"If I Lived In Hate, I Would Still Be A Prisoner." Edith Eger In Dialogue With Irena Karpa
In order to comprehend the events of recent days, PEN Ukraine has launched a series of conversations entitled #DialoguesOnWar.
On March 29, Irena Karpa, author and musician, held a conversation with doctor Edith Eger, psychologist, writer.
This is a transcription of key moments from that event. You can check out the recorded conversation here.
Irena Karpa: Last year when we presented your book "Choice" in Kyiv, no one could even in the worst dream imagine that now we would go through a full-scale war. Ukrainian people are fighting like lions. There is solidarity, courage, and a willingness to fight till the end for their land. In the meantime, there are a lot of people who are fleeing Ukraine, especially women with children. Many women decide to stay in Ukraine to fight together with men. Everybody is sure we will win. So I'm very, very proud of this moment for every woman, man, child.
We see a lot of solidarity with us. World sees that we are on the right side, and our fight is a fight just to protect our land like real fighters do: not because he hates something in front of him but because he loves something behind him.
Before this interview, I asked my audience on social media to send questions for you. So, technically my interview will be composed of questions asked by women who are inside this war or who left Ukraine for a moment and they feel guilty, have survivor syndrome, people who are traumatized, who are trying not to lose the taste of life...
A lot of them ask about the hatred or possibility to forgive. For example, how can you forgive someone who is trying to destroy your people? Did you manage to forgive those who destroyed your people, who tried to destroy your people?
Edith Eger: I don't have any godly power. My doctor actually reminds me of that. I think the best we can do is not to carry the enemy with us, because it actually gives more power. What I learned in Auschwitz is that I could not change external circumstances, but that it was a place for discovery. And I believed that this is a discovery for the people in Ukraine how they can find their true self. The true self that could not be a victim of anything or anyone.
I.K.: It is a very strong moment of identification for every Ukrainian, a moment for being united. Unfortunately it is thanks to this aggression people understood once again how strong they can be and how unique. My readers also ask you what do you feel towards Germans nowadays, and how did you learn not to hate during the war?
E.E.: I can tell you that being in Nazi Reich did not made all the Germans Nazis. Sometimes we generalize. The New York Times a while ago asked one woman on her deathbed why she risked her life to save Jewish lives? Her answer was: "My father told me that was the right thing to do." So I look at Germany — I love Wiener schnitzel of course and so on — but it is very important for us to recognize that your people many times were parents, grandparents of my parents. And I know that we have been in many, many places. I know that the Jewish people were slaves and than they were walking with Moses for 40 years and they never gave up. You and I carried this love and I know many Jews come from Ukraine. Their ancestors were in Ukraine. So we are sisters and brothers, and this is my dream like Martin Luther King was saying: one day we all will go hand in hand and form a human family. So you can be yours and I can be mine, but I don’t have the power to do anything with anyone. And I know whatever you do, you don’t regret. We regret what we don't do.
I.K.:Yes, this for sure. How do you learn not to hate during the war? There is a lot of hatred and unfortunately sometimes not only against the enemy but also against the people who are close to you. This is, I think, the main problem during the war.
E.E.: Many people choose many things in many ways, but I know that we didn’t know what would happen at 4 o'clock in the morning. We didn’t know whether we would end up in a gas chamber. And now we do not know what is going to happen tomorrow. But I also know many people gave up and died without any physiological reasons. Today I beg parents not to spoil the children because spoiled children don't master things on their own and they give up much quicker. My daughter is also a sports psychologist, so you may want to take advantage of this as well I hope. My daughter tells me that being a survivor’s child, when she was two years old, she was made into a parent because these children grow up very fast. They teach their parents how to speak English. She taught me how to eat peanut butter and tuna fish. I had never seen that in Hungary. So I think it is very good for older and younger generations to come together and see how we can empower each other with our differences.
Doctor Angel: I would like to say something here. You’ve asked some wonderful questions about families and the fighting that is probably going on within families who have different opinions. Because families always have different opinions, right? But now the opinions are life and death. And I can only imagine what is for all these women, who have left the country, who feel safe where they are, but they feel guilty and scared, sorry. They don't know what to do next. What if they can’t go back home? Then where do they go? Nobody planned to be an immigrant like my mother. My mother and father escaped after the communists tried to kill my father, and that is a whole story in itself. These are very painful, difficult, scary times. And all these things that we have loved, the people we loved, we know... I have been to Ukraine and so many people there know Russians even if they are not related to them. And I know that not all Russians know the truth of what's happening. There is so much happening now that is so painfully difficult to understand. I think it takes years before there is a calm that can happen within the families. And this is sad, right? It is a loss. And trying to find how to go forward, because as my mother always says, "You can't go backwards. Life is always forward". And somehow all these difficulties that people are experiencing, when you feel one thing and other people in the family feel something else, all of us want to be right. So whether or not it matters if you are right or wrong, we still want to be right. That does not necessarily mean that love will come back in the same way. And sometimes we had to just accept that there are differences and try to find ways to either move forward or sometimes not. But this is a very painful time.
