Legacy Pearls, Legacy Burdens

Born in Hungry, Holocaust survivor Edith Eva Eger was captive at Auschwitz in May, 1944. She was a teenager, a talented gymnast and ballerina. She narrowly escaped rape when she was forced to dance “The Blue Danube” for Nazi physician Josef Mengele. Forced labor and starvation were ever-present foes. Eger was able to claw her way to stay alive by repeating her mother’s last words (before being cast into the extermination line upon arrival at Auschwitz): “Just remember, no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your own mind.” This legacy pearl from her mother sustained Eger through terror and tragedy.

Eger did not publish her memoir, The Choice: Embrace the Possible, until age 90. Her past was submerged under post-traumatic stress wounds. She struggled as a youngster, growing up in a family where she saw herself as the “silent sister, the invisible one.” Eger later realized that her childhood identity was less about her than about parental legacy burdens of what each was missing in life.

While Eger was later able to forgive the Nazis, she found it more difficult to forgive herself. For decades she relived the selection line at Auschwitz: “Is anyone sick? Under 14? Over 40? Go left.” Eger was 16 but of slight build. Her mother saved her by admonishing her to button up her coat and stand tall, but Eger could not save her mother. Dr. Mengele pointedly asked Eger to declare if she was with her mother or her sister—Eger believed that her truthful response resulted in her mother’s death. The words, “Why didn’t I say sister?” became a burden etched in Eger’s memory: “How easily the life we didn’t live becomes the only life we prize.”  It took decades for Eger to make life-affirming choices—to accept herself, to become a clinical psychologist and serve others, and to forgive herself.

As Edith struggled with survivor’s guilt, she inadvertently passed her trauma burdens onto her children. Her younger daughter inherited a startle response, hiding under her bed when hearing an ambulance siren whiz by their home. As an adult her daughter recalled times when Eger was crying in the bathroom. Later, this daughter surfaced as a child psychologist.  

Eger writes poignantly: “My past still haunted me: an anxious, dizzy feeling every time I heard sirens, or heavy footsteps…this, I learned is trauma: a nearly constant feeling in my gut that something is wrong, or something terrible is about to happen…trauma can still rise up out of mundane encounters. A sudden sight, a particular smell, can transport me back to the past.”   

Trauma is from Greek trōma, meaning “wound.” When wounded, you feel exposed and “touchy” as your bodymind fishes for past sensations. However, you can emerge into an inner calmness of core selfhood—you temporarily lost touch with it.  

Pearls of Peace (PoP) Quiz

171. What is a legacy blessing you received?

172. When legacy burdens surface from your ancestors, what do you do with them?   

By Janis Johnston

Janis Clark Johnston, Ed.D., has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. She has worked with children, families, and groups (ages 3-83) with presenting issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and relationship concerns. She initially worked as a school psychologist in public schools and was awarded School Psychology Practitioner of the Year for Region 1 in Illinois for her innovative work. She was a supervising psychologist at a mental health center, an employee-assistance therapist and a trainer for agencies prior to having a family therapy private practice. Recipient of the 2011 Founder’s Award for her dedication to the parenting education of Parenthesis Family Center (now called New Moms), and the 2002 Community Spirit Award from Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence shelter and education center, Johnston is an active participant in numerous volunteer activities supporting children and families in her community. A frequent presenter at national psychology and educational conferences, Johnston has published journal articles, book chapters, and two books -- It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Parent Development (2013, hardback; 2019, paperback) and Midlife Maze: A Map to Recovery and Rediscovery after Loss (2017, hardback; 2019, paperback). In addition to augmenting and supporting personal growth in families, Johnston is a Master Gardener and loves nurturing growth in the plants in her yard.


  1. Jan, This is a touching and insightful read. And I love the picture!

    Have a wonderful and safe trip.




  2. I recognize this kind of trauma in my life and other family members’s lives from childhood. Thank you, I’ll look for this book.


  3. Even if we are lucky enough to have lives without such trauma as Eva’s, most of us know of someone who did experience trauma in their life. It is daunting to comprehend the inhumanity perpetrated onto innocent people. There has been yet another school shooting this week. All of us must take peaceful actions to prevent another such tragedy.


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