Edith Eger was aged 16 when she was sent to Auschwitz, where both of her parents were murdered. She talks to Donal Lynch about rebuilding her life and the lessons she learned
In May 1944, 16-year-old Edith Eger stepped out of a filthy cattle wagon on to a platform filled with Nazi guards, prisoners in striped uniforms and snarling dogs. She had arrived at the most dangerous place on earth: Auschwitz.
Waiting on the platform was Dr Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death, who surveyed the terrified crowd with a baleful glare. Immediately Edith was separated from her father, who was sent away with the other men. She and the other women were forced into a line-up.
"I was put in a line with my mother and sister - he pointed my mother to the left and my sister to the right," she recalls. "He asked me if my mother was really my mother or was she my sister. I replied truthfully because I didn't understand the meaning of the question. If I had said she was my sister, she would have been sent with me but instead she was sent to the gas chamber. I had so much survivor's guilt about this moment. It is painful to remember."
Edith's mother was just one of the 1.1 million people, primarily Jews, who died at Auschwitz, the most deadly and efficient of the Nazi death camps which were dotted through rural Poland during the World War II occupation of the country. Most were killed immediately on arrival by being herded in large rooms which had openings in the ceilings through which Zyklon B - a deadly pesticide - pellets were dropped by Nazi guards.
The strongest tried to batter the doors or climb the walls toward the opening in the ceilings. The weakest, mostly children and old people, were often crushed to death even before the poisonous fumes claimed their lives. After each mass killing - each day as many as 15,000 men, women and children were murdered in this fashion at Auschwitz alone - the gold fillings were removed from their teeth and their clothes were sorted through and sent back to Germany. Franz Suchomel, a Nazi commander, later called Auschwitz "a factory of death".
Edith's journey to Auschwitz was part of Hitler's Final Solution - the planned extermination of all of the Jews in occupied Europe. The Holocaust is commonly thought of primarily German genocide, but it was only made possible by the virulent anti-semitism throughout Europe at the time. The Germans depended on local collaborators to identify and round up Jews for deportation. In the town where Edith was born (Kosice, part of modern-day Slovakia), anti-Jewish sentiment was already rife.
"My parents had two beautiful girls, Magda and Klara, who was a child prodigy on the violin, and they really wanted a son when I came along," says Edith. "Nobody paid any attention to me. I used to just to say I was Klara's sister, as though I didn't have my own name, I just hung on to her coat tails."
In November 1938, Kosice was annexed by Hungary, which would later be overrun by the Germans. Soon the anti-semitic laws of Hungary were imposed on the conquered territories. Jews were imprisoned and deprived of employment rights. As a child, Edith was acutely aware of these changes. "There was a lot anti-semitism, then as now. I was called a Christ killer. I didn't know then that Christ was a good Jewish boy."
Edith was a promising gymnast and a ballet dancer and had made the Hungarian Olympic team in gymnastics.
"Then one terrible day I was told that I had to give up my place to another girl and that I didn't qualify because I'm Jewish," she says. "That, in some ways, was one of the worst things of all that happened to me, because you have to understand that the Olympics were my dream and my hope. I exercised at least five hours a day. I did the high kicks and the splits. I thought I could be really great. And then Hitler destroyed all that."
By the summer of 1944, Germany was losing the war but the mass extermination of the Jews remained an ideological imperative. The Allied forces had refused an offer from the Nazis of exchanging trucks for Jews in Hungary; the Allied governments, wary of anti-semitism in their own countries, were reluctant to make the war seem like it was about saving the Jews, who were abandoned by the international community.
In occupied Europe, Holocaust trains had priority over all trains except for military trains, and the Final Solution was about to enter its deadliest phase: the murder of 400,000 Hungarian Jews, which took place over a few months in 1944.
On the pretext of resettlement in the east, Edith and her family were forced into sealed cattle trucks.
"The train itself was a terrible experience. We were very sad, people were crying," she recalls. "My father was sitting with other guys and I remember just begging him to shave because somehow just instinctively I knew it would be important that he looked younger and stronger.
"My mother said to me 'we don't know where we're going, we don't know what's going to happen to us, but just remember nobody can ever take away from you what you put in your head'. There was almost no water. We had a sip of water and we had to pass the container on."
The Nazis' policy was to exploit and degrade the concentration camp prisoners in every way imaginable. Those not sent immediately to their death were destined to be victims of a policy known as Vernichtung durch Arbeit (extermination through work). After she was separated from her parents, Edith was processed by a kapo (a Jewish prisoner given seniority within the camp).
"They tore my earrings from my ears and my ears were bleeding. And I said to the kapo, 'I would have given you my earrings, but please I want to know where my mother is', and they said, 'your mother is burning, you'd better talk about her in past tense'. And that was devastating. But my sister comforted me. She said 'the spirit never dies'."
Edith was sent to Birkenau, a sub-camp of Auschwitz, where she was forced to work in a brick factory.
"I was so confused and our clothes were taken and our heads were shaved. It was a terrible moment. We were extremely scared, not knowing what's going to happen next. They sent us to take showers and I didn't know if water or gas was going to come out of the nozzle."
Like all workers at Birkenau, Edith was given meagre rations of food and quickly lost weight. Workers who were deemed too weak to go on were periodically removed and sent to the gas chambers in a process known as the Selektion.
"You would think that living in the fear of being killed, it would be every man for himself," Edith says. "But in fact to get through it we needed to form a community of inmates, a second family, and to look out for each other. We had to co-operate, not compete and dominate. Literally all we had was each other. There was a kind of philosophical humour. My sister was so beautiful. When they shaved her head she turned to me and said 'how do I look?'. I told her she had beautiful eyes which I never noticed when she had hair."