I.K.: Thank you. Some questions I read are very touching, not about war. Some were like, "should I believe in love?" For me it is sweet that people are thinking about these things now. And I was quoting you, dear Dr. Eager, yesterday. For me it is a very powerful saying of yours: The victim thinks,"Why did it happen to me?" The survivor thinks, "What can I do with it?". And people reacted very strongly, so my next couple of questions will be about the state of mind of the victim. How to get rid of it? How to get out of it? And next one, probably immediately: how to turn back a wish, a capability to create if this wish disappeared with the beginning of the war?
E.E.: A while ago I wrote a list of differences between a victim and survivor. Victims aren’t flexible; they are rigid. Marianne said it so well. People want to be right. But I can only be right for me, I cannot be right for anyone else. So I think it is very important not to judge other people and just recognize that we have two ears and one mouth. So we should talk less and listen more. I have become with my age a very compassionate listener, and I think it is very important. Find your true self because your genuine self is usually given up in the family. If you are a first-born child and if you marry another first-born, sometimes you have a power struggle. My daughter doesn't. Her husband is a Nobel Prize winner and I think they never compete with each other. They don't dominate or compete, but cooperate. So I think it is good for you to recognize that these are very difficult times but no one can replace you. The only one you would have for a lifetime is you. All relationships will end. So I hope you get up in the morning and say: I love you. Self love is self care, it is not narcissistic. I say it a million times a day. Yes.
D.A.: You know you ask the question about creativity...
I.K.: And we can talk about sports! I cannot manage to do sports even one single time. It is horrible! But I know you feel much better after you exercise or you create. So how can we bring back this power to create or to do sports? Please, tell us. You should know better than anyone else.
D.A.: Well, creativity happens with our bodies, it happens with our minds, it happens with our feelings. And the more we are frightened, the more we are angry, creativity doesn't have a space there. Exercising is something you can do in your bed before you get up. Just to do a few things you know how to do, a few stretches. These are tiny little things, but the effect on your brain on and on your muscle function and on your breathing, on your heart rate, it’s phenomenal. If you do this 5 minutes a day — 2 minutes when you wake up and 2 minutes before you go to sleep — you will feel better.
Probably everybody listening to this podcast is having an experience right now. I know that we, Americans, are dying every day with you. It is so painful. Don't forget it. Write it down. Don’t forget these moments. Because when the time has passed your mind will push it away, as it probably should. But if you can write things down now, so that later the next generation can read it. And it doesn't need to be important, it's just how you feel or something that happened. But if you can do this, do something to mark this time. This is a very important time for the world. Don't let us forget it.
E.E.: You know many people told me many years to write a book. And automatically I would say, "I have nothing to say." And then Philip Zimbardo called me and said, "Eddy, the people who survived and are famous are all men. We need the female voice, the female voice of Viktor Frankl ." But Victor Frankl was a medical doctor in his 30s. He said he imagined himself after the war lecturing about the concentration camps. I also closed my eyes and I imagined dancing to Romeo and Juliet, and the music was Tchaikovsky in the Budapest opera house. So I think it is very important to also tell you that my mother told me that we don't know where we are going, we don't know what's going to happen, but just remember no one can take it from you what you put in your mind. I think it is very good to see the movie called "The Karate Kid," because it talks about the power of your mind.
I.K.: Yes, for our listeners you shouldn't feel guilty if you do something for your creativity or sports, if you listen to beautiful things, if you see beautiful things. You should not feel guilty. Because I see this guilt as a part of survivor’s guilt, something many people are fighting now.
E.E.: I got a Ph.D. in survivor's guilt. But guilt is in the past and worries are in the future. And the only thing we have is the present. That's why we call it the present, right? The only thing that we control is the present. In the concentration camp, we talked about food. The only thing we talked about was food. How much of paprika you put in Hungarian goulash. We were thinking about when we got out of there, never ever imagining that we were going to stay there. And now I'm here talking to you to find hope in hopelessness, to find the way not to allow yourself or anyone to get to you without your permission. So I think that was very important then and it is very important now. I'm lucky to talk to one hundred thousand Ukrainians.
I.K.: One more question, I think it is a very painful one. What can you do when you understand that tragedy is going on? When you understand it with your mind but you cannot feel anything? What is this phenomenon? What can people do with it?
