Story by Amy Laurel Hegy, San Diego Chapter, Red Cross Volunteer
It was dancing for the infamous Angel of Death, Dr. Mengele, which bought her survival in the concentration camps. It was the Red Cross that gave life-saving food and paid her passage onto the shores of America. Both moments were pivotal points of survival in the extraordinary life of Dr. Edith “Edie” Eger.
The American Red Cross, through its Restoring Family Links program, provided Holocaust tracing and documentation services to Dr. Edith “Edie” Eger from 2010 to 2011. "I have the papers, and will always keep the papers the Red Cross was kind enough to research about my history," offers Edie. "My husband went to the organization, years ago. They were able to piece together the outline of my story, as well as what happened to my family in the camps." As horrendous as it is, the papers remain the only history left of this Hungarian-Jewish family torn apart.
One of three daughters growing up in Kassa, Hungary, Edie was known for her great talent as a ballet dancer and gymnast. Accepted onto the Hungarian Olympic gymnastic team, the 16 year-old's future was brightly stretching out before her. She reminisces, "I was preparing for the Olympics. I was living my dream." That future took a detour on the notorious train tracks to Auschwitz, Monday, May 22, 1944. It was this day that the teenage Edie, her younger sister Magda, her mother and father, grandparents and aunts and uncles were herded into a cattle car and sent towards the Nazi death camp in German occupied Poland. Edie’s third sister, Klara, had recently been smuggled out of Kassa by a professor at the musical conservatory she attended as a promising violinist.
As the family arrived into the heart of the savagery, it was Dr. Josef Mengele himself that stood in front of the long chaotic succession of Jewish prisoners. As he casually pointed to the left and right, friends and families, including Edie's, were ruptured for eternity. "As my family approached the head of the line, they first separated my father towards the left and away from us. My sister, mother and I were embracing tightly in the middle. Dr. Mengele pointed my mother to the left and I followed holding onto her skirt. He came after me and told me to go to the other side, to the right. It’s absurd really; the very man responsible for annihilating my entire family saved my life at that moment. Next thing Magda and I knew, we were stripped and our head was shaved."
Later that afternoon, Mengele appeared at the doorway of the overflowing barracks to assess the day’s arrivals. He asked if anyone had any special talents. Edie’s friends pushed her to the front of the room saying that she was a gymnast and dancer. Mengele was well known for having the prisoners entertain him, and ordered her to dance. "I remember doing my very best splits as I was watching the black crematorium smoke rise; probably containing the ashes of my mother," recalls Edie. "I didn’t want to be dancing for this monster. My friends had volunteered me. All I could do was close my eyes and pretend I was dancing in the beautiful gilded state opera house in Budapest. I remember the orchestra playing outside. In my mind, I chose to be dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. In reality, I was providing joy to the man that executed my family only hours earlier." Old bread crusts that were toss towards her as payment for the performance were shared with Magda and the girls that had pushed her forward.
Over the next year, Edie and her sister were shuttled to several more of the over 42,000 concentration camps established throughout Europe. Strapped to cattle cars filled with ammunition, they were used as camouflage during the transport, in hopes that the Allies would not bomb the trains using human shields. Bombs dropped anyway and she watched as hundreds around her were murdered.
Red Cross’ tracing records confirm Edie’s last movement as a Nazi prisoner was during the April 1945 death marches. These bloody journeys were made as a last ditch effort to amass prisoners inside the German borders. Still holding onto each other, Edie and Magda were forced to walk over 30 miles from Mauthausen Concentration Camp to Gunskirchen Larger. Many prisoners became casualties being shot as they collapsed from malnutrition and exhaustion. With her body withering away, the 17-year-old was carried in a chair made by the interwoven arms of three of the girls with whom she had shared her extra crusts of bread.
In the final five days before its May 4, 1945 liberation, Gunskirchen Lager Camp guards fled, leaving the prisoners without so much as the meager rations they had been receiving. Edie teetered on the precipice of life. With a broken back and only weighing 60 lbs, she was too weak to protest as she was tossed into a pit with hundreds of dead bodies behind the camp in the woods. It was only by seeing the slight twitch of her hand from underneath the pile of stench-racked corpses that brought an American soldier to pull her from the mass grave and carry her to freedom.
"I will never forget my first meeting with the Americans and the Red Cross," reminisced Edie. "An American G.I. handed me a package of M&Ms. It was the first time I had seen a man of color. Then, the Red Cross gave me my very own can of sardines. So you see, the Red Cross, very literally, saved my life. I did not know, that within a short time, the same organization would make my life in America possible.”
Red Cross tracing services determined that, with the exception of musician Klara, Edie's entire family had been murdered in the concentration camps. So instead of Hungary, she went to Czechoslovakia. It was while recuperating in a hospital fighting Tuberculosis (TB) that she met and married another TB patient Albert Eger, a Czech Freedom-Fighter. Shortly after, they were graced with the birth of the first of three children, Marianne. In the autumn of 1949, it became necessary to flee the Communists. Edie and Albert took their infant daughter and headed to Vienna. As luck would have it, her husband's family had been preregistered as potential American immigrants before the war. This refugee status allowed them passage on a ship; the General R L Howze, bound for New York.
The voyage would provide another crucial moment when the Red Cross would provide Edie with the exact help she needed to complete her journey to a new life. As fortunate as Edie, Albert and her daughter Marianne were to gain spaces on a ship, there was an unavoidable $6 fee to step off the ship into the United States. Without a penny to her name, Edie was on the verge of being turned away only steps from a new, free life. Enter the Red Cross.
Provided only by the donations of the American public, the organization granted Eger a $6 gift, enabling her to enter the United States on October 29, 1949.
“Today, because of this gift, I have a wonderful story to tell,” Eger says. “I went to school at night. In 1969, I graduated with honors, receiving a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Texas, El Paso, and today my name is Dr. Edith Eva Eger.” At 86, she is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at San Diego’s UCSD Medical School. In private practice, she is a world-renowned psychologist, specializing in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her La Jolla, California practice treats soldiers returning from the war, as well as victims of sexual and domestic abuse. A proud US citizen, Edie has three children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Although she knew that the $6 US entry fee was a gift to her from the Red Cross and did not requiring repayment, Edie logged over 2,000 clinical intern hours volunteering at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center at Fort Bliss, Texas. This was her way of repaying the organization that had saved and boosted her life. "I know I didn't (have to), but I never wanted to ever take advantage or get something for nothing. I love the Red Cross," says Edie. "They show up everywhere and do so much. They certainly have saved my life. I wish for the Red Cross to grow, and show up whenever people are in need. I have nothing but gratitude for every one showing up for me."