26.09.2021

Nonfiction: What a Survivor of Auschwitz Learned From the Trauma of Others

Eger will use those words upon their arrival, when Josef Mengele sends her mother to the gas chamber and that night commands Eger to dance for him. “The barracks floor becomes a stage at the Budapest opera house,” she imagines.

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Over the next year, she endures relentless atrocities and witnesses others – a woman in labor with her legs bound shut; a young boy used for target practice – only to be lifted from a pile of corpses at the end of the war, weighing 70 pounds and nearly dead herself.

She is free, but with a broken back and broken spirit. Now what? The “now what” is the crux of “The Choice.”

Eger isn’t the first Auschwitz survivor to write an account of the experience and introduce a way to move forward. In fact, it’s the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” handed to Eger by a fellow student more than two decades after liberation – at a time when Eger is still “pounded by loss” – that jump-starts her journey from “wearing a mask” to learning “how people heal.”

Frankl becomes her friend and mentor, and while their ideas overlap, Eger offers a singular perspective as both seeker and guide. She gets in the trenches with her patients (sometimes calling them “honey”) and grants readers intimate access to her parallel quest to escape from the prison of her mind. Her cases, riveting in the telling, though not always groundbreaking in technique, illustrate with a profound sense of humility that no matter how varied our experiences, we are more alike than different.

At one point, a judge sends to her for treatment a troubled 14-year-old boy who arrives spewing racist venom. But instead of condemning him, Eger looks for herself in him, for her own bigotry and hatred – and makes a choice.

“We have the capacity to hate and the capacity to love. Which one we reach for,” she writes, “is up to us.”

I can’t imagine a more important message for modern times. Eger’s book is a triumph, and should be read by all who care about both their inner freedom and the future of humanity.

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