One reward of attending the Christopher Awards in New York this spring was coming home with a bag full of books from other award winners, stories of hope and friendship and of overcoming great obstacles to do great good. Only, one story I wasn’t sure I wanted to read. It is the story of Dr. Edith Eva Eger, among the few remaining Holocaust survivors who was sent to Auschwitz with her parents and sister.
Twice I have visited Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust memorial center in Israel. I have sat in a college auditorium, listening to the story of a Jewish Holocaust survivor. I have read Night, by Elie Wiesel, The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom and The Diary of Anne Frank. I have tried to explain to my children the horrors of how human beings could treat other human beings like refuse to be removed, discarded and burned. The horrors perpetuated by Hitler are so dark, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about them again.
But there was Dr. Eger’s memoir, The Choice: Embrace the Impossible (Scribner, 2017), in my bag. A week after returning home, I picked it up and couldn’t put it down. The internationally acclaimed clinical psychologist shares a tale of, “sorrow so deep that for many years I hadn’t been able to speak of it at all, to anyone.”
And yet, bravely, heroically, Dr. Eger does, recounting her early life in Hungary, as a 16-year-old ballet dancer and gymnast, forced from home with three members of her Jewish family and later forced to dance at Auschwitz for Nazi officer Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death.” Dr. Eger and her sister survived multiple death camps and the Austrian Death March from Mauthausen to Gunskirchen before being pulled from a pile of corpses by American troops in 1945.
Incredibly, Dr. Eger uses her experience and later her psychological training to help others choose freedom from their own pain and trauma. “There is no hierarchy of suffering,” Dr. Eger writes, sharing stories of patients she’s treated in practice, including a man who held a gun to her chest. And yet, she says each of us has a choice how we respond to “situations we didn’t see coming and that we don’t feel prepared to handle.”
Dr. Eger’s own journey included returning to Auschwitz, where she eventually reveals the source of her greatest trauma. Not the death camp. Not traumas and the death march that followed. But the guilt she felt over her mother’s death and with it the choice to forgive, without which we can never be free.
“Time doesn’t heal,” Dr. Eger writes. “It’s what you do with the time. Healing is possible when we choose to take responsibility, when we choose to take risks, and finally, when we choose to release the wound, to let go of the past or the grief.”
Dr. Eger’s book is a powerful and life-giving testament of how forgiveness and freedom are possible, even after the most unimaginable trauma. It offers hope to the suffering and a path toward healing. For other books that shine a light in the darkness, check out this year’s other Christopher Award winners here.
Award-winning author Meadow Rue Merrill writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. Connect at www.meadowrue.com