Friday, August 10, 2012
In spite of everything, I still believe people
are really good at Heart.
I had just turned sixteen when my mother, sister and I were taken into the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. I watched with despair as my mother was escorted to the gas chambers. At that point, I felt my world turn upside down.
What sustained me during this time warp of horrors were my mother's words. As she was led away, she appealed to my sister and me to live a full life. Her last words to us were, "Remember, they can take everything from you except what you put in your mind."
I went from feeling victimized by our keepers to the realization that I quite possibly had the inner resources to outlast them. Somehow, with my determination to live, I would overcome their collective decision to eliminate us.
So even as I put on a striped uniform and submitted my hair to the razor, I mentally committed to a return to normalcy, home and my training classes in gymnastics.
A Nazi officer came to "welcome" the newcomers, and he asked what "talents" we had brought to the camp. My inmates pushed me forward because of my training in ballet. I was forced to dance. With my eyes closed, I envisioned this grotesque prison of horrors as the Budapest Opera House, and I gave the performance of my life. That evening, I discovered the power of "doing within when you are without."
Our barracks received some extra rations the next day from the Nazi officer I had danced for- who was none other than Dr. Mengele, Hitler's "Angel of Death." He was known to send people to the "showers" to die if their shoelace was untied.
Is it any wonder when life and death become as casual as flipping a coin, a personality would undergo radical changes? The "tenets" of good behavior" learned in my sheltered childhood were replaced by a kind of animal instinct, which instantly smelled out danger and acted to deflect it. During a work detail, my sister was assigned to a work brigade that was to leave for another camp. I could not allow us to be separated, and I quickly cartwheeled over to her side. I thought I noticed a hint of amusement on the guard's face as he turned the other way, ignoring our clutched hands.
Confronting fear and taking action helped me fight off the numbness that a persistent contact with arbitrary authority can create. Learning to "face the fear and do it anyway" became my way to recapture my self-esteem.
The inhumanity continued and months later, unconscious from starvation, I was thrown on a heap of corpses and presumed dead. Later that day, the American troops entered the death camp. I was to weak to realize what was happening. A GI looked my way as my hand moved. At the infirmary, he watched over me until I was declared out of danger.
After several months in the hospital, I returned to my hometown of Kassa, on the Hungarian-Czech border. Out of fifteen thousand deportees, seventy of us returned. A neighbour greeted me on the street, saying, "Surprised to see you made it. You were already such a skinny kid when you left."
Several years ago, I traveled back to Auschwitz on the same railroad tracks that took countless thousands to their death. I came to mourn the dead and celebrate the living. I needed to touch the walls , see the bunk beds where we lay those endless nights while the stench of the latrines wafted over us. I needed to relive the dreadful events in as much detail as memory allowed, while feeling the emotional and physical response.
The next step in recovery for me was to go public with my story. Recently, when I asked an audience of three hundred, at the University of Texas, how many knew what happened at Auschwitz, four hands went up!
I hope that someday my grandchildren will ask me questions about the time when the World was Upside Down so that If it starts Tilting again, they and millions of others can pour their Collective Love and Spin the World Right Side Up.
~Dr. Edith Eva Eger, Ph.D.
10 August, 2012