Episode 94 – Dr. Edith Eger, Rising from Trauma

If there’s one thing we all need while the world grapples with COVID-19, it’s the reassurance that we are resilient. Throughout human history, we have withstood some of the greatest challenges imaginable, suffered with strength, and recovered. That’s why today we’re launching the new Resilience Series! Our guests for the next six weeks all have incredible stories and timely messages for our world today. This week, we are deeply privileged to learn from Dr. Edith Eger – a psychologist, author, and one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors old enough to remember life in the camps. Dr. Eger has worked with veterans, military personnel, and victims of physical and mental trauma. Today, she has a powerful message to share with us all.


Jessica: Hey there! You are listening to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Well, today we are beginning a new series, and, you’re not going to believe this, but we’ve been planning it for a while. And it’s all about resilience. So much of the Going Scared podcast is about the process of being brave. It’s about naming our fears and moving forward anyway. But the very process of being brave involves falling down. Oftentimes a lot. But resilience is the process of getting back up again after the fall.

Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from great difficulties, and aren’t we in a difficulty right now. Last year I faced a few falls. Noonday, the company that I run, didn’t meet its sales goals, a dear friend and colleague lost her mom to a horrific and slow death caused by paralysis, we were remodeling and weren’t living in our home, and other falls that you heard about throughout 2019 on this podcast, because if there’s one thing I do well, it’s being vulnerable with you guys.

As I was facing these difficulties, it felt as if my expectations had been drawn in permanent marker. And when I didn’t get what I wanted, my ego had an all-out temper tantrum. And, yeah, the circumstances were challenging and hard, but it was my acute awareness and how I was responding to those circumstances that sent me on a new unlearning and then relearning journey. I needed to learn resilience.

This new podcast series is an invitation for us to learn how we can navigate the hardship and hurt that comes alongside the choice to be brave and vulnerable. So, when we planned the series, I seriously wondered how on earth I was going to get you to listen to a podcast series about people who have been through tremendous suffering. I mean, let’s face it, we often treat suffering with the phrase—on the inside, I hope, only—saying, “Gosh, I’m glad that’s not me.” Well, now we find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic, and there really is no me versus them. There’s only an us right now. This really is the series that we need right now.

Our first teacher is Dr. Edith Eger. I read her book titled The Choice last year, and it profoundly impacted me. I’ve shared about it multiple times on Instagram. And when I’ve shared about it, I never in my dreams imagined that I would actually have the honor to speak with her.

Dr. Edith Eger was 16 when her Hungarian-Jewish family was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. There, she lost her parents and fought for her life, just barely surviving and withstanding unspeakable tragedy. It was there that she faced a choice. And at age 90, she writes about that choice. Today, she is a psychologist and an inspirational speaker who’s been interviewed by the likes of Oprah. She speaks to those who have experienced physical and mental trauma. And today, she speaks to us, right in the middle of our own global tragedy. We have much to learn from her.


Dr. Edith Eger: Hero, Inspirational Writer, and Fellow Texan

Jessica: Oh, my goodness, I am so honored to talk with you today.

Dr. Eger: Thank you.

Jessica: Thank you so much for your time. I’m deeply grateful. I’ll be honest, I’ve been a little nervous because you are a hero in my eyes, so…

Dr. Eger: OK.

Jessica: But just your book really came into my life at a really needed time. I only read it a few months ago, and your story and your ability to be resilient around your mindset has just really impacted my life, so thank you for writing it.

Dr. Eger: Thank you. You’re having an experience with Edie.

Jessica: Yes, yes. And you’re a fellow Texan. I live in Austin. And my grandmother actually grew up on the border, so I have a passion for everything that’s going on along the border. And I just wanted to thank you, too, for standing up for the victims that are on the border right now.

Dr. Eger: I am. I really had tremendous nightmare seeing what’s happening on the border, so you’ll never get over it.

Jessica: So, your book, The Choice: Embrace the Possible, you wrote it when you were 90, which I was so surprised. I didn’t know that. When I actually was reading the book, I would have thought, “Oh, my goodness, you would have written this so much sooner in life.” So, I’m curious what prompted you in your … I imagine you wrote this in your late 80s, to write and put your story to paper?

