What True Freedom Means According to a Holocaust Survivor

No one can take away from you what you put in your mind.

Edith returns to Auschwitz. More than one million people were murdered right where she’s standing. There are no words that can explain the inhumanity of that human-made death factory. As she looks around the world’s biggest cemetery, she recalls the festive sounds that played through the loudspeakers on her first day. She remembers her father waving goodbye as he joined a line of men, but she can’t recall if she waved back.

She is linking arms with her mother; her sister Magda stands on the other side. She’s slim and flat-chested. She looks small in her woolen coat. Her mother tells her “button your coat, stand tall…you’re a woman, not a child”. She understands now that there was a purpose to her nagging. Edith’s survival depended on looking every day of her sixteen years.

She holds on to her mother’s hand firmly. The guards point and shove as the women move forward in a line. Edith sees Mengele up ahead, orchestrating their arrival. “Is anyone sick?” he asks. “Over forty? Under fourteen? Go left, go left”. Their father had explained that they were just there to work. They wanted to believe this; to think that this was just temporary. But as the three women stood in that barren yard, holding hands, hungry in their woolen coats, they feel this is their last chance to embrace.

It’s their turn. Mengele lifts his finger and asks “Is this your mother or your sister?”. Her hair was grey but her face as smooth as Edith’s; she could pass for her sister. But Edith doesn’t know the meaning of the left or the right. All she feels in that moment is that every cell in her body loves her, and needs her. “Mother,” she says. As soon as the word is out of her mouth, she wishes she could take it back. The gravity of her response dawns on her. She realizes the significance of the question too late. Mengele points her mother to the left, to join the children, the elderly, and the pregnant women.

It’s a moment Edith would never forget. That’s why she returned to Auschwitz. To ask her mother for forgiveness. To hear her mother tell her that she did the best with what she knew. That she made the right choice.

This is a mere glimpse of Edith Eger’s story. I was gripped by every word of her memoir. Not only for her lucid account of otherwise unimaginable events but for her inexplicable relatability to you and me.

She moved to the United States in 1949, where she received her degree in Psychology from the University of Texas and pursued her doctoral internship at the William Beaumont Army Medical Centre at Fort Bliss. In her book, she shares what she’s learned from her traumatic past.

She explains that “there is no hierarchy of suffering”.Suffering is universal; we all suffer in our own way:

“We are hungry. We are hungry for approval, attention, affection. We are hungry for the freedom to embrace life and to really know and be ourselves”. — Edith Eger

We hold ourselves to certain standards, but are those standards truly our own? As humans, we’re inherently social animals. Our yearning to fit in, to be understood, recognized, and socially approved is natural. But:

“When you have something to prove, you aren’t free.” — Edith Eger

We all want to ultimately be happy. We want to do whatever we want with our time. We want to do the work we love, spend time with the people we love, and experience nothing but joyous days, one after the other. But most people never follow their dreams. We don’t tend to do the things we want to do. We give up time with our loved ones for a job that serves nothing more than to bring in income. We succumb to social norms, social pressures because we want approval. And in doing so, we’re living constrained by the expectations of others.

For society to work and so that we humans can co-exist, minimum standards and rules of governance have to be abided by; you have to abide by the law for example. But we as individuals often extend these parameters. We impose a higher standard on ourselves. There isn’t a law that forces you to follow a ‘socially reputable’ career path or to wear designer clothes. You do these things for social approval. You’re a victim of your own life. You’re holding yourself to an arbitrary set of standards that you’ve self-imposed. You’re victimizing yourself.

“Suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional…No one can make you a victim but you. We become victims not because of what happens to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimization”. — Edith Eger

This may appear to be a hard pill to swallow, but quite the opposite. Yes, it’s up to you to change, but you have the power to change, because you have the choice.

External constraints will continue to exist, problems will arise that you can’t control. Bad things will happen. But none of these things can make you a victim. It’s your interpretation of your situation that’s keeping you hostage. So you can find everything you need to help yourself, within yourself. You have the choice to improve your course.

According to Dr. Edith Eger, There is a method you can use to live a free life; a life on your terms. If she had to name it, she would call it Choice Therapy.


