Former El Pasoan and Holocaust survivor Edith Eva Eger, who has told her story thousands of times around the world, told it again last week as part of CNN’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
During World War II, Nazi Germany killed an estimated 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, at Auschwitz.
It was part of Adolph Hitler’s “Final Solution,” which called for the eradication of all the Jews in Europe and led to the deaths of more than 6 million.
They included Eger’s parents, other family members, friends and neighbors from the town of Kassa, Hungary. They were rounded up late in the war and shipped in cattle cars to Germany’s most notorious and efficient death camp in Auschwitz, Poland.
She was 16, a dancer and gymnast who had been named to the Hungarian Olympic team and then thrown off because she was a Jew.
Eger, whose maiden name was Elefant, miraculously survived a year in hell – from Auschwitz, slave labor on Nazi ammunition trains, a death march through Austria and internment at another concentration camp, Gunskirchen Lager.
At 87, Eger is still haunted by the irony of being spared upon her arrival at Auschwitz by none other than Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death” himself, who personally ordered her parents and thousands upon thousands more into the gas chambers.
She and her mother were near the end of the line entering the camp that day, May 22, 1944.
“He pointed to my mom to go to the left, and I followed my mom,” Eger told CNN. “And Dr. Mengele grabbed me – I never forget that eye contact – and he said ‘You’re going to see you mother soon, she’s just going to take a shower.’”
He directed the young girl to another line. She never saw her mother again.
Soon after, she said, Mengele visited the barracks where she was housed and asked if anyone had special talents with which to entertain him.
Fellow prisoners pointed to Eger, the ballerina, and she was made to dance for the Angel of Death to the music of the Blue Danube.
Eger’s account is posted on the Internet with the “Voices of Auschwitz” interviews CNN produced for the Auschwitz anniversary. Visit www.cnn.com/2015/01/25/world/auschwitz-dancing-mengele.
Eger and her sister, Magda, were separated at Auschwitz, but Magda, too, survived. So did their sister Clara, a gifted musician, who had been smuggled out of Hungary to safety by her music professor.
America’s 71st Infantry liberated Gunskirchen Lager on May 4, 1945, days before Germany surrendered, ending the war in Europe.
The soldiers and their commander were so moved by what they found that the Army produced a pamphlet to describe the horrors so they would not go untold.
The Jewish Virtual Library has a copy of “The Liberation of Gunskirchen Lager” online. One section reads:
“The thousands of prisoners had been crammed into a few low, one-story, frame buildings with sloppy, muddy floors. Those who were able had come out of the buildings, but there were hundreds left in them – the dead, the near-dead, and those too weak to move.”
While being treated afterward at a hospital in Czechoslovakia, Edith Elefant met the man she would marry, Albert Bela Eger, a Hungarian partisan fighter, and they later made their way to the United States.
They spent 38 years in El Paso. She earned her first degree at Texas Western University, now UTEP, taught at Bowie and Coronado high schools, earned a Ph.D. in psychology and opened a practice while she and Albert raised a family of three.
Her son, John Eger, lives here today. Daughter Audrey is married and lives in Austin. Daughter Marianne became a child psychologist and married Robert F. Engle III, a New York University professor who shared the Nobel Prize for economics in 2003.
There are grandchildren and great grandchildren of the woman who danced for Mengele and lived to tell about it.
Edith Eger left El Paso for a new home in La Jolla, California, when her husband died. She visits friends in El Paso often, still sees clients, travels constantly and vows never to retire because she believes the work she does and the stories she tells are too important to quit.
Although she has a doctorate in psychology, she will always say that Auschwitz was the best education she received and is at the heart of the message of forgiveness she takes everywhere she goes.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.
Q: Where are you from originally?
I came from a city that was part of Czechoslovakia and now is part of the Slovak Republic. Now it’s called Košice, but in Hungarian, it was Kassa.
Q: You have told the story many times, but how did you and your family end up in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II?
