LA JOLLA — Edith Eva Eger is forever having flashbacks. One moment she's here with the living, and the next she's back in a Nazi concentration camp, walking with the dead.
Watching her grandson play with his toy train set, she suddenly finds herself in a crowded railroad cattle car, rumbling toward Auschwitz and the extermination ovens with thousands of other Jews.
She sees her granddaughter looking young and radiant, heading off to a junior high school dance and she begins to cry over her own stolen childhood.
At 16, Eger saw her mother and father taken off to those gaping ovens of death. She recalls the solemn smokestacks that never stopped belching their horrible black soot.
Night and day, she breathed the fumes of the "Final Solution," the Nazi annihilation of about 6 million Jews.
At Auschwitz, the young ballerina was forced to dance for the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, the prison's capricious arbiter of life and death. She was beaten by a Nazi soldier and even a fellow inmate--battered so badly that it ended her budding dance career.
Finally, huddled in the arms of her older sister, she watched tortured cellmates surrender to their basest instincts and begin cannibalizing their own dead.
Almost half a century later, Eger is still visited by these images. But they no longer hold her captive.
Instead, she uses them as mental steppingstones not only to escape the cramped cell of her past, but to liberate others from their private prisons as well.
Drawing on her experiences at Auschwitz and other Nazi camps, she helps people conquer such modern-day manacles as child and spousal abuse, severe sexual troubles and drug and alcohol habits.
She counsels AIDS patients and their spouses. She sees the shell-shocked survivors of Vietnam and the Gulf War. She comforts abused wives and talks to their domineering husbands, who are often alcoholics.
The 64-year-old licensed clinical psychologist started her psychological studies in the 1950s as a way to explore her husband's speech problems and the emotional stress over her son's cerebral palsy.
Today, she finds that the demons stalking her patients are not unlike her experiences during the Holocaust--but different.
"I look at such abused wives or children, people who have been wronged by their own families, and I see that they were much more imprisoned than I was at Auschwitz," said Eger, who volunteers at the UC San Diego psychiatry department.
"After all, I knew I would get out. I knew who my enemies were. But I just have more compassion for these women who kept their awful domestic secret for so long. And I tell them that they can confront their perpetrators. They can walk out of their own concentration camps, just like I did."
She was not always so strong, this gritty survivor who a few years ago ventured to Germany to address groups of ex-Nazis' offspring about their guilt--and who counsels the children of concentration camp survivors in the United States.
For 35 years, Eger had her secret. And her secret had her.
"For years and years, she never spoke publicly about that time in the camps," said her husband, Albert Eger, an accountant and former Czechoslovak Resistance fighter who was also briefly imprisoned.
Until 1980. Edith Eger, then a therapist working with the U.S. military, received an invitation to speak to American soldiers at a camp near Berchtesgaden, Germany--the site of Adolf Hitler's mountain retreat.
"Edie showed me the letter of invitation and said: 'No way I'll go. It brings back too many memories. No way.' I told her that was fine but to remember that, if that was the case, Hitler won the war," her husband said.
"She looked at me for a very long time and finally cried out: 'OK! You're right. I'm going! I've got to go.' And from that day on, she opened up. The memories of her time in the camps no longer held her back. It became a driving force in her life, a positive force."
It was then that she launched her work with victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome--first in El Paso and then in San Diego County, where she moved four years ago.
She is collaborating on a work of fiction, written with a German woman whose father was a Nazi, that treats the concentration camp experience from the perspective of both prisoner and perpetrator. And last year, she acted as consultant for a play about the Holocaust.
The book and performance are part of Eger's philosophy about confronting the past, the victimizer, the memory--advice she followed in 1985 when she returned to Auschwitz for the first time since her confinement there for six months in 1944.
"I lost almost my whole family to that camp and yet I never went to any funeral. For one thing, I came to honor my dead parents. And Auschwitz is the cemetery I came to. It came 40 years after the fact, this peace with my past."
Eger's ability to use her own experiences as a touchstone of compassion and understanding of the victim is invaluable, experts say.