When I was little, I had a friend who lived around the corner. I can remember building forts out of couch cushions in her basement, creating chalk drawings on the driveway and playing spud on that lawn. But more importantly, I remember her grandparents. They had the most wonderful accents, the most genuine hearts and they were the first people I ever met with numbers tattooed on their arms. This Nana and Pop-Pop who adored a stranger from around the corner were the first Holocaust survivors I ever met. To this day, those adopted grandparents hold a very special place in my heart.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting another Holocaust survivor. Seated in a southern Californian living room, this spritely 90 year old captured my attention for over two hours and shared her perspective, approach to life and ability to find kindness in even the ugliest of places, Auschwitz. Standing eye level to me, this former Hungarian gymnast turned clinical psychologist and internationally acclaimed author captivated her listeners with stories of hope, healing, dealing with impermanence and her ability to choose to build a beautiful life after unthinkable trauma.
Just shy of 90, Dr. Edith Eger took her years of training, early decades of trauma and healing ways and wrote The Choice: Embrace the Possible. The brightly clad elegant woman in front of me was pure joy. Her story encompasses atrocities at Auschwitz, countless levels of awful, includes interactions with the horror of Josef Mengele and deals with decades of PTSD from the experience of the Holocaust. While in its entirety this is more than a person could bear, this is not her story. Her story begins with liberation. The life she talks about weaves stories of her sister, kindness from a guard who could have killed her and mental toughness to work, struggle and strive to build a life of possibilities, healing and the desire to always reach for love.
“Be the change you wish to see in this world” – Mahatma Gandhi
She exudes courage and zest for life in every sentence. Today, a nonagenarian, Dr. Edie Eger still holds a thriving clinical practice in La Jolla, has a faculty appointment at UCSD – San Diego and is a PTSD and resiliency training consultant for both the US Army and US Navy. She escaped what we know as one of the worst genocides of recent history and today she spends every waking hour teaching others to lift themselves up, work through adversity, live in the present, let go of trauma, choose possibility, radiate kindness and to always reach for love.
From past to present
I minored in Near Eastern Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, have visited many of the world’s Holocaust museums and in 2009 spent a tear-filled Yom Kippur at Auschwitz. On that memorable visit, a story was passed along (initially from an Auschwitz survivor) to remind us that whatever problem we’re facing, however bad a day we’re having, however insurmountable the odds feel – that it’s never truly impossible. We were all given the opportunity to pick up a small stone from outside the gates of Auschwitz and to keep it with us. The idea is that whenever we’re having a bad day, dealing with a problem or struggling with what seems like a never-ending pile of poo, put your hand around that small stone, remember where it comes from, what was endured there and squeeze hard. This action stimulates the brain and is designed to remind the holder of the stone that no matter how large the struggle seems, it truly is only the size of that tiny stone. Embrace the possible within and you too can overcome anything. Nearly a decade later, that stone comes with me everywhere and has been part of my story ever since I picked it up that afternoon.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear” – Nelson Mandela
Dr. Eger told of the time (when in her fifties) she finally decided to revisit Auschwitz. Decades after her liberation, she was able to go back and face that fear head on. After years and years of struggle and trying to heal, it was on that visit that she was finally able to forgive herself and fully heal. After one woman shared her story that involved domestic difficulties, trauma, a struggle to rebuild and her experience of finally feeling fully free from the grasp of it all, Edie reminded us that no matter the struggle, if we can ‘walk into the lion’s den and laugh’, that healing, forgiveness and freedom will follow. It’s then that you get to say, ‘now what’. It’s then that you continue to reach for the possible, find a new goal, create a new story, and become the you you want to be.
A student of history, I enjoyed watching The West Wing. While there were countless episodes I loved, one of my favorite takeaways was the tag line the president taught his staff. Through an endless array of difficult decisions, horrible occurrences, political mishugas (craziness) and day to day minutiae, regardless of the level of fight, there was always, ‘what’s next’. It’s that what’s next that matters. It’s the choices we get to make, the opportunities we create out of the obstacles, the way we choose to view the situation, the goals we set and for which we reach and the kindness we show to others and ourselves that matter. Dr. Eger gave me the gift of her presence and wisdom yesterday. She reaffirmed my belief in choosing happy, building a life you love, to strive to learn and grow, choosing you and to always look for the light. Her unstoppable spirit is a testament to her strength. Her past could have been her story, but as she says, ‘I don’t live there anymore’. She turned the unspeakable horror she endured into a life of healing, helping and a positive force for change.
“Because I knew you, I have been changed for good” – Wicked
This nonagenarian dances, speaks, works, lectures, helps, writes, guides, loves food and embraces the positive and the possible. She decided early on in life, even in the face of vile and repugnance, that she would not be a victim and every day since that decision she believed and embraced that choice. A survivor in the truest sense of the word, Dr. Eger embraces life, love, freedom, wellness, joy, kindness and humanity. Read her book, spread kindness, believe in your own worth, help others, do good works, believe in self-care and choose to love yourself – this is how we change the world. Everyday this woman laughs in the face of those who strove to permanently break her spirit. She lives, she strives and she embodies positivity and perspective. With every breath and every person she touches, she is that change for good.