Holocaust survivor Edith Edger speaks to Parent Institute

Rachel Baez and Sean Lee

Clinical psychologist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eger visited the school last Thursday during a Parent Institute (PI) event moderated by English Teacher Deborah Kassel and English Department Chair Vernon Wilson. Eger mainly discussed the content of her book, “The Choice,” which Kassel’s Seminar on Literary Studies: Man’s Search for Meaning through Literature and Film class studied.

Kassel has been teaching “The Choice” in her class for five years, and Dr. Eger has visited the class every year to accompany the reading, Kassel said. Eger’s book discusses how she came to terms with her experience in a concentration camp after 80 years of avoiding the subject, and how her trauma helps others in her job as a psychologist, Kassel said.

“What’s so empowering about her book is that she advocates for the idea of choice — you can’t change or revisit the past, but you can make a choice now, in this moment,” Kassel said. “In the context of the class, some of the topics we discuss are genocide, the banality of evil, and why good people do bad things, becoming complicit and complacent about participating in an immoral system. This is just one part of it.”

This year, Director of HM Parent Institute Wendy Reiter wanted Eger to speak to parents as well, due to her background in psychology with a focus on trauma and PTSD. Previous guests at the PI have included psychologists and child specialists, Reiter said. “This year, one of my initiatives for the Parent Institute is about communication,” Reiter said. “Dr. Eger is an effective communicator and believes in the power of communication, the importance of strong, positive relationships — this is what has carried her throughout her entire life.”

In addition, Reiter wanted to incorporate presentations and books about different aspects of representation, she said. “I want to help parents become sensitized and educated far more about their peers in the community, the varying diverse cultures that are represented within our community.” 

Having Eger talk to parents and students about her experience in Auschwitz helped the community understand the lives of many Jewish survivors of World War II, furthering understanding of personal connections that some members of the school community have to this tragedy, Reiter said.

Kassel believed that Eger’s visit was timely. “All history has to be preserved, especially at a time where things are being erased. There is a rise in anti-Semitism and hate crimes in general, which are disturbingly ignored or underreported,” she said. “As a teacher of English, I try to instill students with a moral obligation to wrestle with any internalized bias and embrace every person’s ‘difference’ with compassion and respect.”

Corey Brooks (12), a student in the class, enjoyed Eger’s talk about her book because it brought a new dimension to the story, he said. “Listening to a Holocaust survivor story is one thing, but being able to put a face to the story resonated a lot further to me,” Brooks said. During Eger’s visit, Brooks asked about the role of Jewish people within the media and how to keep the legacy of the Holocaust alive without tokenizing it. Corey had summarize her response as “It’s all about keeping the stories alive, because ultimately you can find out all of the facts, read a million books, or explore beyond that, but it is not until you have an emotional connection to the Holacaust that you can personally do your best to remember or care for the event,” according to Brooks.

Elliot Konopko P ’20 P ’25 was impressed by Eger’s intelligence and fortitude. “I thought her construct about the need and ability of everyone, especially adults, to view themselves as parents to themselves to maintain strength and balance in life was useful information for parents and students in the Upper Division as they prepare to graduate and leave home.”

Kassel’s students discussed the visit in class, Kassel said. “Some students have direct, personal connections to the Holocaust, and others were moved by her messages about mental health, resilliance, and living a giving life,” she said. “She’s an amazing human being who is the ultimate emblem of strength and compassion, whose purpose is to empower others to help themselves.”

Kassel emphasized Eger’s belief that there is no hierarchy to suffering, as people may suffer for reasons that others may not see. “As a clinical psychologist, University of California professor, and consultant to the U.S. Navy and Army for soldiers suffering from PTSD, Dr. Eger has worked through her own past trauma in a concentration camp to help others who have experienced all different kinds of pain—no matter what the source—to help each individual to ‘free themselves from the prisons of their own minds,’” Kassel said.

Eger’s resilience and positive outlook about life stood out to Reiter. “It’s just her incredible positivity and genuine love and appreciation of life,” she said. “Anyone at that event had to be extraordinarily struck and emotionally moved by her ability to promote so much love and positive resilience during challenging times.”