I have wanted to read Edith Eger’s Holocaust memoir, The Choice, since it was first published in 2017, and picked up a cheap secondhand copy in a local branch of Oxfam before Christmas. Eger’s memoir has been so highly reviewed, with many pointing to the courage which she showed even at her bleakest moments. The New York Times Book Review goes one step further, urging everyone who cares ‘about both their inner freedom and the future of humanity’ to read it.
In 1944, sixteen-year-old ballerina, Edith Eger, was sent to Auschwitz. She was immediately separated from her parents, and was later made to dance before notorious camp doctor, Josef Mengele. Despite everything she went through, the book’s blurb insists that ‘the horrors of the Holocaust didn’t break Edith. In fact, they helped her learn to live again with a life-affirming strength and a truly remarkable resilience.’
The Choice has been split into four distinct sections – ‘Prison’, ‘Escape’, ‘Freedom’, and ‘Healing’. She gives her account chronologically, and makes clear in her introduction that she only began to write her memoir in 1980, whilst working as a psychologist. Of her troubled patient Jason, whom she also introduces here, she finds so much wholly applicable to her own past: ‘… despite our obvious differences, there was much we shared. We both knew violence. And we both knew what it was like to become frozen. I also carried a wound within me, a sorrow so deep that for many years I hadn’t been able to speak of it at all, to anyone.’
Eger goes on to write about time and its healing process: ‘What happened can never be forgotten and can never be changed. But over time I learned that I can choose how to respond to the past. I can be miserable, or I can be hopeful – I can be depressed, or I can be happy. We always have that choice, that opportunity for control.’
Eger was born in the town of Kassa, Hungary, which was renamed Košice and became part of Czechoslovakia. At this point, Eger writes that ‘my family became double minorities. We were ethnic Hungarians living in a predominantly Czech country, and we were Jewish.’ The town became part of Hungary again in 1938. Throughout The Choice, she speaks about her childhood, her memories, and the relationship which she had with her parents and siblings. Her father is taken to a work camp, and is only released eight months afterwards. After this, Eger is captured and taken to Auschwitz, along with her mother and sister, Magda. Her mother is taken immediately to the gas chambers. Here, Eger touchingly reflects on the state which this left her in: ‘I am numb. I can’t think about the incomprehensible things that are happening, that have already happened. I can’t picture my mother consumed by flames. I can’t fully grasp that she is gone.’
Throughout, Eger speaks so honestly about her own experiences. There is, understandably, a lot of horror within her past, and she does not shy away from describing this to the reader. She writes of the way in which she was able to hold onto her humanity, and the bravery which this took is quite astounding. Eger says: ‘The words I heard inside my head made a tremendous difference in my ability to maintain hope. This was true for other inmates as well. We were able to discover an inner strength we could draw on – a way to talk to ourselves that helped us feel free inside, that kept us grounded in our own morality, that gave us foundation and assurance even when the external forces sought to control and obliterate us.’
The imagery which Eger relays is often haunting. On their liberation, she reflects: ‘What are we now? Our bones look obscene, our eyes are caverns, blank, dark, empty. Hollow faces. Blue-black fingernails. We are trauma in motion. We are a slow moving parade of ghouls.’ She tends not to write only about her experiences in the camps, and directly afterwards; rather, she focuses upon the ways in which she came to terms with it after her liberation. Like the vast majority of survivors, she was left with major issues with her health, and had to come to terms with what it meant to live back in the world. She was also forced to cope with the absence of her parents, and her boyfriend, Eric.
The second half of Eger’s memoir is focused upon her marriage, the career which she works so hard to have, and the patients whom she meets, all of whom seem able to teach her something about her own life and perspectives. Occasionally, these recollections of patients do feel a little preachy, and overall, I feel as though I personally got a lot more out of the first half of the book than the second.
The Choice is a wonderful memoir, filled with sadness but also an unbreakable sense of hope, which carried Eger through into her present. One cannot help but be moved by Eger’s words, and the attitude which she takes toward her past. Her prose is engaging, and filled to the brim with emotion and compassion. The Choice leans toward the philosophical at times, and certainly gives a lot of food for thought.