Choice Therapy

“Freedom is about CHOICE — about choosing compassion, humor, intuition, curiosity, and self-expression. And to be free is to live in the present.” — Edith Eger

Compassion

“If there’s one small piece of hell I miss, it is the part that made me understand that survival is a matter of interdependence, that survival isn’t possible alone.” — Edith Eger

There’s a reason why humans are social animals. We’re stronger together. Edith is a prime example of how people can survive the most inconceivably hellish conditions when they’re fighting to survive not just for themselves, but for someone else.

Edith and her sister Magda were together at Auschwitz. They shared food, they reassured each other, they shared their sense of hope. Their mutual love and compassion made them feel alive, it made them feel like they were still human, deserving of love, and compassion. It helped them hold on to their identity despite all efforts to strip it away.

Humor

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Each moment is a choice.” — Edith Eger

It’s not easy to keep morale high when things are tough. This is why a comedian is considered a key crew-member for the first human mission to MarsResearch shows that having a comedian aboard can serve to unite teams in stressful situations. Humor can help facilitate recovery from stressful situations and prolong people’s tolerance for physical pain.

Humor is medicine. It’s a way to keep your spirits high, as well as those around you, and it’s something that you can find in yourself. You can be your own comedian and get yourself safely through the storm.

Optimism

“We don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but no one can take away from you what you put in your own mind.” — Edith Eger

Other people may be able to control your situation, your actions, even what you say and hear. But they can’t control the thoughts in your head. Edith was made to endure unimaginable suffering. But she had control over her mind; she had control of her interpretation of reality. And it’s something that you too will always have.

Intuition

“To be passive is to let others decide for you. To be aggressive is to decide for others. To be assertive is to decide for yourself.” — Edith Eger

Sometimes you just have a gut feeling. You might be sensing resistance from others, and you can either buckle under the pressure or choose to follow your own intuition. You need both self-reflection and conviction; to be sure of what you want and to assert yourself unapologetically.

Others don’t have to follow or agree, and that’s ok. But neither do you have to follow or agree with them. Accept that we all have a different life to live, and be proud to live yours.

Curiosity

What opportunity did I have in this moment? What choice could I make right then that would move me in the direction of love?” — Edith Eger

There are times when you may feel like there’s no way out. Despair sinks in as you can’t see how you could possibly make your situation better. You don’t think you have a choice. But you always have a choice, because there’s always an opportunity. You have more options than you think.

Even if the opportunity you’re looking for doesn’t exist, you can create opportunities for yourself. Be curious and learn about the world around you; there are opportunities out that you’ve never even heard of and people you’ve never met. And the next person you meet may just change your life.

Self expression

“Just remember, no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind. We can’t choose to vanish in the dark, but we can choose to kindle the light”. — Edith Eger

Oftentimes, there’s no way out of a bad situation. You just have to ride it out and trust that a better future awaits. A family member may have been diagnosed with a terminal disease for example. There’s nothing you can do except live through this. You can’t disappear in the dark.

But, you can choose to make the best of your situation. You can choose to help yourself and others by expressing your optimism, your sense of humor, showing compassion. You can provide a tiny light that guides you and others; something to hold on to until the situation improves.

Be present

“Our future is the sum of an equation that is part intention and part circumstance… The only place where we can exercise our freedom of choice is the present.” — Edith Eger

You can’t change the past, and you can’t control the future. You can of course take steps towards the future that you want, but the outcomes of your actions are never certain. All you can do is make the best choices in the present with the information that you have. So don’t let the fear of the unknown paralyze you from moving forwards.

Be at peace with your decision. When you look back, it will always have been the right decision because you’ll know that you did what you thought was best with the information that you had. No regrets.

Final Thoughts

Living a free life entails a fine balance between acceptance and control. You and I can’t control a lot of things, but we can choose to control our minds. We can choose to what extent we’re influenced by others, and we can define the parameters that outline our own course.

We can choose to accept ourselves and our situation and to be content without being complacent. We can choose to make the best of our situation by showing compassion for ourselves and others, by being optimistic, and by finding humor during the darkest of times. And unapologetically, we can choose to follow our intuition and take the steps we feel are right, in the present moment, to create a better future.

“I see that we have a choice: to pay attention to what we’ve lost or to pay attention to what we still have.” — Edith Eger

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