- Published: 1 September 2020
- ISBN: 9781846046278
- Imprint: Rider
- Format: Hardback
- Pages: 224
- RRP: $29.99
12 Lessons to Save Your Life
UNLOCKING OUR MENTAL PRISONS
I learned how to live at a death camp
In the spring of 1944, I was sixteen, living with my parents and two older sisters in Kassa, Hungary. There were signs of war and prejudice all around us. The yellow stars we wore pinned to our coats. The Hungarian Nazis—nyilas—who occupied our old apartment. Newspaper accounts of battlefronts and German occupation spreading across Europe. The worried glances my parents exchanged at the table. The awful day when I was cut from the Olympic gymnastics team because I was Jewish. Yet I had been blissfully preoccupied with ordinary teenage concerns. I was in love with my first boyfriend, Eric, the tall, intelligent boy I’d met in book club. I replayed our first kiss and admired the new blue silk dress that my father had designed for me. I marked my progress in the ballet and gymnastics studio, and joked with Magda, my beautiful eldest sister, and Klara, who was studying violin at a conservatory in Budapest.
And then everything changed.
One cold dawn in April the Jews of Kassa were rounded up and imprisoned in an old brick factory at the edge of town. A few weeks later, Magda and my parents and I were loaded into a cattle car bound for Auschwitz. My parents were murdered in the gas chambers the day we arrived.
My first night in Auschwitz, I was forced to dance for SS officer Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death, the man who had scrutinized the new arrivals as we came through the selection line that day and sent my mother to her death. “Dance for me!” he ordered, and I stood on the cold concrete floor of the barracks, frozen with fear. Outside, the camp orchestra began to play a waltz, “The Blue Danube.” Remembering my mother’s advice—No one can take from you what you’ve put in your mind—I closed my eyes and retreated to an inner world. In my mind, I was no longer imprisoned in a death camp, cold and hungry and ruptured by loss. I was on the stage of the Budapest opera house, dancing the role of Juliet in Tchaikovsky’s ballet. From within this private refuge I willed my arms to lift and my legs to twirl. I summoned the strength to dance for my life.
Each moment in Auschwitz was hell on earth. It was also my best classroom. Subjected to loss, torture, starvation, and the constant threat of death, I discovered the tools for survival and freedom that I continue to use every day in my clinical psychology practice as well as in my own life.
As I write this introduction in the fall of 2019, I am ninety-two. I earned my doctorate in clinical psychology in 1978 and I’ve been treating patients in a therapeutic setting for over forty years. I have worked with combat veterans and survivors of sexual assault; students, civic leaders, and CEOs; people battling addiction and those struggling with anxiety and depression; couples grappling with resentment and those longing to rekindle intimacy; parents and children learning how to live together and those discovering how to live apart. As a psychologist; as a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother; as an observer of my own and others’ behavior; and as an Auschwitz survivor, I am here to tell you that the worst prison is not the one the Nazis put me in. The worst prison is the one I built for myself.
Although our lives have probably been very different, perhaps you know what I mean. Many of us experience feeling trapped in our minds. Our thoughts and beliefs determine, and often limit, how we feel, what we do, and what we think is possible. In my work I’ve discovered that while our imprisoning beliefs show up and play out in unique ways, there are some common mental prisons that contribute to suffering. This book is a practical guide to help us identify our mental prisons and develop the tools we need to become free.
The foundation of freedom is the power to choose. In the final months of the war, I had very few options, and no way to escape. Hungarian Jews had been among the last in Europe to be deported to death camps, and after eight months in Auschwitz, just before the Russian army defeated Germany, my sister and I and a hundred other prisoners were evacuated from Auschwitz and marched from Poland, through Germany, to Austria. We performed slave labor in factories along the way, and rode on top of trains transporting German ammunition, our bodies used as human shields to protect the cargo from British bombs. (The British bombed the trains anyway.)
