She Was Forced Into A Death March. She Survived By Leaning On Her Best Friends ... Literally.

Her best self-defense from the Nazis was her mind. Edith Eger couldn't control her circumstances, but she controlled how she responded. And today, as both a Holocaust survivor and psychologist, she shares her survival skills with us.

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Edith Eva Eger: I would be so privileged if you would allow me for the few minutes that you’ve given me to be your mom, your grandma, your great-grandma. I have four generations. What a joy for me to be here with you. And with your permission I'm gonna take you on a ride. I want to share with you what my mom told me that truly, truly changed my life, the past and the present.

The time is 1944. My dad, my sister, Magda, and I and my mom, we were on our way to Auschwitz, and my mom held me and this is what she said; she said, “We don't know where we're going, we don't know what's going to happen, just remember: no one can take away from you what you put here, in your own mind." And this is exactly what happened. We arrived in Auschwitz. I saw the sign. I didn't know where I was. My father was separated and I stood in front of Dr. Mengele, "The Angel of Death." He pointed my mom to go to the left and my sister and I to the right.

I followed my mom and he grabbed me, looked me in the eye, that I never forget that look, and he said, “You're going to see your mother very soon, she's just gonna take a shower,” and promptly threw me on the other side, which meant life. I suffered so many years from survivor's guilt and shame, wondering why me. There were people who were so much prettier than I was. I had two very beautiful sisters. And after two beautiful sisters, my parents wanted a son, and guess what happened? They got me. And I was the runt in my family. My sisters took me for a walk and they blindfolded me because I was cross-eyed.

Today, I speak at schools. I'm really guiding the precious children not to allow anyone to define who you are. You're beautiful because God doesn't make junk. And so here I was asking, it was called Birkenau, I asked one of the inmates, “When will I see my mother?” She pointed at the chimney and she said to me very coldly, “She’s burning there.” So there was no help from the outside, but I still had my mind and my sister Magda.

She was the pretty one in my family, the sexy one. And when we were completely shaved, she came to me with hair in her palms and said, “How do I look?” It's a Hungarian woman's question. we're pretty vain. And I knew and I discovered Auschwitz was all about discovering traits I never thought was possible. And instead of telling Magda how she really looked, I found something, something that she still had left, and I said to her, “Magda, you have such beautiful eyes. And you know, I really didn't see it well when you had your hair covering your eyes.”

So I hope that you're going to really, tonight, pay attention to the kind of words that you put in your mind, so you can empower someone and see in which way I can be your guide tonight.

Dr. Mengele appeared in our barracks and looked for the talents and my friends volunteered me, because I was a student of ballet. I was a good gymnast. I danced for the President of Hungary, Admiral Horthy. And I found myself in front of Dr. Mengele dancing, and again my mind was with me when I was able to check out, and I pretended that the music was Tchaikovsky and I was dancing the "Romeo and Juliet" at the Budapest Opera House.

He gave me a piece of bread which I shared with my girls. Life was really difficult in Auschwitz because we never knew what's going to happen next. We didn’t know when we took a shower, whether water was gonna come out or gas is going to come out. And then, what we had to do is again, somehow survive. I remember, we stood in line every morning 4:00 and I... I begin to fantasize about my boyfriend and I said to myself, “If I survive today, then tomorrow I'll be free.” Tomorrow, tomorrow, always looking ahead and I learned to say instead of "Why me?" "What now?" and "What next?"

I had the tremendous curiosity that really was so powerful that I was able to make it day by day. But we had to be committed to each other, otherwise we never would have made it. Cooperation was the name of the game not competition, not domination because all we had was each other then, and all we have is each other now.

In December, they took me out of Auschwitz, I became a slave laborer and I was transported to a place called Mauthausen to enter a death march. And in the death march, when you stopped, you were shot right away. And while I was just about to collapse myself, and my friends who I shared the bread with, they came and they formed a chair with their arms and they carried me so I won’t die. Isn't that amazing that the worst conditions can bring out the best in us. I was liberated May 4th, it's coming up, in 1945, by the 71st Infantry.

I was so privileged that I am working now with the military, doing work with PTSD. I was invited to Fort Carson, Colorado City and I realized when I arrived that this is the home of the 71st Infantry. You see how life comes around? And, now, today, as I'm standing here in front of you I can tell you I have nothing but gratitude. We don't seem to appreciate sometimes what we have until we lose it.

Every morsel of food, the walk in this beautiful beach, I never throw out a piece of bread. If you take me out to dinner, chances are I may eat up your leftovers. That's really pain for me. My daughter keeps telling me, and my precious grandson, Jordan, please let people know that beauty of mine... come on stand up, Jordan, Jordan. That's the best revenge, that's the best revenge, my kind. That's all. And not only I have three children, I have five grandchildren, and three beautiful great-grandsons. That's revenge, my kind.

But I was not really able to have the joy and the compassion until I was able to return to Auschwitz, until I was able to go back to that lion's den and look at the lion in the face, until I was able to somehow reclaim my innocence, assign my shame and guilt to the perpetrator, and finally forgive myself that I survived. You see, revenge gives you satisfaction, but I think it's very temporary. It just saps you from so much energy. But forgiveness, believe me, has given me the ultimate... the ultimate spiritual freedom. So I... as I stand here in from of you today, I can tell you that I'm so blessed today that I can guide people from darkness to light, from prison to freedom, and to find that perhaps the biggest concentration camp is right in your own mind and the key is in your pocket.

What keeps me young today... that I live in the present because I can only touch you now. If you please like to hold hand in hand, we all have a little skin hunger, so please touch, hold hands. And I, too, believe somehow, as I am able to stand here, look at you precious young people that you are the future. With TED, you and I can empower each other with our differences and never kicking each other into submission because that would be the beginning of the end of the beautiful democracy that I came to this country for.

So just remember, you can make a difference, and remember my mom's words; that everything can be taken away from us except what you put in your own mind. So I hope that you will be very careful and very selective of the words that you can put in your mind, so your life would be as beautiful as mine have become. And you and I can truly celebrate the beautiful gift that God has given us called life. Thank you.

[audience applauding]

There may be small errors in this transcript.

Much gratitude to Edith Eger for sharing her powerful story on video so we can share her message. Find out more about Dr. Eger by going to her personal website and checking out her list of survival skills. Thumbnail image by Thomas Hawk, used under Creative Commons license.

Jul 01, 2014

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