Finding God in Auschwitz
Dr. Edith Eva Eger is a Holocaust Survivor, psychologist, and recently an international bestselling author. She published her acclaimed book, The Choice: Embrace the Possible, at 90 years young.
Immediately I thought of her as an example of woman who didn’t worry about deadline for a dream to come true. When it happens, it is in our right time.
I first listened to her incredible life story and warm wisdom during her interview in Oprah’s Super Soul. I immediately fell in love with the tone of her voice. She could be anyone’s grandmother and dearest, life-long friend at the same time.
I could hear the smile on her face and imagine the twinkling in her eyes as she shared her account of how much humanity and love she found in the most unexpected place, Auschwitz. It was hard to imagine how a person could have lived through so much trauma and pain and yet, describe the friendship, the love, and the faith she found in that place.
Yes, she watched her mother taken to the left side of camp where she would never return from the gas chamber. She blamed herself for many years for admitting to the infamous Dr. Mengele that they were mother and daughter instead of sisters, but she could never imagine what could happen by simply speaking the truth.
She and her sister leaned on each other’s different strengths when one was weak. Auschwitz was a place that required each person to be selfless in order to survive another day; community was as essential to living as breathing. If someone chose competition over community instead, they were shamed and isolated. Humanity was the soul’s chorus rising above inhumanity.
Dr. Eger described what that humanity looked like in a way which stunned her, and she would never forget it.
Dr. Mengele noticed her pretty face and soon discovered she could dance; she was classically trained. He ordered her to dance for himself and his officers in the camp for entertainment.
She was a terrified young girl shaking at the thought of how she could possibly perform for the men whom she feared more than anything. The men whose gaze held the power over life and death in their world. She wondered how she could bear the fear. But then she remembered her mother’s last words spoken to her before she was led away to her death, “Edith, no matter what, remember that no one can take away what you think”.
Young Edith never forgot her beloved mother’s words of strength. So, on the night she was called before the enemy, Edith closed her eyes and imagined dancing on stage in a grand theater with an orchestra playing classical pieces, performing for the people whom she loved and for an audience who found joy her expression. Her mother’s words elevated her from the darkness she could see with her human eyes and allowed her to envision the things which were yet unseen. Another world.
Dr. Mengele found pleasure in her performance and gave her a loaf of bread and sent her back to her barracks. That loaf of bread was more food than she had seen in one day in too long to remember. She was an emaciated young girl who needed the nourishment desperately. But resisting her own hunger, she brought the loaf to her sister and the girlfriends with whom she shared the barracks. She never considered eating it herself when everyone was starving. The only way to live through Auschwitz was together. She shared her loaf with her friends, feeling blessed to have something to offer them.
That generosity which she had forgotten long ago, returned to in her in a gift a love that to this day, when she reflects on it, causes her voice to shake. As the Nazis knew they were losing the war, they moved out all of the camp prisoners on a death march, expecting most to perish on the journey.
As Edith, her sister, their girlfriends, and the rest of starved walking dead continued the march, her back was breaking, her spine so damaged that it could not support her torso. She collapsed on other bodies laying in the field either dead or nearing it. She knew her life would end there, against the skin of others who also had families they lost and lives they once dreamed of living.
But her girlfriends whom she shared the loaf of bread with gathered around her, using their bony arms to link together and create a chair for her sit upon, as they carried her along their way with them. In that part of her interview she paused and said, “Can you believe what they did for me? They saved my life out of their love and kindness. The carried me. I will never forget that.”
Again, I was so moved at what she held onto as a defining moment during so much pain and loss. She chose to highlight the beauty in the brutality, the friendship of joined arms during hatred, and the faith to see the unseen. She also recalled a friend of hers, a fellow survivor who later asked her, “Where was God in Auschwitz?” He response was simple and her truth, “I found God in Auschwitz.”
Her experiences at the receiving end of love and humanity under such an inhumane architecture influenced her perspective of life. Or was that her perspective to begin with that framed her hopeful outlook during the war and into the rest of her life?
How do we build resilience and not just survive this beautiful, brutal thing we call life? How can we accept that life offers us both suffering and grace in the same breath? How do refuse to lose hope when we know we are at the end of ourselves?
Like Dr. Eger, like my mother, like many others who have lived to bear witness to unspeakable darkness, and yet still believe in the possibility of beauty once again, I believe that they hold onto the smallest hope of a better tomorrow- because of an unobstructed view cleared through faith. Is that blind faith? If so, let me be blind.
Sharing our experiences with others also nurtures hope to bloom in the desert. Just knowing we aren’t alone when we feel so isolated is deeply comforting. That feeling that someone else can understand our experience firsthand or through radical empathy, is like a buoy being tossed to us during a terrifying, dark storm. Dr. Eger provides that radical empathy as she teaches, treats patients, and shares her book and insight with us all. We are saved and we know we aren’t alone. Together we’ll chart the stars until the sun rises once again.