When my sister and I were liberated at Gunskirchen— a concentration camp in Austria—in May 1945, a little over a year after we’d been taken prisoner, my parents and almost all the people I knew were dead. My back had broken from constant physical abuse. I was starving, covered in sores, and could barely move from where I lay in a pile of corpses; people who had been sick and starving like me, whose bodies had given up. I couldn’t undo what had been done to me. I couldn’t control how many people the Nazis had shoved into the cattle cars or crematoria, trying to ex terminate as many Jews and “undesirables” as they could before the end of the war. I couldn’t alter the systematic dehumanization or slaughter of the over six million innocents who died in the camps. All I could do was decide how to respond to terror and hopelessness. Somehow, I found it within myself to choose hope.
But surviving Auschwitz was only the first leg of my journey to freedom. For many decades, I remained a prisoner of the past. On the surface, I was doing well, putting my trauma behind me and moving on. I married Béla, the son of a prominent family in Prešov who had been a partisan during the war, fighting the Nazis in the mountain forests of Slovakia. I became a mother, fled the Communists in Europe, immigrated to America, lived on pennies, rose out of poverty, and, in my forties, went to college. I became a high school teacher, and then returned to school for a master’s in educational psychology and a doctorate in clinical psychology. Even late in my graduate training, committed to helping others heal and trusted with some of the toughest cases during my clinical rotations, I was still in hiding—running from the past, denying my grief and trauma, minimizing and pretending, trying to please others and do things perfectly, blaming Béla for my chronic resentment and disappointment, chasing after achievement as though it could make up for all I’d lost.
One day I arrived at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, where I held a competitive clinical internship, and put on my white coat and name tag: Dr. Eger, Department of Psychiatry. But for a split second the words blurred and it seemed to say, Dr. Eger, Impostor. That’s when I knew I couldn’t support others in healing if I didn’t heal myself.
My therapeutic approach is eclectic and intuitive, a blend of insight- and cognitive-oriented theories and practices. I call it choice therapy, as freedom is fundamentally about choice. While suffering is inevitable and universal, we can always choose how we respond, and I seek to highlight and harness my patients’ power to choose—to effect positive change in their lives.
My work is rooted in four core psychological principles:
First, from Martin Seligman and positive psychology, the concept of “learned helplessness”—that we suffer most when we believe that we have no efficacy in our lives, that nothing we do can improve the outcome. We flourish when we harness “learned optimism”—the strength, resiliency, and ability to create the meaning and direction of our lives.
Second, from cognitive-behavioral therapy, the understanding that our thoughts create our feelings and behavior. To change harmful, dysfunctional, or self-defeating behaviors, we change our thoughts; we replace our negative beliefs with those that serve and support our growth.
Third, from Carl Rogers, one of my most influential mentors, the importance of unconditional positive self-regard. Much of our suffering stems from our misconception that we can’t be loved and genuine—that if we are to earn others’ acceptance and approval, we must deny or hide our true selves. In my work I strive to extend unconditional love to my patients, and to guide them to discover that we become free when we stop wearing masks and fulfilling the roles and expectations others assign us, and start unconditionally loving ourselves.
Finally, I work from the understanding, shared with my beloved mentor, friend, and fellow Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, that our worst experiences can be our best teachers, catalyzing unforeseen discoveries and opening us up to new possibilities and perspectives. Healing, fulfillment, and freedom come from our ability to choose our response to whatever life brings us, and to make meaning and derive purpose from all we experience—and in particular, from our suffering.
Freedom is a lifetime practice—a choice we get to make again and again each day. Ultimately, freedom requires hope, which I define in two ways: the awareness that suffering, however terrible, is temporary; and the curiosity to discover what happens next. Hope allows us to live in the present instead of the past, and to unlock the doors of our mental prisons.
Three-quarters of a century after liberation, I still have nightmares. I suffer flashbacks. Till the day I die, I will grieve the loss of my parents, who never got to see four generations rise from the ashes of their deaths. The horror is still with me. There’s no freedom in minimizing what happened, or in trying to forget.
But remembering and honoring are very different from remaining stuck in guilt, shame, anger, resentment, or fear about the past. I can face the reality of what happened and remember that although I have lost, I’ve never stopped choosing love and hope. For me, the ability to choose, even in the midst of so much suffering and powerlessness, is the true gift that came out of my time in Auschwitz.