E.E.: People ask me how I felt. I was void of feelings, I was numb. I never cried in Auschwitz. It was hell. We didn't know what would happen when we took a shower. Whether gas or water was coming. So we were in a very difficult time and we were not prepared for it. We were put in a place we were not prepared for. And many times we were told one thing and we found another. So I think it is very,very important not to allow anything or anyone to change your mind. It is something I don't like, it is inconvenient, and this is temporary. Not "Yes, but..."— get rid of the "but".
I don’t know if your mom told you sometimes that you are a beautiful girl, but you are fat or have pimples. This "yes, but" will cancels everything before the "but." "Yes, and we’re here now" about the only thing I can change is the present. The past is gone, there is no way I can ever change the past.
D.A.: I would like to say something quickly. You know, being emotionally numb at a time like this sometimes is protective. Because if you feel all the things that you are feeling, you might not be able to do things that need to be done. And it is very painful if you are a mother and you have children. They don’t want to see you numb. Try to be numb to yourself but take care of them. I think that balance is the thing that works so well. The reason I'm such a healthy person is that my mother was still numb, she took very good care of me. And that's what I urge all of you listening to us, who feel numb in your emotions. It is perfectly normal. But take good care of the people you need to take care of.
I.K.: Yes, this is the first thing I say to all the moms who took their kids away from this place that is now being destroyed. You did the right thing, the number one thing. You should not feel guilty and so ever. And talking about the present, another question is: what can you do in the present time so as not to suffer too much from posttraumatic syndrome when the war is over. Are there any rules, is there any way to protect psychological hygiene to make it softer later, if it is possible?
E.E.: What we can do is one of two things. We can ask questions or give advice. I want you to stop asking, "how are you?" It is very stupid question. I used to ask my patients "how are you?" and they’d tell me "fine." And I knew they were a suicidal. So the next time I said, "Good to see you. I missed you." So think before you say anything. Is it necessary or important? Most of all— is it kind? And if it is not, don't say it. I practice that a lot of the time, especially when I'm at my daughter's home and she fixes a beautiful gourmet dinner. I might want to say something. I think to myself whether it is important. And I stop myself. I say, "no, just sit still, enjoy the meal, don't interrupt anybody's conversations." At 94, I talk to myself much more and it is very, very useful.
D.A.: I think what you are asking also is how to protect yourself from the PTSD we know is coming. Well, if you do what I told you about little exercise, a little joy every day, it will help you. If you take notes, so you don’t have to remember on a daily basis because you have it on the piece of paper. You'll be amazed how freeing it is. Because one thing about PTSD is you don’t want to forget. Because it meant so much to you. If you have it on paper you can put it somewhere else. If you need to remember it, you can go read it.
Some of PTSD is normal and natural. I think we need to in some ways embrace it as a way we can remember what we went through, why it happened, and what we can do in the future. What kind of support we give to the world, to our children, to democracy, for people to be able to get true information. All these kinds of things that will help everyone's PTSD if they feel it can be avoided again in the future with different behaviors. But it is there and to pretend it is not is very problematic.
E.E.: I also want to tell you that PTSD is not really a disorder. It is a reaction to our loss. It is grief. And you’ve got to grieve because you cannot heal what you don't feel. So don't medicate grief. I teach at the medical school and the third-year residents talk more now before they give out drugs. I think it is very important because what comes out of your body doesn't make you ill; what stays in there does. I didn't tell anyone I was in Auschwitz for close to 20 years. And my husband was the one who told my daughter when she was 12 and asked for a beautiful dress, he said "Go have fun, my darling. When your mother was your age, she was in Auschwitz." I thought I was going to kill my husband.
I think it is very important. Today, I would not do that. If you have a secret, share it. Get it out. It is not too forward. You don't do anything to deserve that. We never did. I'm sure when you were leaving your county, you cried. And you may not know how difficult this is for your body to leave your bed, your curtains, and familiar surroundings. But there is no going back. There is only a new beginning.
I.K.:Well, I'm on the lucky side. For 6 years I've been living in Paris. Right now I'm hosting Ukrainian refugees. And all my friends are hosting Ukrainian refugees, the people who really left their lives behind. There are real difficulties in how to protect their children, how to explain war to them without traumatizing them too much. No matter how much we try, kids playing Lego are creating bomb shelters or making guns. A little boy saw a bottle of wine in my kitchen and said, "Look, it is a Molotov cocktail." Unfortunately the war is there in their minds. And my question is about those of us who didn't see the war directly, we feel so powerless. We see what's happening in Mariupol and cannot help directly. This feels like the worst suffering when you can't interfere immediately. You can talk about it, you can volunteer, but you can't interfere directly. Then you meet people who saw the war, who suffered, and we really want to support them. What can you suggest in this matter? How can we support these people who come from hell, whom we want to help here where it is physically safe?