The Hungarians joined Hitler in March 1944 and on April 15, Hermann Goering began gathering the Jews together for the final solution. They were celebrating on the day that they found a way to put 10,000 Jews in the oven in one day.
I am part of that final solution. I arrived in Auschwitz in May 1944. It is documented with the Red Cross. My name is there.
Q: That was late in the war, just a month before the Allied invasion at Normandy on D-Day.
Hitler was totally obsessed, not just with the Jews, but with the Bolshevists. Even then, he was losing in Russia, but he didn’t know when to give up.
Q: How old were you?
I was 16, and I was in Auschwitz dancing for Dr. Mengele. Things like that taught me so much about finding the power within. I think all of us are here to do something and no one can replace you. You do it your way, I do it my way.
I think it’s very important to visit the places you’ve been, because I did not forgive myself for surviving until I visited Auschwitz.
Q: How long were you in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland?
I arrived on May 22, 1944. But I didn’t get my tattoo that told me I was going to the gas chamber. They put me on a train carrying ammunition for the Nazis. I was a slave laborer, and I was liberated by the Americans in Austria on May 4, 1945. I was one of the last ones to be liberated.
Q: What did you take away from that concentration camp and that time?
I think Auschwitz was probably the best education that I received. I learned about how to respond rather than react. When you react, you don’t think. I also learned how to transcend my needs and to commit myself to someone other than myself, because all we had then was each other.
Q: Have you been back to Auschwitz?
Yes. I went with my late husband. I told him just to wait for me. I needed to do that alone. I wanted him to know that I danced for Dr. Mengele. I wanted to see that place.
Q: Years later you went to Germany as Dr. Edith Eger and a VIP and you visited the place where Adolph Hitler died.
I was invited to the Eagles Nest and I spoke to 2,500 people at Hitler’s bunker, and I was the keynote speaker. So that is justice. That was to me the most wonderful feeling. I’m here. I’m here.
Q: When did you live in El Paso?
I moved to El Paso in 1955 with two girls; my son John was born in 1956. I left in 1993 when my husband died, but before then I would commute between La Jolla and El Paso. I have wonderful memories of El Paso. This is where I raised my children. I think it is a clean, safe place.
Q: You also went to UTEP, Texas Western University then, and taught school here.
I graduated with honors from UTEP and thought I knew something about bilingual education because I was born on the border between Czechoslovakia and Hungary. So I got a job at Bowie High School.
I was a real idealist and was talking to the children about how we were going to get along and how we were going to have love for each other. I was the total idealist.
So, I came like that, and I couldn’t put it together because my kindness was misinterpreted as weakness. So, I had to learn very quickly about these kids. They looked at me like a kook who came from Mars with an accent. I learned the first year you have to show them who’s boss. You have to come from strength. Bowie High School was a wonderful experience for me.
I taught seventh and eighth grade social studies. Imagine me teaching them about the Alamo and your American ancestors.
I also had a big revolution with the school. The children were not allowed to speak Spanish. They were punished. I told them these children are not bilingual, they are non-lingual, illiterate in Spanish and in English, and they hate the school because they can’t even speak their mother tongue. We had a real revolution.
I told them these kids can go to college, but they didn’t really promote that. They just wanted those kids to do manual labor. I pushed, I pushed, I pushed. I’m still pushing. I’m still selling education.
Q: Your second career was that of a licensed clinical psychologist and I understand you became a specialist treating returning Vietnam vets for what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder at Beaumont.
Yes. I put in 6,000 clinical hours. I only needed 3,000 for my Ph.D. I always walk the extra mile because I never thought I was good enough.
Q: When did you begin speaking and getting calls to speak to groups as you still do now?
That was in 1979, I was invited to Europe to the American hospitals and where the Americans were stationed through the Army. Later, I helped prepare the guys for Desert Storm. They were in Germany, and I talked to them about separation alienation, about resilience and how not to give up or give in – and to study your enemy.
