Edith Eger was just 16 when she and her family were sent to Auschwitz in 1944. She accidentally sentenced her mother to death by revealing she was over 40. Here's her story.

WARNING: Disturbing content

Music is playing as we arrive at Auschwitz. It's a cold dawn in April 1944 and we've just been decanted from a cattle car, in which several people have died along the way.

But my father has just spied a big sign above the gates: "Arbeit macht frei," it says - work sets you free. He is suddenly cheerful.

"You see," he says, "it can't be a terrible place. We'll only work a little, till the war's over."

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The Elefant Family in Czechoslovakia in 1928 (left to right: Helen, Edie, Magda, Klara, Ludwig). Photo / Supplied
The Elefant Family in Czechoslovakia in 1928 (left to right: Helen, Edie, Magda, Klara, Ludwig). Photo / Supplied

If the platform weren't so crowded, I swear he'd break into a dance.

Soldiers start herding the men into a separate line - maybe they are being sent on ahead, to stake out a place for their families. I wonder where we'll sleep tonight. I wonder when we'll eat.

My mother, my elder sister Magda and I stand in a long line of women and children, inching towards a man with cold and domineering eyes. I don't yet know that this man is Dr Josef Mengele, the infamous Angel of Death.

As we draw near, I see a boyish flash of gapped teeth when he grins. His voice is almost kind when he asks if anyone is sick. Or over 40 or under 14. When someone says yes, he sends them to a line on the left.

My mother has grey hair but her face is as smooth and unlined as mine. She could pass for my sister. Magda and I squeeze her between us and we walk three abreast.

"Button your coat," says my mother. "Stand tall." There is a purpose to her nagging. I am slim and flat-chested, and she wants me to look every day of my 16 years. Unlike me, she has realised my survival depends on it.

Our turn now. Mengele lifts his finger. "Is she your mother or your sister?" he asks.

I cling to my mother's hand. But I don't think about which word will protect her. I don't think at all. "Mother," I say.

As soon as the word is out of my mouth, I want to pull it back into my throat. Too late, I have realised the significance of the question. "Sister, sister!" I want to scream.

Mengele points my mother to the left. Panicking, I start to run after her but he grabs my shoulder.

"You'll see your mother very soon," he says. "She's just going to take a shower." He pushes me to the right. Toward Magda. Towards life. My mother turns to look at me and smiles. It is a small, sad smile.

Magda and I are marched off to stand in front of some low buildings. We are surrounded by thin women in striped dresses. One reaches for the tiny coral earrings, set in gold, that have been in my ears since birth. She yanks and I feel a sharp sting.

"Why did you do that?" I ask. "I'd have given you the earrings."

She sneers. "I was rotting here while you were free."

I wonder how long she has been here and why she is so angry. "When will I see my mother?" I ask her. "I was told I'd see her soon."

She gives me a cold, sharp stare. There is no empathy in her eyes; just rage. She points to the smoke rising from a distant chimney.

"Your mother is burning in there," she says. "You'd better start talking about her in the past tense."

Shoes of the people deported in Auschwitz concentration camp. Photo / File / 123RF
Shoes of the people deported in Auschwitz concentration camp. Photo / File / 123RF

'We don't know what's going to happen'

Just a month before, I had been a pretty ordinary teenager - but with an extraordinary ambition. I wanted to represent Hungary at the Olympics.

For years I'd done five hours of rigorous ballet practice every day after school; then I'd discovered gymnastics and joined an Olympic training team.

Recently, my teacher had taken me aside. She was crying. My team place had to go to someone else, she said, because I was Jewish.

I wasn't the only one with a talent. My sexy and flirtatious sister Magda played the piano, and our middle sister Klara had mastered the Mendelssohn violin concerto when she was five.

She was away studying music in Budapest on the night the Germans came for us. Storming into our flat, they told us we were being resettled and had to leave now.

Despite a chill in the air, I put on a thin blue silk dress - the one I'd been wearing when my boyfriend Eric gave me my first kiss. It made me feel protected.

Daylight was breaking as we arrived at a large brick factory, where 12,000 Jews would be held for nearly a month without beds, running water or adequate rations. A girl only a little older than me tried to run away. The Nazis hanged her in the middle of the camp as an example.

All too soon we were on our way to Auschwitz, 100 of us crammed in each cattle car. For what seemed like days, my parents didn't speak.

Then, one night, I heard my mother's voice in the dark.