Edith was in the prime of her life before she was sent to Auschwitz.
"I was 16 and I was in love," she says. "Before we left Hungary, my boyfriend told me that I had beautiful eyes and hair. I kept looking down at my hands and thinking, I'm going to meet him again and look in his eyes, and that kept me alive. I would ask everyone in Auschwitz to tell me about my eyes; I just wanted to feel human, and I just kept believing that if I survive today, tomorrow I'm going to see my boyfriend. But every day I was told I would never get out of there alive, that the only way that I was leaving was as a corpse."
The concentration camps were run by Nazi guards, Ukrainian mercenaries and Jewish prisoners, who did most of the manual labour. "They were worse than the Nazis in some cases," Edith recalls. "They displayed displaced aggression. One time a kapo beat me up badly with a dog leash because I wanted to go to the bathroom. She was another prisoner. But of course she was suffering terribly as well. She took her anger out on me."
Edith was made to dance for Mengele, who became infamous for his cruel and mostly lethal experiments on children (the whole time Edith was in Auschwitz she never saw a child under 14 - almost all were killed immediately). It was a terrifying experience, she explains.
"We came into the barracks, and Dr Mengele wanted to be entertained. My friends knew that I was the one who had been entertaining the Jewish community all the time with my dancing, so they volunteered me, and that's how I ended up dancing for Mengele."
She closed her eyes and transported herself to the opera house in Budapest, dancing Romeo and Juliet. It's that sort of act of imagination and will that she credits with helping her survive.
"I knew if I did something wrong, that would be the end of me. He spoke in German to me and he was friendly. He did not seem like a madman."
How did she feel when she looked at him and the other Nazi guards?
"People said where was God but I always say that God was with me," she says. "The Nazi guards were prisoners too. I prayed for them. I turned hatred into pity. I never told anyone that they were spending their days murdering people. What kind of life was that for them? They had been brainwashed. Their own youth had been taken away from them."
Edith noticed a difference between the way men and women handled the trauma of being in the camp: "Many men ran into the (electrified) barbed wire to kill themselves. I think based on what I saw that women are more resilient and better survivors than men."
In December 1944 Edith was standing in line to be tattooed when the guard told her that they were not going to "waste the ink" on her because she was being sent to the gas chamber. Instead, with the Russians closing in on the camp, she and thousands of other prisoners were evacuated. She and her sister (who's also still alive) were sent on a munitions train bound for Austria.
The Nazis made the women ride on top of the train, thinking it would prevent the British from firing at the train, but the British fired anyway.
When they reached Austria, they were part of the so-called death march from Mauthausen to Gunskirchen, where eventually they were liberated by the American army in May 1945. By then she was too weak to walk. A young American soldier noticed her hand moving slightly among a number of dead bodies. He called medical help and she was brought back from the brink of death.
"It was totally unbelievable to finally be free but I saw people who walked out the gate of the camp and then came back. It was a learned helplessness," she recalls.
After the war, Edith moved to Czechoslovakia, where she met the man she would marry, in a TB hospital.
"He wrote me beautiful letters," she says. "We were so shipwrecked that we wanted at that point to be normal. It was quite common for survivors to marry quite quickly. People asked me did I love my husband and I said, 'are you kidding, he brought me Hungarian salami with Swiss cheese!'. I was hungry, alone, sick and scared and I felt so honoured that someone was even looking at me.
"I thought my life was over. That's what happens. We grieve not what happened but what didn't happen."
In 1949, the couple moved to the US, bringing their by-then two-year-old daughter Marianne with them.
"It was my daughter who taught me how to speak English," she reveals. "She brought home books. That's what happens with the children of immigrants - they end up teaching the parents."
In the 1960s, trials were held in Frankfurt for some of the guards and doctors who worked in Auschwitz. Several people received life sentences. I wonder if these trials brought Edith any peace?
"Of course justice is important and there were people like (Austrian Nazi-hunter) Simon Wiesenthal who were deeply committed to getting it. However, I did not feel there could ever be justice. After the war I was suicidal. I woke up in the morning and realised my parents were not there and it really upset me. Eventually I realised that I had to live my life for something."
In 1969, she received her degree in psychology from the University of Texas, El Paso. She then pursued her doctoral internship at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center at Fort Bliss, Texas.
"I came to America and I wanted to be a Yankee doodle dandy, kind of an imposter," she says. "I had my secrets. I could not talk about the Holocaust and Auschwitz."
Edith founded her own clinical practice in La Jolla, California. "My goal was to become a kind of midwife so that people could be the best parents to themselves."
Still something was missing.
"I had a white coat and it said 'Dr Eger', but I felt like an imposter because I did not really deal with my past," she says. "I could not be a good guide to my patients or take them any further than I'd gone myself. For that, I had to go back to the lion's den and look at the place where my mother was murdered, where I was so close to death every day."
She wrote her memoir The Choice, which was an international bestseller in 2017; she appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show. Now she has written a new book called The Gift, which she says contains more practical wisdom.
"It's painful to look back at the things I went through, but necessary too. Forgiveness isn't something I give to the Nazis, it's a gift I give to myself, to say I won't be a hostage or a prisoner to the past. I am an old woman now - I am very selective about who gets my anger.
"Auschwitz was my classroom, a place where I was forced to adapt and improve myself. And that, in a strange way, was a gift."
The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life: by Edith Eger, published by Random House, is out now, £14.99