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To my patients. You are my teachers. You gave me the courage to return to Auschwitz and to begin my journey toward forgiveness and freedom. You continue to inspire me through your honesty and courage.



I learned how to live at a death camp

In the spring of 1944, I was sixteen, living with my parents and two older sisters in Kassa, Hungary. There were signs of war and prejudice all around us. The yellow stars we wore pinned to our coats. The Hungarian Nazis—nyilas—who occupied our old apartment. Newspaper accounts of battlefronts and German occupation spreading across Europe. The worried glances my parents exchanged at the table. The awful day when I was cut from the Olympic gymnastics team because I was Jewish. Yet I had been blissfully preoccupied with ordinary teenage concerns. I was in love with my first boyfriend, Eric, the tall, intelligent boy I’d met in book club. I replayed our first kiss and admired the new blue silk dress that my father had designed for me. I marked my progress in the ballet and gymnastics studio, and joked with Magda, my beautiful eldest sister, and Klara, who was studying violin at a conservatory in Budapest.

And then everything changed.

One cold dawn in April the Jews of Kassa were rounded up and imprisoned in an old brick factory at the edge of town. A few weeks later, Magda and my parents and I were loaded into a cattle car bound for Auschwitz. My parents were murdered in the gas chambers the day we arrived.

My first night in Auschwitz, I was forced to dance for SS officer Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death, the man who had scrutinized the new arrivals as we came through the selection line that day and sent my mother to her death. “Dance for me!” he ordered, and I stood on the cold concrete floor of the barracks, frozen with fear. Outside, the camp orchestra began to play a waltz, “The Blue Danube.” Remembering my mother’s advice—No one can take from you what you’ve put in your mind—I closed my eyes and retreated to an inner world. In my mind, I was no longer imprisoned in a death camp, cold and hungry and ruptured by loss. I was on the stage of the Budapest opera house, dancing the role of Juliet in Tchaikovsky’s ballet. From within this private refuge I willed my arms to lift and my legs to twirl. I summoned the strength to dance for my life.

Each moment in Auschwitz was hell on earth. It was also my best classroom. Subjected to loss, torture, starvation, and the constant threat of death, I discovered the tools for survival and freedom that I continue to use every day in my clinical psychology practice as well as in my own life.

As I write this introduction in the fall of 2019, I am ninety-two. I earned my doctorate in clinical psychology in 1978 and I’ve been treating patients in a therapeutic setting for over forty years. I have worked with combat veterans and survivors of sexual assault; students, civic leaders, and CEOs; people battling addiction and those struggling with anxiety and depression; couples grappling with resentment and those longing to rekindle intimacy; parents and children learning how to live together and those discovering how to live apart. As a psychologist; as a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother; as an observer of my own and others’ behavior; and as an Auschwitz survivor, I am here to tell you that the worst prison is not the one the Nazis put me in. The worst prison is the one I built for myself.

Although our lives have probably been very different, perhaps you know what I mean. Many of us experience feeling trapped in our minds. Our thoughts and beliefs determine, and often limit, how we feel, what we do, and what we think is possible. In my work I’ve discovered that while our imprisoning beliefs show up and play out in unique ways, there are some common mental prisons that contribute to suffering. This book is a practical guide to help us identify our mental prisons and develop the tools we need to become free.

The foundation of freedom is the power to choose. In the final months of the war, I had very few options, and no way to escape. Hungarian Jews had been among the last in Europe to be deported to death camps, and after eight months in Auschwitz, just before the Russian army defeated Germany, my sister and I and a hundred other prisoners were evacuated from Auschwitz and marched from Poland, through Germany, to Austria. We performed slave labor in factories along the way, and rode on top of trains transporting German ammunition, our bodies used as human shields to protect the cargo from British bombs. (The British bombed the trains anyway.)

When my sister and I were liberated at Gunskirchen—a concentration camp in Austria—in May 1945, a little over a year after we’d been taken prisoner, my parents and almost all the people I knew were dead. My back had broken from constant physical abuse. I was starving, covered in sores, and could barely move from where I lay in a pile of corpses; people who had been sick and starving like me, whose bodies had given up. I couldn’t undo what had been done to me. I couldn’t control how many people the Nazis

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