"Listen. We don't know where we're going. We don't know what's going to happen. Just remember, no one can take away from you what you've put in your mind."

Her words helped to save my life.

I am in shock. I can't picture my mother being consumed by flames. I can't fully grasp that she has gone. And I can't even grieve. Not now. It will take all my concentration to survive the next minute, the next breath.

Night is falling when we are marched to gloomy, primitive barracks where we will sleep on tiered shelves, six to a board.

With our bunkmates, Magda and I try lying on the top tier. Then I hear the sound of woodwind and strings and think I must be imagining it. An inmate quickly explains that the camp has an orchestra.

The door rattles open. On the threshold is the uniformed officer from the selection line.
Dr Mengele, it turns out, is not only a killer but also a lover of the arts. He trawls the barracks in the evenings in search of talented inmates to entertain him.

He walks in tonight with his entourage, casting his eye over the new arrivals. The inmates already know I'm a trained ballerina and they push me forward.

"Little dancer," Dr Mengele says, his eyes bulging, "dance for me."

The familiar opening strains of The Blue Danube waltz filter into the room. I'm lucky. I know a routine to this. As I step, bend and twirl, he never takes his eyes off me. But he also attends to his duties as he watches. I can hear him discussing with another officer which one of the 100 girls in our barracks should be killed next.

If I do anything to displease him, it could be me.

I'm dancing in Hell. I close my eyes and hear my mother's words again: "Just remember, no one can take away from you what you've put in your own mind."

And as I dance, I have a piercing insight. Dr Mengele, the man who has just murdered my parents, is more pitiful than me. I'm free in my mind, which he can never be. He will always have to live with what he has done.

I close my routine by doing the splits, and pray he won't kill me. But he must like my performance because he tosses me a loaf of bread - a gesture, it turns out, that will later save my life. When he leaves, I share the bread with all my bunkmates.

'My little dancer. Come.'

After that, I work hard at developing my inner voice. This is temporary, I tell myself. If I survive today, tomorrow I'll be free.

One day, as I'm taking a shower with other inmates, I notice a sudden quiet. I feel a chill in my gut. The man I fear above all others is at the door, gazing right at me.

"You!" Dr Mengele calls. "My little dancer. Come."

He leads me, naked and wet, down a hall and into an office with a desk and chair. He leans against the desk and looks me over, taking his time. I hope whatever he plans to do to me will be over quickly.

"Come closer," he says, and I inch forward, shaking. I can smell menthol. His fingers are working over his coat buttons. I am naked with my mother's killer.

Just as I'm close enough for him to touch me, a phone rings in another room. He flinches. He rebuttons his coat. "Don't move," he orders as he opens the door.

I hear him pick up the phone in the next room, his voice neutral and curt. And I run for my life.

The next thing I know, I'm sitting beside Magda as we devour the daily ladle of weak broth, with little pieces of potato skin bobbing up like scabs. But the fear never goes away - that he'll find me again, that he'll finish what he started, that he'll select me for death.

As the months go by, we starve and lose strength. In our heads, though, it's a different story: we spend most of our time cooking.

At 4am roll-call in the freezing dark, we can smell the rich aroma of meat we have just roasted. We give each other cooking lessons; we salivate over our imaginary dishes; we fight over how much paprika you put in Hungarian chicken paprikash, or how to make the best seven-layer chocolate cake.

I try to blank out the horrors. The day SS officers tie a boy to a tree and use his limbs for target practice. The day a woman goes into labour and they tie her legs together. I have never seen such agony.

One day, an officer separates us all into two lines. It's impossible to tell which one leads to death.

Magda and I are in different lines. Nothing matters except that I stay with my sister; even if she's in the death line, I want to die with her.

I don't have a plan. And then I'm suddenly doing cartwheels, hands to earth, feet to sky. I expect a bullet at any second but I can't stop myself.

A guard raises his gun. But he doesn't shoot; he winks at me. In the few seconds that I hold his complete attention, Magda has run across the yard into my line.

Now they are herding 100 of us towards the platform. As we stand there, waiting to climb a narrow ramp into a cattle car, the Russians are approaching Poland from one side, the Americans from the other. The Nazis have decided to evacuate Auschwitz, bit by bit.

I lose track of the time we are in motion. We end up working at a thread factory. After a few weeks, the SS come for us one morning with striped dresses to replace our grey ones.

We board a train carrying ammunition. This time we are forced to sit on top of the cars - human decoys to discourage the British from bombing the train, but they do anyway.