It may seem wrong to call anything that came out of the death camps a gift. How could anything good come from hell? The constant fear that I’d be pulled out of the selection line or the barrack at any moment and thrown in the gas chamber, the dark smoke rising from the chimneys, a pervasive reminder of all I’d lost and stood to lose. I had no control over the senseless, excruciating circumstances. But I could focus on what I held in my mind. I could respond, not react. Auschwitz provided the opportunity to discover my inner strength and my power of choice. I learned to rely on parts of myself I would otherwise never have known were there.
We all have this capacity to choose. When nothing helpful or nourishing is coming from the outside, that is precisely the moment when we have the possibility to discover who we really are. It’s not what happens to us that matters most, it’s what we do with our experiences.
When we escape our mental prisons, we not only become free from what has held us back, but free to exercise our own free will. I first learned the difference between negative and positive freedom on liberation day at Gunskirchen in May 1945 when I was seventeen. I was lying on the muddy ground in a pile of the dead and dying when the Seventy-First Infantry arrived to free the camp. I remember the soldiers’ eyes full of shock, bandanas tied over their faces to block out the stench of rotting flesh. In those first hours of freedom, I watched my fellow former prisoners—those who were capable of walking—leave through the prison gates. Moments later, they returned and sat listlessly on the damp grass or on the dirt floors of the barracks, unable to move forward. Viktor Frankl noted the same phenomenon when Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz. We were no longer in prison, but many of us weren’t yet able, physically or mentally, to recognize our freedom. We were so eroded by disease, starvation, and trauma, we had no capacity to take responsibility for our lives. We could hardly remember how to be ourselves.
We’d finally been released from the Nazis. But we weren’t yet free.
I now recognize that the most damaging prison is in our mind, and the key is in our pocket. No matter how great our suffering or how strong the bars, it’s possible to break free from whatever’s holding us back.
It is not easy. But it is so worth it.
In The Choice, I told the story of my journey from imprisonment to liberation and then on to true freedom. I’ve been astounded and humbled by the book’s global reception and by all the readers who shared stories of how they have confronted their own pasts and worked to heal their pain. We were able to connect, sometimes in person, sometimes through email, social media, or video calls, and many of the stories I heard are included in this book. (Names and other identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.)
As I wrote in The Choice, I don’t want people to read my story and think, “There’s no way my suffering compares to hers.” I want people to hear my story and think, “If she can do it, so can I!” Many have asked for a practical guide to the healing I’ve done in my own life and with my patients in my clinical work. The Gift is that book.
In each chapter, I explore a common prison of the mind, illustrating its effects and challenges with stories from my life and clinical work, and closing with keys to free ourselves from that mental prison. Some of the keys are questions that could be used as journal prompts or in discussion with a trusted friend or therapist; others are actionable steps you can take right now to improve your life and relationships. Though healing is not a linear process, I’ve organized the chapters in an intentional sequence that reflects the arc of my own journey toward freedom. That said, the chapters can also stand alone or be read in any order. You’re the director of your own journey; I invite you to use the book in whatever way best serves you.
And I offer three initial guideposts to start you on the path to freedom.
We do not change until we’re ready. Sometimes it’s a tough circumstance—perhaps a divorce, accident, illness, or death— that forces us to face up to what isn’t working and try something else. Sometimes our inner pain or unfulfilled longing gets so loud and insistent that we can’t ignore it another minute. But readiness doesn’t come from the outside, and it can’t be rushed or forced. You’re ready when you’re ready, when something inside shift s and you decide, Until now I did that. Now I’m going to do something else.
Change is about interrupting the habits and patterns that no longer serve us. If you want to meaningfully alter your life, you don’t simply abandon a dysfunctional habit or belief; you replace it with a healthy one. You choose what you’re moving toward. You find an arrow and follow it. As you begin your journey, it’s important to reflect not only on what you’d like to be free from, but on what you want to be free to do or become.
Finally, when you change your life, it isn’t to become the new you. It’s to become the real you—the one-of-a-kind diamond that will never exist again and can never be replaced. Everything that’s happened to you— all the choices you’ve made until now, all the ways you’ve tried to cope—it all matters; it’s all useful. You don’t have to throw everything out and start from scratch. Whatever you’ve done, it’s brought you this far, to this moment.
The ultimate key to freedom is to keep becoming who you truly are.