From Holocaust to healer, one woman’s lifelong work as a trauma counselor

Seventy years after the end of World War II, Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eger is still motivated by the fear and determination that shaped her experience in Europe’s concentration camps. It was during her time in Auschwitz that Eger discovered her inner strength, and began to look at her life from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in.

Eger was raised in Hungary, where she lived with her family until they were arrested and transported to Auschwitz in 1944. Both of Eger’s parents were killed in the camp. Eger was eventually transported to Gunskirchen Lager, another concentration camp in Austria. It was there that she would liberated by the Army’s 71st Infantry Division just days before the United States would declare victory in Europe.

“I think Auschwitz was an opportunity to discover traits I never thought were possible,” Eger said of her experience.

She now uses those traits to help others, working as a psychologist out of her home in La Jolla, Calif. At 87, she still has an active career and a full clientele, and even recently consulted on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with current members of the same military unit that saved and freed her in 1945.

It’s these skills and experiences that Rachel Chiavaras hopes Eger will bring to Seattle at her talk on February 6 about the art of survival. Chiavaras is the founder of Calvin’s Kids, an organization that provides therapy to children who have suffered abuse, neglect, or other trauma.  The Washington State Psychological Association is hosting Eger’s talk, which is being hosted by Calvin’s Kids and Seattle law firm Williams Kastner.

“This is the first of many years, I hope, of bringing in people who have gone through things that are courageous,” Chiavaras said of the event. Her goal is to show people that “we can go through things in life and come out on the other side and make something of it,” much as Eger did.

Chiavaras, who is currently working on her Ph.D. in psychology, was inspired to start Calvin’s Kids after seeing the suffering of families whose children were in life-threatening situations. The organization is named for Chiavaras’s dog, Calvin, who she adopted from the Seattle Humane Society four years ago. During their walks around their neighborhood, near Seattle Children’s Hospital, Calvin unwittingly provided comfort to a number of agonized parents and patients.

“People would just get on their knees and hold onto him and cry,” Chiavaras said. “Lots of times, I would never even say a word.”

Chiavaras is hopeful that Eger’s message and outlook on life can bring comfort to those in the community who are dealing with trauma or loss. Eger herself has said that she looks forward to talking to her audience about the difference between curing and healing, and about the spiritual dimension of healing — what she calls “the third dimension, beyond the body and mind.”

More than anything, both Eger and Chiavaras want people to understand that there is life after trauma.

“It’s not what happens,” said Eger. “It’s what you do with it.”

If you go: Dr. Eger’s talk, “The Art of Survival,” will take place on Fri., February 6 from 6 to 9 p.m. at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle. Tickets are $45 and can be purchased online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/906342. For more information, contact Rachel Chiavaras at 206-769-9480 or rachel@calvinskids.org.

This piece originally appeared on The Jewish Sound.

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