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Dr. Grauer's Column - Lunch and Love, with Dr. Edie Eger

Join Dr. Grauer in a profound conversation with Dr. Edith Eger, psychotherapist and inspiring Holocaust survivor. Dr. Edie imparts timeless wisdom on living fully in the present, the power of healing, and the art of transforming life’s deepest challenges into strength and love.

Lunch and Love, with Dr. Edie Eger
By Stuart Grauer

On a calm April morning, I got out of some glassy surf feeling alive and headed into the day, the day I was to visit Dr. Edie Eger. It was nice to have time for things like lunches. I like being Head of School Eemeritus, and slowing down a little. I am starting to taste my food, and I can hang out with a friend with less distraction, even though the incessant, streaming news is like a bunch of disjointed items that I keep moving in and out of, like going on a hike on a mountain one moment, the next a city in ruins, like flash cards, all disguised as being in the same world.
 
In that shapeshifting, online world, it was a day of Taylor Swift releasing a new album, the US passing a bill to aid Israel, and also the day after they bombed Iran in a retaliatory strike, and there was a bumper lettuce crop at The Grauer School here in Encinitas. I wound my way up to around the top of Mount Soledad to visit with a dear old friend Dr. Edith Eger, renowned psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor whose story has empowered the world. I knew Edie’s world would be different. 

Dr. Stuart Grauer and Dr. Edith Eger - 2009

I was trying to figure out about how or whether to breach the topic of atrocities in Israel and Gaza with her. I remembered back to her book, “The Choice,” about how she longed for the Great War to end so she might be able to go to the milk and honey land of Palestine, the ancient Israel land.  

At the close of World War II when Edie was freed and let out of Auschwitz, Palestine was inhabited by a diverse population, primarily Palestinian Arabs and a significant number of Jewish immigrants. The lives of these groups contrasted sharply with those of the Jews in European ghettos. Palestinian Arabs generally lived in rural areas and towns, with a lifestyle rooted in old, local traditions and community life. In contrast, pre-war European Jews had often been confined to overcrowded ghettos where economic opportunities were severely restricted, and they faced systemic discrimination and violence. Once in Palestine, Jewish immigrants experienced a shift from the oppression and confinement experienced in European ghettos. 

All of this is to say that Palestinians and European Jews might have felt like strange, unlikely bedfellows. And yet, both groups, in their traditional settings, generally lived peacefully, focusing on their communities and cultures. 

What has happened since we put them together could never have been predicted. The nightmare level of hatred and pain wracking the whole world today felt too great to bring up with Dr. Edie.

Edie, Dr. Edie as I call her, was made a Teacher Emeritus of The Grauer School maybe fifteen years ago, our first teacher with such a title. She launched her bestselling book, “The Choice,” in 2017, at The Grauer School and refused to stop signing books until about half of the more than 400 in attendance were satisfied. She was already in her late 80's then and had amazing stamina. If you have not read “The Choice,” it is way up there with “Man’s Search for Meaning” in warmth and profundity, as Shoah memoirs go.

Now Dr. Edie is 96, I was missing her, and I drove her favorite sushi up the hill for lunch with her. It was a striking day from there up high, with a soft blue sky and gentle wind. The houses up there are like viewing machines, and hers looks dramatically west and north up the Pacific.

Dr. Stuart Grauer introducing Dr. Eger at the launch of her book, "The Choice" - October 2017

She looks the same, and calls everyone “darling” or “precious.” “I live in the present,” she said in her Hungarian accent as we sat down, like a warmup. Over the sushi, I said I thought she might enjoy me interviewing her for a column, she seemed happy about that, and I took out my notepad. But it turned out that she was beyond most of the questions I could think of. 

“Have you listened to Taylor Swift?” I opened with. No answer.

“Have you used AI?” 

“What is that?” and I gave a useless explanation. I looked at my question list and it instantly seemed ridiculous.  

Pretty soon, as always happens around her, I started losing track of whether I was just hanging out with an old friend, or in therapy where I was unintentionally revealing things that only she saw. A good deal of what she advised me had to do with the relationships that form between men and women and is not for an independent school leader blog posting. She spoke so unfiltered that I started thinking about what I would say, too, if I had nothing to lose. 

Then I asked about her homeland, a topic she always embraced. She described going to Budapest and sharing the exquisite goulash, and how after that the President of Hungary came to her house, sat just where I was sitting, and awarded her with ribboned metals:  the Order of Merit of Hungary, the Civilian Metal for Bravery, and a couple others like the kind that hang from valor crosses and get pinned on formal gowns, royal attire, or military uniforms.