Dr. Eger: Well, many, many years, people asked me to write a book. And I would say, "I have nothing to say, nothing to say." But then, Philip Zimbardo told me that the survivors who are famous are all men, and they needed a female voice. And he pushed me, pushed me until I realized that I have a lot to say, and that’s…

Jessica: A lot to say.

Dr. Eger: But it took a lifetime for me to write that.


A Conspiracy of Silence

Jessica: I was surprised also, as I was reading your story, that you didn’t talk about your story for about 20 years, and…

Dr. Eger: That’s … Exactly. I am part of what is called the conspiracy of silence, people who just … I didn’t know how to let you know where I was because I didn’t want you to feel sorry for me. So, I went underground, but now I realize that it just goes under, it doesn’t go away. And I had to learn how to make peace with that and able to live a full life in the present.

“I am part of what is called the conspiracy of silence. … I didn’t know how to let you know where I was because I didn’t want you to feel sorry for me. So, I went underground, but now I realize that it just goes under, it doesn’t go away.” Dr. Edith Eger

Jessica: I love what you say when you’re revisiting Auschwitz for the first time. And you say that you deny what hurts, what you fear, you avoided at all costs. Then you find a way to welcome and embrace what you’re most afraid of, and then, you can finally let it go. Were there even new layers of healing for you as you wrote this book? Because you became a therapist. You’ve done a ton of therapy yourself. But even as you were writing this book, were there new parts of your story you began to own as you shared them?

Dr. Eger: I am. I never get over what happened. I don’t really ever really forget what happened. I came to terms with it because I don’t live in Auschwitz, I live in the present. And so, I think it’s very important to really acknowledge that. If you’re still living in the past, and you’re still holding on to anger, you’re still a prisoner. So, I think it was important for me to go back to Auschwitz, reclaim my innocence, assign the shame and guilt to the perpetrator, and begin to forgive myself, that I survived. I had tremendous survivor’s guilt.

“If you’re still living in the past, and you’re still holding on to anger, you’re still a prisoner. So, I think it was important for me to go back to Auschwitz, reclaim my innocence, assign the shame and guilt to the perpetrator, and begin to forgive myself, that I survived.” Dr. Edith Eger

Jessica: Wow.

Dr. Eger: So, when I graduated, I never showed up for my graduation, because I said to myself, "I’m here and they are dead." And I didn’t even give myself the opportunity to be really happy and proud that I graduated with honors.

Jessica: Wow. Tell us the journey of what prompted you to begin to come out of that conspiracy of silence.

Dr. Eger: When I read Man’s Search for Meaning, I wanted to write every page, 10 more pages. I don’t know if you ever had such an experience. And I wrote an article called "Viktor Frankl and Me." Then I got a letter from Viktor Frankl and I became a diplomate in logotherapy. And I did … His 90th birthday, I gave the keynote address at the conference. So, I became really very devoted to Viktor Frankl. But he was 38 in Auschwitz, he was an MD, and I was a 16-year-old in love. So, we had different parts of our lives with different part of mentality, too. But we all knew what to do, and not allow the guards to take away our ability to find hope in hopelessness.


Compassionate at Heart. Present in Mind.

Jessica: I wanted you to get to share more about your past and your childhood. But before we talk about that, I am curious a little bit about the life you live today because you … I know you stay really, really busy, so you still travel and speak, and are you still practicing as a therapist?

Dr. Eger: Yes, I sure do. I have a patient coming in from Los Angeles in a few minutes to see me for a couple of hours. I don’t believe in retirement.

Jessica: Wow, I think the world needs you, so I…

Dr. Eger: I will retire retirement. How old are you?

Jessica: I am 43.

Dr. Eger: There you go. You’re just beginning, just beginning to have your midlife transition, not crisis, transition.

Jessica: This is true, this is true. I have to say I’m loving my 40s much more compared to my 30s and definitely my 20s. So, you write in the introductory chapter of your book that, "My own search for freedom and my years of experience as a licensed clinical psychologist have taught me that suffering is universal, but victimhood is optional." Can you unpack that a little bit for us?

Dr. Eger: I think it’s really a choice for us to be able to have a special place in our hearts. I like to refer to it as my cherished wound, that I’m able to become stronger since I have gone through that experience. I’m far more compassionate, I don’t judge people. And I keep telling everyone that there is a Hitler in every one of us. And unfortunately, we have genocide even as we speak, and I do everything in my power to see to it that that will never ever happen again.