Somehow, Magda and I survive. We get off the train and march, maybe for weeks. There are fewer of us every day. The roadside ditches run red with blood from those shot in the back or the chest - those who tried to run, those who couldn't keep up.

We've gone without food for days and now we are at Mauthausen, a concentration camp at a quarry, where prisoners have to hack and carry the granite destined for Hitler's new Berlin.

Rumours shudder down the line. They make you stand along the so-called Parachutist's Wall, at the edge of a cliff. At gunpoint, you then have to choose: either push the inmate beside you off the cliff or be shot yourself. Magda and I agree to push each other.

Night falls and word goes round: we'll be killed tomorrow. Have we really been marched these many hundreds of miles only to die? What has it all meant? I think of my boyfriend Eric's voice and lips. If I die tomorrow, I'll die a virgin.

I wonder what a man looks like naked. There are naked dead men all around me: it wouldn't hurt their pride for me to have a look. Afterwards, I feel satisfied: at least I won't die ignorant.

At daybreak the line starts to move. Some wail. Some pray. Everyone is being sent in the same direction. It really is the end.

And then the line stops. We are led towards a crowd of SS guards by a gate. "If you fall behind, you'll be shot," they shout at us.

We limp on. A march of skeletons from Mauthausen to Gunskirchen. It is a relatively short distance, about 50km (31 miles) or so, but we are so weak that only 100 of the 2000 of us will survive.

Magda and I cling to each other, determined to stay upright. Each hour, hundreds of girls fall into the ditches on either side of the road. Too weak or too ill to keep moving, they are killed on the spot.

Every part of me is in pain. I don't realise I've stumbled until I feel arms lifting me. Magda and other girls have laced their fingers together to form a human chair.

"You shared your bread," one of them says. A girl who shared Mengele's loaf with me nearly a year ago has recognised me.

When we stop marching, we are crowded into huts where we sleep three deep. If someone below us dies, we don't have the strength to haul them away.

It is now five or six months since we left Auschwitz. I can no longer walk. Although I don't know it yet, I have a fractured spine and I'm suffering from pleurisy, typhoid fever and pneumonia.

Here, in hell, I watch a man eat human flesh. I can't do it; I eat grass and try to stay conscious.

Once, I see Magda crawling back to me with a Red Cross can of sardines that glints in the sun. But there's no way to open it.

One day, the SS rig the ground around us with dynamite. With my eyes closed, I wait for the explosion that will consume us in its flames.

'The Americans are here!'

Nothing happens. I open my eyes and see jeeps rolling slowly in through the pine forest that obscures the camp from the road. Feeble voices shout: "The Americans are here!"

Watching from the tangle of bodies, I see men in fatigues. I see an American handing cigarettes to inmates, who are so hungry that they eat them.

"Are there any living here?" the Americans call out in German. "Raise your hand if you're alive."
I try to move but I can't. A soldier shouts something in English. They are leaving.

And then a patch of light explodes on the ground. The sun is flashing on Magda's sardine tin. Whether on purpose or by accident, she has caught the soldiers' attention with a tin of fish.

I feel a man touching my hand. He presses something into it. Beads. Red, brown, green, yellow.

"Food," the soldier says. He helps me lift my hand to my mouth. I taste chocolate.

He pulls the dead away from me, and now Magda is beside me in the grass. She is holding her can of sardines.

We have survived the final selection. We are alive. We are together. We are free.

Could I have saved my mother?

After recuperating, Magda and I were reunited with Klara. My boyfriend Eric had died in Auschwitz the day before liberation.

At 19 I married Bela, a Slovakian whose mother had been gassed at the camp. He wasn't the love of my life but he made me laugh and feel protected. Later we'd have three children, divorce and marry each other again.

In 1949, my husband, Magda and I emigrated to the US, where she worked as a piano teacher and I did a PhD in clinical psychology, becoming an expert on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was helping others but it was years before I felt free in my own mind.

Could I have saved my mother? Maybe. I can continue blaming myself for ever for making the wrong choice - or I can accept that the more important choice is not the one I made when I was 16 and hungry and terrified, when we were surrounded by dogs and guns and uncertainty.

It's the one I make now, to accept myself as I am: human, imperfect. The choice to stop asking why I deserved to survive. The choice to stop running from the past.

This story originally appeared in the Daily Mail
- Adapted from The Choice, by Edith Eger (Rider & Co).