Dr. Edith Eva Eger, a petite figure of 87 years, sat comfortably in an armchair on July 17 and addressed an audience in the intimate setting of Drs. Andrew and Diana Benedek’s Rancho Santa Fe home.
The talk was being held in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
Seated next to her was Rabbi Levi Raskin from the Chabad Jewish Center of Rancho Santa Fe, and in front of her were over 100 people who hung onto her every word.
Eger’s humility set the tenor for her presentation — “The Ballerina of Auschwitz” — as she calmly, and without bitterness, recounted her days spent in the infamous concentration camp.
One of a few remaining Holocaust survivors, Eger, a La Jolla-based clinical psychologist, could have told a dismal tale of the past horrors of Nazi German rule and the suffering of Jews. But instead, she said, “My reputation is that I make people laugh and cry at the same time,” and so she did.
With both laughter and solemnity, Eger gave a detailed conversational presentation that ultimately emphasized her message, “In life, it’s not what happens to us, it’s what we do with it.”
A Jew living in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, Eger was a young teenager in 1944 when she and her family were sent to Auschwitz.
While her parents did not survive, she and her sisters did, and she was ultimately rescued by an American G.I. who pulled her from a pile of corpses, noticing a small movement alerting him that she was alive.
Her talk recounted her personal history before and after the war, and she also spoke solemnly about strong emotions — anger, fear, disappointment and guilt — and how, through therapy and strength of character, she and others have been able to overcome these feelings brought on by the painful memories of Nazi atrocities.
But the most poignant part of Eger’s recollections was how as a 16-year-old in Auschwitz, she and her sister, Magda, survived when many died.
“Allow me to take you back with me,” she told the audience.
The family arrived in the camp in the middle of May 1944.
In the cattle cart on the way there, her mother hugged her and told her, “No one can take away from you what is in your own mind.”
And that is what happened to Eger. “Everything was taken away from me, but I had my mind, and I had my sister,” she recalled.
On arrival at the camp, the sisters entered a line and their mother was taken in another direction.
They were told that their mother was going to take a shower. “I asked one of the inmates, ‘When will I see my mother?’ She pointed at a chimney, fire was coming out, and she said, ‘Your mother is burning there; you better talk about her in the past tense.’”
Her sister, Magda, who was very beautiful — and “is still gorgeous,” chuckled Eger — told her, “The spirit never dies,” and then Eger realized that she had hope.
At age 5, Eger was a beginning ballet student, told by her teacher that she needed to get all her ecstasy in life from the inside out. “But I had no idea what he was talking about,” she said.
That sage advice proved prophetic when she was much older and under Nazi control. “We came into the barracks, and Dr. (Joseph) 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.”
As she danced, she prayed. “I prayed to a compassionate and loving God that somehow I would not be the next one for the gas chamber,” recalled Eger.
She was spared, and Mengele gave her a small loaf of bread as a reward. “Cooperation was the name of the game, not competition, not domination,” she said.
Auschwitz was hell, she stressed, but the inmates had a philosophical humor. “Somehow we kept each other alive with jokes, and all we talked about was food,” Eger said.
In December 1944, there was an attempt to separate the sisters as they were being transferred to another camp and were commanded to stand in different lines. “So I did some cartwheels to get next to her, and we left Auschwitz together.”
The sisters ultimately ended up in the Mauthausen camp in Austria. “I knew I was going to die there,” said Eger.
The sisters were part of the death march for extermination and were weakened by having to subsist on grass. Eger started to slow down. “I didn’t think I could make it. The girls saw me. They came and they formed a chair with their arms, and they carried me so that I wouldn’t die.
“Isn’t that amazing. All we had was each other then, and all we have is each other now,” said Eger.
In closing, Eger said, “I look to Auschwitz now as though it was meant to be. Tonight we are celebrating freedom, and I never felt better in my life.”
Then she added, “The biggest concentration camp is in your own mind — and you can find the key in your pocket.”