“I like to refer to it as my cherished wound, that I’m able to become stronger since I have gone through that experience. I’m far more compassionate, I don’t judge people.” Dr. Edith Eger

Jessica: I imagine that there are many Auschwitz survivors, people that you even maybe slept by, and they came out cynical and victimized and angry and maybe never experienced some of the own healing that you experienced. What do you think are…


From Feeling to Healing

Dr. Eger: I think it’s very important. You have to acknowledge that you cannot give what you don’t have, that self-love is self-care. And the journey that I take with my patients is grieving and feeling, because you can’t heal what you don’t feel, and then, healing. So, it is a journey. I just came from Flagstaff, Arizona, and I saw the mountains, snow in the mountains, and I said, "Life is about climbing the mountains. You sleep and you climb, and you sleep and you climb, but you never stop climbing. So, I’m still in a process of becoming, I have yet to arrive.”

“The journey that I take with my patients is grieving and feeling, because you can’t heal what you don’t feel.” Dr. Edith Eger

Jessica: Wow. That’s very encouraging to hear.

Dr. Eger: I live in the present. I live in the present because I can only touch you now, and I think young. Not young and foolish, but hopefully, to be, not smart, but to be wise at 92. So, I am very grateful for my age. And, well, I am still climbing, and I use my curiosity to look at things from many, many perspective.

Jessica: I want to hear a little bit about your mother. She was such a huge influence on your life. And she said some profound words to you after the Nazis came and took your family. Can you tell us about her words and how those continued to be words that you’ve hung on to even until today?

Dr. Eger: My mother was very, very sensitive. And I like to use the word melancholy because her mother died when she was nine years old. And she had a picture of her mother above the piano. And she would talk to her mother every day. And I never saw my mother really laughing from the belly. And I babysat my mom, because my father played billiards and he went with his cronies. And I spent the time with my mom. And that’s why I ask people, “When did your childhood end?” And I babysat with my mom, who was very much of an intellectual, and she talked to me about Gone with the Wind. And I was always dreaming about coming to America and experiencing where the Gone with the Wind was made. So, I had quite a bit of color for childhood taking care of my mom and learning so much at an early age.

Mom, in the color card, told me, which I always say to the students, I love to go to young people, that my mom told me, "We don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know what’s going to happen. But just remember, no one can take away from you what you put in your mind." And that’s exactly what happened. I lost everything, but I had my mind and I had my sister, Magda, that required a lot of love, of help, because she suffered much more from hunger than I did. So, I ate my soup the night before, and then I saved my bread and shared it with my sister. So, if you were only for the me, me, me, you did not make it. We had to have just even today, that we’re gonna be much stronger with each other than me alone or you alone.

Jessica: I’m curious, when your mom said that to you, you were a young girl yourself, did you fully grasp and under…?

Dr. Eger: I was 16.

Jessica: You were 16. Did you fully grasp what she was saying to you at the time?

Dr. Eger: I don’t know whether I really truly had the maturity, but her voice was with me all the time, that no one can take away from you anything, and that they can kill you, throw you in a gas chamber, but they could never murder my spirit.


Pure Resilience

Jessica: I know after you entered through the gates of Auschwitz, and you watched your parents walk to their death, and then one of the first things they did was shave your heads. And there’s this powerful moment that you have with your sister. Could you tell us about that?

Dr. Eger: Yes. Well, Magda was the pretty one. My mother told me, "I’m glad you have brains, because you have no looks." So, I became the good student and the learned one. But Magda, when we were shaved, looked at me and asked me, "How do I look?" And she had her head in her palm. And then, I realized that I had a choice then, as you have choice now, whether you’ll pay attention to what you lost or pay attention to what you still have with you. So, instead of telling her how she really looked, I said to her, "Magda, you have beautiful eyes, and I didn’t see it because you had your hair all over the place." So, this is something I like to bring the dead and then, to the here and now, because what happened to me is not that important. It was able to learn and discover that I had still a choice how to respond, but not how to react, because if you tried to touch the guards, you were shot right away. If you touched the barbed wire, you were electrocuted. And I saw the blue bodies. So, you see, we had to learn very quickly how to be able to somehow able to learn how to have the discomfort, and to be able to not allow it to take over. But I still had a choice whether I will hate the guards or I would pray for them and change the hatred into pity.