I have been to practically all the continents of the world. I have lectured for the YPO, the Young Presidents Organization. They are wonderful people. You have to be the president of a company with, I think, more than 15,000 employees by the time you are 30. They build homes for people in Tijuana and educate kids in South Africa. They do a lot of good. So, I have been lecturing for them, and they have sent me London, South Africa and other places.
Q: Is there a favorite type of group you like to talk to?
I like universities. I reach a lot of good people, a lot of good students. I like churches, and I talk a great deal about the difference between Christianity and being Christ-like, which is loving unconditionally.
Forgiveness is not optional because it means releasing the part of you that may be holding you hostage and prisoner.
Q: What do you think about forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a gift that I give to myself. People think I’m such a good person for forgiving the Nazis. It’s not up to me to forgive them, but it’s up to me to have joy and passion and live a full life.
Otherwise, I would still be the prisoner and a delayed victim of the Holocaust. So, I never forget, and I may not even overcome it. I came to terms with it, and it’s my cherished wound that really makes me a wounded healer today.
I’m not the healer; I’m a guide. I facilitate my patients’ healing, but I’m not the healer.
Q: From what you say, Edith Eger’s message really is forgiveness and teaching people how to forgive seems the most important thing you do.
It is. Not just once, but many, many times in your lifetime. How can you love with a judgment about someone, including yourself? Never allow yourself to put yourself down. What you did you already did, embrace it to learn from it.
Q: Do you still do individual counseling in La Jolla?
Oh, yes. I’m in private practice. I don’t believe in retirement, and I will never retire because I am very blessed that not only did I survive but I can help others and to me my work is my life and my family.
Q: What do you tell people about retirement?
It’s one thing if you are retiring to do what you really wanted to do all your life, like painting and you are not worried about your finances. I think people can live a very, very full life by maybe learning how to fly when you’re 75.
Q: What do you say to parents?
I think parents would be very good parents if they teach the children how they can be good parents to themselves and make it in a world without their parents. And don’t tell them they’re special because sometimes that can be understood to mean they’re better than somebody else.
Q: What else?
You have to be careful not to spoil your children because when a child is indulged, they don’t do for themselves.
Those were the first ones to die in Auschwitz because they were waiting for someone to come and liberate them and set them free. They just didn’t have the inner resources to survive.
Q: Do you have a particular message for women?
I do. I tell women not to be a strong woman but to be a woman of strength.
Q: And couples?
I love couples. Marriage and sex have not done well with each other. I want married couples to really have good dates and not to talk about the kids but to really be into each other and not to ask questions and give advice. If you ask questions, let it be very caring, kind questions. Not “why” questions, why do you do this and why did you do that.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you have for married couples that are struggling?
Learn to give and take and tolerate differences so I can be me and you can be you, but together, we’re going to be stronger.
Little children, I have a hard time speaking their language. I’m better with teenagers. With them, I’m Grandma, not Dr. Eger. And they listen.
I see many types of people. Many in mid-life transitions who are not doing very well in their professional life. They kind of sold their soul to the company because the paycheck was very good, but they are very unhappy doing what they’re doing. I don’t call it mid-life crisis; I call it mid-life transition.
I put things on a scale: What do you win, what do you lose? I teach them to see that what they want and what they have. But I don’t want them to depend on me.
Q: Have you written all this down a book?
No. I know I need to do that.
Q: You travel all over the world. What are the major themes of your talks?
I talk about the freedom of choice, using Shakespeare’s soliloquy, to be or not to be a victim but a survivor and certain characteristics that go with it.
Victims are usually rigid; survivors are flexible. I learned very quickly in Auschwitz that I could not afford to ask, “Why me?” I had to ask, “What now?”
Q: Do you think God put you here to go through this and to help people and tell your stories?
I think that my God is a very loving God, and the God I spoke to helped me to change hatred into pity. I always told myself that if I survive today, then tomorrow I’ll be free and I will meet the boyfriend who told me I have beautiful eyes.
So, I was in the future even though I was told every day that the only way I would get out of there was as corpse. So, this is where I am empowering people, not to try to change what’s outside of you, but not to react. Learn how to respond, not to change the other person.