E.E.:I remember when my little girl came home and she cried because she wanted to go to a birthday party. At that time, I had no idea what it meant to have empathy, to listen to the child. I minimized it. It was my defense mechanism. I just baked a Hungarian chocolate cake. Food was the answer for everything. I think if you can just repeat what you hear from the child, so they know they are being heard. Meet them where they are. I think the question that I ask is very important: when did your childhood end? If you were the child of an immigrant, you taught your parents to speak English. You taught your parents many of the foods. It is very important to find the child in you. Because this child may be crying "I need a good parent!" and you show up.
D.A.: I would like to say some things about children, because it is my specialty. You know, children can adopt anything if they feel they are cared for, listened to and safe. What I would like to urge people to do is take the children to the park, take a ball with you, do things that feel normal and natural. But also sit and talk to them. You know, "How are you feeling? What's going on?" I'm so affected by the little boy who said "Molotov cocktail" when he saw wine. I don't even know if he knows what a Molotov cocktail is and what you do with it.
But if they are making guns, ask them what they feel and what they are thinking about. And then say, "The great thing right now is that we are safe. And our country will be safe again. But right now you are safe and I'm safe with you. And isn’t it great to have friends who help keep us safe?" Safety for children is kind of everything.
I.K.: This is something I repeat to adults, to those brave women who took many hours to get here. I keep repeating that main thing that they are safe. Because they are saying, "Oh my God, I'm going to return home because I don't want to be a burden, I want my job back" and so on. They cannot really find peace and everybody is trying to find a way to support them and make them comfortable. We are so happy that you are safe, and this is the main thing! Everything else you will come back.
D.A.: I think the thing to address with them is the sense of loss. They feel abandonment. They have lost their jobs, their houses, their husbands may be still there fighting...
I.K.: One of my best friends lost her man a couple of days ago. And I can’t find the words, I don’t know how to help her. What can I do?
D.A.: Of course you know what you can do. You can just be there, hug her and tell her how sorry you are. Is she still in Ukraine?
I.K.: Yes, she is still in Ukraine. She stayed for him.
E.E.: And never say, "I know how you feel," because you don’t know.
I.K.: No, I would never say that.
D.A.: Everyone wants to be heard and understood. And right now is one day. But in 3 months she is also going to need that.
E.E.: And time doesn't change. It is what you do with time that’s important. This is in my book. Anything I say, I lived. I'm very grateful to you for how committed you are. Just remember we are not limitless. We are limited. It takes courage just to be average. It really takes courage not to make A+ all the time. I still don't know statistics. I called my supervisor Hitler and I hired people to help me pass statistics so I can become a licensed clinical psychologist.
I.K.: Thank you so much! It feels like a luxury to talk about this moment we know from your book and to see you, Dr. Eger. We know you from your book and this is great. Thank you! Thank you for your time! It is very precious.
Olha Mukha: We have a couple of questions from our listeners. For example, one is harsh. If there was anything you could say to any oppressor in the past or in the present time, what would those words be?
E.E.: How would you like to be remembered? Would you like to be remembered as someone who can love? How can you be remembered as one who changed the world to a better place where we can combine each other and be a human family?
I would like to talk about how I want to be remembered. I want to be remebered as an ambassador for peace and good will. I wanted to go and find Dr. Mengele, and talk to him when I danced for him. I would like to tell him I’m the girl who followed my mother to the gas chamber and you grabbed me and threw me on the other side. You told me that I’m gonna see my mother very soon. She’s just gonna take a shower.
I would like to say to everyone not to say, "yes, but." Rather, say, "yes, and." Life is difficult. Look at your birth certificate, and it doesn't say that there is a guarantee or certainty. But there is a probability that if you are more congruent, the more you understand things about anything, life is complicated. There are no simple answers. But you can be a good parent to you. Because children don't do what we say, they do what they see. The best thing for a child and your husband is to kiss them and be happy. And that's something children can hopefully see in your home.
O.M.: And we have another question which is quite complicated. To which extent do you bear living in the land where the people who committed such atrocities in Auschwitz? Can you forgive and forget that?
E.E.: No, as I said to myself, forgiving is forgiving myself. I'm not going to carry anything. I changed even in Auschwitz that I did not hate. I had pity. These people were brainwashed and they were wearing that uniform. I did not hate. I just felt sorry for them. How can anyone do anything like that? Fifteen highly educated people decided at the end of the day that they can put 30,000 Jewish people in the oven. They were actually celebrating when they found a scientific and systematic solution. It is very important for me to tell the children that I have no time to hate. Because if I lived in hate, I would still be a prisoner.
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