“I realized that I had a choice then, as you have choice now, whether you’ll pay attention to what you lost or pay attention to what you still have with you.” Dr. Edith Eger

I felt sorry for the guards because I thought they were the prisoners, not me. So, I created a world that they couldn’t touch. I was really a very successful schizophrenic, because I knew the territory and what I had to be and do in order to make it.

Remember, I was 16 years old in love. And my boyfriend told me I have beautiful eyes and beautiful hands. So, I told everyone, "Tell me about my eyes, tell me about my hands," because I thought if I survive today, then tomorrow, I’m going to see my boyfriend and show him my eyes and my hands. So, the future, the future became really something that’s very important to mention, that I was able to still think about that if I survive today, then tomorrow, I’ll be free. But you had to be very careful because I know that my friend from Yugoslavia told me that we’re going to be liberated by Christmas, and then Christmas came, and we were not liberated, and she died the next day. So, it was very important to be careful how we think.

Jessica: Tell us more about your liberation and how you were rescued.

Dr. Eger: When I was in Oprah, on Oprah, she was wonderful interviewer, of course. She’s a beautiful woman who is giving away so much to educate people. In fact, she sent me a lovely, lovely woman who experienced the genocide in Rwanda. So, I told her that I was among the dead, and then, I felt someone holding my hand. And I looked up and I saw big lips. And then I saw tears in the eyes and M&Ms in the hand. It was a man of color. I wish I could meet him now because it will not be long that I wouldn’t be here today. But you know what was interesting, when we were liberated, people would walk through the gate, and then they would come back and sit down. We were so brainwashed that we will never get out of here alive, that we didn’t know what freedom meant. We were free, so, now what? Freedom is very scary. And many people would go through the gate and then come back.


Forgoing Fear to Live in Love

Jessica: Right now, in particular, due to the coronavirus, there is a sense of fear among so many people. And fear breeds scarcity. And I was thinking about you and how many times you chose, instead of scarcity, you chose to believe in abundance, you chose sharing. And so, I wanted you to speak to those people that have a sense of fear right now that might be leading them to a sense of scarcity. What advice, what help can you give to them?

Dr. Eger: I would say that not to give in to the fear, because fear begets more fear, and anything you pay attention to, you’re really reinforcing that behavior. And fear will never, ever go along with love. See, when we have fear, we have no love. When we have love, we have no fear. So, I would say, just to say that, I’ll do what’s humanly possible, then I hand it over to God. I cannot, I don’t have any godly powers, I cannot stop anything, but I will be very, very careful not to go into big crowds, and I’ll do everything in my power to keep safe. But I would not give in to the fear at all because fear and love does not coexist.

“When we have love, we have no fear. … I would not give in to the fear at all because fear and love does not coexist.” Dr. Edith Eger

Jessica: Fear and love do not coexist. I’m thinking of the time in Auschwitz when you say that a loaf of bread is what saved your life. And there were many times when you chose over and over again to share and to gift. Tell us about how that loaf of bread saved your life.

Dr. Eger: Well, you know, there were times that I remember we didn’t even get water in like for two weeks. And I’m here to tell you about it. I think we are much stronger than we think we are. And under certain circumstances, you just learn how to accept what you cannot change. Nothing came from the outside. I had to be my own good encourager and say, "I don’t like it, it’s inconvenient, and it’s temporary, and I can survive it." Never say “yes, but…” “Yes, and!” Everything is temporary. And so, I do with this moment what I can. And that’s what keeps me young at 92. I live in the present, and I think young.

Jessica: You share about a time in a chapter titled "A Cartwheel," about…

Dr. Eger: Yes, when I was just…

Jessica: Yes, can you share with us about that?

Dr. Eger: Well, we were gonna go to the gas chamber, I was told. But then, it was very chaotic and my sister ended up in one pile, and I was in another pile. And I knew that she had to be with me because she starved more. She suffered more from hunger than I did. So, I started to do cartwheels to get the attention of the guard to look at me doing the cartwheel. And she ran over to my place, and we ended up actually on a top of a train. I ended up in Auschwitz to carry ammunition for the Nazis. So, that’s how I got out of Auschwitz in December 1944.