“You are still giving therapy!” I explained, and she said she tries to help clients and that it is exhausting, though compelling. The best she says she can do is just listen and affirm. “Sometimes I feel dumb,” she explained, but it was not really self-effacing. It was the simple acknowledgement that understanding and affirming is fundamental work of true listening. “Don’t advise,” was the therapeutic advice I got from her. 

And this, she advised: “Write every day.” [I do.] “…Your book is going to be a best seller,” she was sure, and offered to help me with it. My goal with it is to weave the natural world deeply into the narrative of education, to lead not just academically but environmentally. The book better be good and clear before I show it to her, I thought. 

We both have direct family in Austin and New York. We shared some stories of her children in those places, and about my late mother, Priscilla, who was a character like Edie, never afraid to speak her mind unfiltered, who found either humor or good in everyone, and who Edie loved and visited in Austin. I think Edie thinks women are the hope of the world. Hard to argue that one.

She eats only the salmon part of the sushi, meticulously, and not the rice, and she drinks ginger ale. Her assistant brought out her newest book published in 2022, called, “The Gift: 14 Lessons to Save Your Life,” that I embarrassingly was not aware of. As she signed it, I tried to find a way to pay her and eventually she just said to pay her one dollar, which I did, and she took the dollar bill. 

Dr. Eger speaking at The Grauer School, at the launch of her book "The Choice" - October 2017

She showed me her book “La Ballerina de Auschwitz,” which has only been in Spanish, but it is coming out soon in English for the first time. This is a young adult book covering her encounter with Mengele. Josef Mengele, known as the "Angel of Death," was a Nazi doctor notorious for conducting inhumane experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. He made Edie, at age 16, dance ballet before him. Her acquiescence is a life metaphor too big to fully comprehend, but also endlessly poignant. 

“I always wanted to look up Mengele in Chile where he fled and to knock on his door,” she said, in that warm, resonant with experience, tremulous voice. “I never got there.” I thought the book was like that knock, though, and that it was published in Spanish so it might reach him in Chile—or, in fact, Brazil and Argentina was where history places him, not Chile, but no matter. (Confusion about Nazi refugees’ whereabouts was/is not uncommon.) When Edie’s book comes out in English, soon, I will see if she wants to launch it at our school. But she is 96. 

“Why do so many men try to control others and dominate situations?” I wondered. 

“Men are not men if they are not considerate,” she came back.  “Control… it goes from generation to generation, handed down,” she explained. A cycle like this is hard to break but must still be broken. So, it’s true, to change the world we may have to change our genes. 

“I have people like that,” I said. “Control people.”

“A man like that, Stuart, darling, bring him to me and I will give him a free therapy session.” It may come to that. 

She said she can talk about almost anything but not money and death. Then she described the scene in the Nazi concentration camp when a guard pointed up to the chimney. “You see that smoke, that is your mother,” he told her. I recalled again how she had aspired to go to the land then still called Palestine after the war, like a dream, though she would end up in California. It seems amazing that so many groups seem to coexist in California, despite how discouraging the news is these days.

And now I wanted to ask her about Israel today, the war and strife, but I did not have the heart or mind to do it, and I thought the best psychologist in the world could not make sanity out of what is going on in that land today. I hoped she was not reading the news, and that she was in the present moment just as she said she was. I drew lines through more of my interview questions. I don’t remember why, and I had stopped writing, but I said I was afraid of dying still, but only when I was really visualizing deeply, really “going there.”

Dr Grauer and Dr Edie, thumbs up at recent lunch in La Jolla - April 19, 2024

She is too, she said, but she is clear what she wants out of living: “I want to be someone who did everything in their power to see that what I went through will never happen again.” So, she had not read the news. I’m happy she plays the long game. Her life is a monument to her wish.

She believes that we cannot stand by and abide by what is wrong. She believes “it is important to talk to everyone politely,” as she does, but she believes even more that our life does the talking. And our attitude, and the love we give. She believes in love and is sure that we can be good lovers, this I can print. She has three children, five grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren.

She’s everyone’s grandma and, in beautiful cursive, she signed my copy of her book with "Warm Hugs, Grandma Edie,” and then I headed back down Mount Soledad, which felt metaphorical, dropping down from some kind of higher understanding, sure I had received all 14 lessons, or more, for a dollar, all of which mean just this to me as I hope they will to you: lead with a legacy in mind.

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Dr. Stuart Grauer and Dr. Edith Eger - 2009

Dr. Stuart Grauer introducing Dr. Eger at the launch of her book, "The Choice" - October 2017

Dr. Eger speaking at The Grauer School, at the launch of her book "The Choice" - October 2017

Dr Grauer and Dr Edie, thumbs up at recent lunch in La Jolla - April 19, 2024

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