The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger (Scribner 2017)
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
I’d sworn off Holocaust stories permanently. Or so I thought. Twenty-five years ago, Schindler’s List, Stephen Spielberg’s film, nearly did me in. Soon thereafter, I burst into tears in the lobby of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, before even picking up admission tickets. Thousands of pairs of shoes taken from murdered prisoners at the Majdanek concentration camp, displayed in the museum’s lobby, felt crushing.
Thinner skin, not thicker skin, is the shared experience of my psychotherapist friends and me after decades of collaborating with troubled patients. So why did I make a pitch to Drizzle Review to write about a Holocaust memoir, The Choice: Embrace the Possible, by Edith Eva Eger, an Auschwitz survivor and psychologist?
Perhaps it’s because I want to better understand how to transcend the most wrenching of life’s obstacles. Perhaps it’s because I want to relish and treasure every moment of my life as I approach my 68th birthday, and beyond. The thirst for wisdom, for understanding people as deeply as possible, for embracing what is radiant, precious, and golden in human nature is forever a driving force within me. My patients are an abiding source of this human understanding but I am searching for more.
I hoped that The Choice wouldmove me up the wisdom ladder with fresh insights about transcending psychic pain and coping with deeply embedded fears. Andit did. Eger advocates lifting the psychological shrouds that camouflage fears and hurts and impede access to the genuine self and a fully actualized life.
Eger guides the reader through her nightmare journey from a safe and comfortable childhood into the nearly unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz. Her parents were murdered upon arrival there. After suffering utter degradation, torment, and profound deprivation in Auschwitz, Eger barely survived. Rescued from a heap of corpses, her back broken, malnourished, and afflicted with typhoid fever, Eger’s body took years to recover and her psyche, decades.
Eger tells her story by traveling back and forth in time as current events or patient interactions spark traumatic memories. She sees her own vulnerability in each of her patients. She regards every session as a collaboration such as her work with Jason, her psychotherapy patient with distant blues eyes. “His jaw frozen, wouldn’t or couldn’t speak his anguish, which was palpable. We sat: two humans face-to-face, both of us vulnerable, both of us taking a risk as we struggled to name an anguish and find its cure.” (4)
With Jason, she wanted to discover the origin of his trauma. Through empathy and her commitment to bear witness, Eger gained Jason’s trust. Together, they unlocked his previously unspeakable terror by putting words to the tsunami of pain that whipped through him. She helped him to release what haunted and paralyzed him. She knew, firsthand, how buried traumatic memories can derail anyone who suffers from them.
Even the racist, anger-spewing 14-year-old, court-mandated for therapy, didn’t throw her. Rather than condemn him, Eger looked for herself in him, to detect and uncover her own bigotry and hatred – and chose compassion. “We have the capacity to hate and the capacity to love. Which one we reach for,” she writes, “is up to us.” (227)
Decades after Auschwitz, Eger’s Holocaust past preyed upon her and triggered anxious “dizzy feelings every time I heard sirens, or heavy footsteps, or shouting men. This, I had learned, is trauma: a nearly constant feeling in my gut that something is wrong, or something terrible is about to happen, the automatic fear responses in my body telling me to run away, to take cover, to hide myself from the danger that is everywhere.” (5-6)
As I embarked on Eger’s Auschwitz chapters, I wondered, can I tolerate this? Then I returned to Eger’s reasons for writing The Choice and I knew why I wanted to read on.
I would love to help you discover how to escape the concentration camp of your own mind and become the person you were meant to be. I would love to help you experience freedom from the past, freedom from failures and fears, freedom from anger and mistakes, freedom from regret and unresolved grief – and the freedom to enjoy the full, rich feast of life. We cannot choose to have a life free of hurt. But we can choose to be free, to escape the past, no matter what befalls us, and to embrace the possible. I invite you to make the choice to be free. (9)
On her first day in Auschwitz, Eger is picked out of a line by Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death.” Mengele decided who lived and who died in poison-gas showers, by directing arriving prisoners to one line or the other. He’d already directed Eger’s parents to the death line.
Mengele ordered Eger to come forward. Terrified, she stepped up. “Dance!” Mengele commanded. (40) Frozen, Eger replayed in her mind her mother’s sage words voiced in the cattle car to Auschwitz. “Just remember no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind. As I dance, that piece of wisdom, which I have never forgotten, makes me free.” (41) She danced her heart out.
Eger sees “that we have a choice: to pay attention to what we’ve lost or to pay attention to what we still have.” (38)
Eger’s psychological recovery from the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that dogged her came from creating, safeguarding, and celebrating deep connections with her patients and her family. Journeying through even the most agonizing struggles of the people she cared for filled her life with deep meaning and joy.
Eger’s work with patients is a collaboration, a journey taken together, which inevitably leads along patients’ rutted roads, past and present, overt and hidden. By sharing that rough-hewn odyssey, both patient and therapist will, in time, arrive at an oasis of understanding and liberation from internal demons.
Writing this memoir, putting words to her Holocaust trauma, brought Eger home to her genuine, life-embracing self.
Her humane perspective, extolling the preciousness of each individual with gratitude, is expressed here:
“My patients, the unique and one-of-a-kind humans who have taught me that healing isn’t about recovery; it’s about discovery. Discovering hope in hopelessness, discovering an answer where there doesn’t seem to be one, discovering that it’s not what happens that matters—it’s what you do with it.” (273)
I applaud her humanism and aspire to embody it as she does.