And then, I was walking, and they were bombing. See, the British, they put us on top of a train. So, the British one bombed, seeing our striped uniforms, but they bombed anyway. And so, I was so close to death many times. And so, it is important for us as I speak to you, get rid of guilt, honey, and get rid of worry. Guilt is in the past, worry is in the future. What if this happens? What if that happens? You see, what if the coronavirus…? I don’t think that’s really useful at all. Live in the present. If you’re hungry you eat, if you’re thirsty you drink. No, no, that’s the miracle in life, that you’re becoming a good mommy to you, because that’s the only one you will have for your lifetime is you. All other relationships will end, I guarantee you. So, dependency breeds depression.

“Guilt is in the past, worry is in the future. … I don’t think that’s really useful at all. Live in the present.” Dr. Edith Eger


An Untouched Spirit

Jessica: I’d love for us to close with this idea that you write about. You say that to survive is to transcend your own needs and commit yourself to someone or something outside of yourself.

Dr. Eger: Yes. You know they could have thrown me in a gas chamber in a minute. They told me I’m subhuman, they told me I’m never going to get out to feel alive and see, but they could never murder my spirit. See, that’s what I even then I said to myself. When they took my blood very often, I asked, "Where are you taking my blood?" And he said, "To aid the German soldiers so we can win the war and take over the world." And I said to myself, "You stupid idiot, with my blood, you’re never gonna win the war." So, I had my own humoring. But, of course, I didn’t yank my arm away because he could have killed me right there and then. You really have to size up the situation and the emotions that you choose.

One can really make you feel anything, and that’s what’s called today codependency. Codependency is really immaturity, when you allow someone else to be responsible for your feeling. "You made me angry, you made…" Men tell me many times, "Edie, I hate you because you made me cry." And I said, "I don’t have such powers. I just brought some feelings out in you that’s been there all along." There is a good word for it called trigger. People trigger feelings in you. That has nothing to do with what’s going on now. It triggers some feelings that is unresolved grief that you have in you from your childhood.

Jessica: Well, and you write about Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death, who was a seasoned killer, who’s sending people to the gas chamber. And you write, you say that you realized that he was more pitiful than you, "That I’m free in my mind, which he can never be. He will always have to live with what he’s done. He’s more a prisoner than I am." And you say that you pray for him. For his sake, you pray for him.

Dr. Eger: Well, I did. I ended up really doing that, because I was able to turn hatred into pity. I felt so sorry for him wearing that uniform and throwing children to the gas chamber. And so, I was able to somehow not allow ever for them to touch my spirit.

Jessica: Time and time again, it’s this idea, which is a powerful idea, that we can choose our emotions, we can choose our mindsets. And it truly is your choices that saved your life. And now, you are sharing the gift of your story and of just your own wisdom with all of us, and it truly is transformative. So, I just want to thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Eger: You’re welcome so much, honey. God bless you.

Jessica: There was a time with Dr. Eger, she spoke about this, when she returns back to Auschwitz with the unthinkable and unspeakable tragedy and trauma. And last minute she says, “I can’t do it. I want to go home.” And her husband says to her, “You’ve been afraid before. Welcome it. Welcome it.” My husband is reminding me of what I believe, too. 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’re most afraid of. And then you can finally let it go.

Many of us are in a time of going through extreme hardship. And as a small business owner, I’m definitely not immune in feeling acutely aware of a lot of the disappointments and the grieving that we’re doing. And it’s important that we don’t skip over the grief and the loss, but that we really can name these things, these disappointments. And I hope that today called you into that, into that space of being able to name what you’re afraid of, what you’re disappointed by, what you need grieve … because it’s only then that we can truly let it go.

Thank you so much for joining me in this series. Next week, we’re going to be with Katherine Wolf, who has overcome a very tragic stroke, and she truly is a teacher of hope, and she’s going to encourage you so much.

So, we’re back! Tell your friends, we’re here. Go forward this podcast to your friends via email, tag us on Instagram. We are here, and you’re not going to want to miss the next few episodes.

Thanks for joining me on the Going Scared podcast today. The Going Scared podcast is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. Our music today is by Ellie Holcomb.  And I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.