Edith Eger, writes about how she survived the Holocaust, how she suppressed her experiences after the war but finally came to terms with them, not only understanding her own psyche, but becoming an acclaimed psychologist specializing in trauma. This is one of the most powerful books you can ever read about personal leadership. Edith Eger is 92 years old now. It took her ten years to write The Choice, which was published in 2017 and deservedly became an international bestseller.

Edith is sixteen years old when the Nazis bring her to Auschwitz with her sister Magda and her parents. Her sister Klara manages to stay behind in Hungary. On the train to Germany she learns a lesson from her mother that will help her survive: “We don’t know where we are going. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Just remember, no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.” This is the choice that the book title refers to: you can always find your sanctuary in your inner world.

Arriving in Auschwitz, three lines are formed: one for the men, the second for women over fourteen and under forty, the third for other women, including mothers with babies and elderly. Magda and Edith get into the second line, her father in the first, her mother in the third. Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous Angel of Death, decides their fate. He says: “You’re going to see your mother soon. She’s just going to take a shower.” The last thing she sees from her mother is the smoke rising up from one of the chimneys later that morning. The at the time 90-year old author vividly describes the horrible events she as a sixteen year old experienced in Auschwitz, turning this part of the book into a horrible, uplifting, touching, angering, sweet, insightful read.

That evening Dr. Mengele visits Edith’s barrack. ‘He is a refined killer and a lover of the arts. He trawls among the barracks in the evenings, searching for talented inmates to entertain him.’ The girls next to her, who know she trained as a ballerina and gymnast, push her forward. ‘”Little dancer”, Dr. Mengele says, “dance for me.” (…) He never takes his eyes off me, but the attends to his duties as he watches. He discusses with the other officer which ones of the hundred girls present will be killed next. I am dancing in hell.’ Edith remembers the words of her mother: no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind. She pictures being on stage in the Budapest opera house. ‘As I dance, I discover a piece of wisdom that I have never forgotten. I will never know what miracle of grace allows me this insight. It will save my life many times, even after the horror is over. I can see that Dr. Mengele, the seasoned killer who just this morning murdered my mother, is more pitiful than me. I am free in my mind, which he can never be. He will always have to live with what he’s done. He is more a prisoner than I am. As I close my routine with a final, graceful split, I pray, but it isn’t myself I pray for. I pray for him. I pray, for his sake, that he won’t have the need to kill me.’ And he doesn’t. He rewards her performance with a loaf of bread.

Both Magda and Edith survive Auschwitz, supporting each other through the atrocities, only to get into worse situations, as human decoys on top of an ammunition train, in Mauthausen and in Gunskirchen, also death camps. There she collapses from hunger and sickness. She has typhoid, fever, pneumonia, pleurisy and a broken back. Both she and Magda are in a pile of human bodies, many dead, some with barely enough life in them to open their eyes and lift their hands to let their liberators know they are there. American GIs take both sisters with them. Edith is free but too weak to feel joy or relief. “I weigh seventy pounds. I can’t walk on my own. I am a baby. I barely think in language. I think in terms of pain, of need.”

After liberation her body slowly recovers. Edith and Magda return to their home village, where they are rejoined with their sister Klara. But recovering mentally takes far longer. They lock away their experiences and never discuss them, not within their family, nor with anyone else.

Building up a new life after the war is hard. Edith yearns to have a normal life. In 1946 she marries Béla, whom she met in a hospital. On her honeymoon she becomes pregnant, against the advice of her doctor who believes she is still too weak. Nevertheless, she gives birth to a healthy baby. The young family decides to emigrate to the US. She hopes to put a distance between her and her past, but her trauma accompanies her over the ocean. Survivor’s guilt, buried memories and constant flashbacks hold her hostage. She never ever talks about her past, convinced that staying silent is the best way to protect her children from evil. When her daughter discovers  a history book with pictures of piles of naked, skeletal corpses and asks her mother about it, Edith runs from the room to vomit in the bathroom. “To face the truth, to face my daughter facing the truth, is to face a beast.”

Edith decides it is time to face the beast. “I hadn’t let myself feel the feelings, afraid that if I started to let them out, I might never stop, I’d become a monster.” She begins studying psychology, mainly to understand her own mind. And then she finds out: “I feel the force of the rage, and it doesn’t kill me after all.” Slowly, cautiously, she starts to talk about the Holocaust and examine her experiences, intent on learning how we survive trauma and what transforms a ‘victim’ into a ‘survivor’. She earns her licence to practise, specializing in post-traumatic stress. She becomes an acclaimed psychologist, working often with American soldiers returning from wars.

In the book she describes the long journey of how looking deeply into herself, coming to terms with her own past, is a precondition for helping others, which is also an important insight for business leaders; she cannot take her patients any further than she has gone herself. Overcoming her fear and resistance she decides to return to Auschwitz and to visit Hitler’s living and working quarters in Berchtesgaden. There she discovers that she not only has survivor’s guilt, but even survivor’s shame, that deep down she thinks that she didn’t deserve to survive. There and then she acknowledges that she cannot change the past and only that allows her to heal and live her life. “This is the work of healing. You deny what hurts, what you fear. You avoid it at all costs. Then you find a way to welcome and embrace what you’r most afraid of. And then you can finally let it go.” She hasn’t chosen her experiences, but she has the ability to choose her response and to give up the need for a different past. “We had no control over the most consuming facts of our lives, but we had the power to determine how we experienced life after trauma. We can choose to be our own jailors, or we can choose to be free.” All human beings have a choice to be responsible for their own happiness.

Edith Eger’s personal journey contains strong lessons for all of us: about coming to terms with our past (luckily for most of us without Auschwitz), embracing our inner darkness, not getting stuck in our anger or even hate, overcoming our victimization, taking responsibility for the choices that we make. In addition to what you can learn, the book is also a pleasure to read because it is very well written.

Edith Eger. The Choice. Even in hell hope can flower. Penguin, 2017