Edith Eger is a fascinating woman. At 90 years old, she wrote The Choice, which tells the story not only of her teenage experiences in Auschwitz but also of her life after that terrible time. She emigrated to the USA; she became a mother, a teacher, and a psychologist with a particular knack for helping people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; and she took what she learnt from Auschwitz to discover an extraordinary amount of wisdom.
This is a wonderful (and short) YouTube clip in which Eger talks about life lessons she learned in Auschwitz, including the striking line ‘That’s the hardest thing…not to think that the Nazis were some monsters. They were beautiful children who were taught to hate.’ There are many other clips of Eger available online, including this TED Talk entitled ‘What my mama told me,’ which is also worth watching.
The Choice is a confronting book in many ways, which is not surprising from a book about a young Jewish girl’s experiences in the Holocaust. Eger does not hold back from sharing the terrible things that happened to her, from her mother’s death in Auschwitz to her own near-rape by one of the GIs who rescued her at the end of the war.
However, unlike many other Holocaust memoirs, The Choice also goes on to tell the story of what happened to Eger after the war. Much more of the book is taken up with Eger’s post-war life than with her life in the concentration camp – though, of course, everything that happens to her in adulthood is filtered through her experiences under the Nazis. For example, she tells the story of an incident that happened not long after she moved to America, in which she accidentally sat down on a bus without paying the driver. He – a man in uniform – shouted at her impatiently. She – a Holocaust survivor with little English – collapsed on the floor of the bus, crying, because in a concentration camp, provoking the anger of a man in uniform is a very bad thing indeed.
There is also an unusual element of self-help book to The Choice, with Eger taking the time to share the wisdom she learnt not just in the concentration camp but also in the following decades as she worked to come to grips with what had happened to her. She closes the book with these grandmotherly words of advice:
You can’t change what happened, you can’t change what you did or what was done to you. But you can choose how you live now. My precious, you can choose to be free.
Why I Love It
Though there were aspects of this book that I didn’t love as much (sometimes the psychology/self-help elements were a bit more prominent than I was really looking for), there were many, many things I did love. Perhaps most importantly, I was drawn to the fact that this story didn’t end with Eger’s release from captivity, but followed her life through the ensuing decades, which is something I haven’t seen before in Holocaust memoirs. This had the dual effect of putting the Holocaust in its place (a terrible event, and a torturous period that took up proportionately more of the book than any other equivalent time period – but still just one event in a long life well lived) and helping me to see the enduring impact of the Holocaust on survivors.
I think the latter is particularly important, because it’s easy to think of traumatic events in an almost cinematic way: young girl is trapped by the Nazis, young girl suffers horribly, the good guys rescue her, young girl reaches her happy ending. But of course that’s not how it works. Suffering through an event like the Holocaust, as The Choice reminds us, impacts a life in many ways: family members killed, youthful dreams lost, marital issues arising because shadows of the past stretch across the decades, enduring fears of sirens and men in uniform and barbed wire. Eger makes a triumph out of a tragedy, but she also helps us see that the tragedy never really goes away.
Where To Get It
I was able to order this book through my local library, then promptly ordered my own copy from Book Depository.