We can all become heroes. We do not need superpowers, nor skin that makes bullets bounce off, nor massive muscles, nor a mastermind, nor special talents – “you can become a hero and you can do it today!” This was the message of Philip Zimbardo, an American social psychologist, to the audience at a Heroes Square initiative gathering late in June. Holocaust survivor Edith Eger went a step further: even if you go through hell, you can emerge as a hero.
The Heroes Square initiative says: “We would like to live in a world where we have the courage to stand up and act for others every day. The initiative provides a platform for all individuals, civil organisations and companies that share our opinion: we need everyday heroes, who inspire others around them. Through this, a long-lasting, positive change may start.”
Many in the audience suppressed tears as Eger told the story of her survival. She was the youngest daughter of a Jewish tailor in Budapest, and she was transported to Auschwitz just as she turned 16. Her sister, a talented violinist, managed to hide and avoid deportation.
Their father, a stubborn man, was shot upon arrival at the concentration camp because he refused to shave his head. The remaining two children were ripped from their mother’s arms still on the ramp leading off the train, and she continued her way to the gas chamber.
Edith and her sister Magda were saved only by luck and instinct. The talented Edith entertained Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”, with private ballet presentations, and in return she got a piece of bread and more time to live.
“I did what the victims of violence often do: I dissociated,” Eger said of her encounter with Mengele. “I imagined that the music is from Tchaikovsky and I am dancing on the stage of the Budapest Opera in the role of Julia.”.
Born in Eger, she went to work in the US as a psychologist. During her Heroes Square initiative presentation, Eger held a stone, the same kind you can find between railway tracks. It symbolises her past because it used to be part of Auschwitz, part of the path that the doomed ones took on their way to the crematoriums.
The stone has become a sort of lucky charm. Zimbardo said it is a reminder of how Eger has managed to turn a life in hell on Earth into heaven. Her audience saw a wonder: a small and fragile 86-year-old without bitterness and full of joy. As a proof that Auschwitz and Mengele did not break her spirit, she grabbed the five-years-younger Zimbardo and performed a little dance for the surprised audience.
Victim or survivor?
Nowadays Eger mainly treats people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, and she often asks herself: what makes the difference between the “victims”, who are broken down by their fate, and the “survivors”, who come out from their traumatic experiences stronger than before? According to her, the victims are ruined often by the fact that they cannot let their past go. They cannot forgive, their thoughts return again and again to the insult that was committed against them, and they see the difficulties in the present as consequences of the past.
When The Budapest Times asked whether the Hungarians are rather victims or survivors of their own difficult history, the Hungarian woman answered: “In a way we are all victims of victims. However, I think that Hungarians are brilliant survival artists. I was here in the 1980s when the Hungarians brought together Eastern and Western Germans by the Pan-European breakfast, and Hungarians flowered even through communism and made the best out of it.”
There is a hero within every Hungarian, Eger thinks, and she encourages her fellow citizens to think big. “Who thinks small stays small. You are not stones that are just watching passively.”
“You are what you do“
The Heroes Square initiative is a platform for private people, civil organisations and companies, which share the opinion that the world needs everyday heroes, who inspire others and thus start a long-term positive change. Everyone can become a hero,
if they have the right attitude. But…
What is keeping you from becoming a hero?
According to the Heroes Square initiative the following reasons are the most important ones keeping people from backing up others in situations of need:
- We are judging the other person’s situation based on stereotypes –
“He brought it upon himself, let’s see how he gets out of it”
- We do not take responsibility for the situation –
“Someone else will intervene for sure”
- We do not want to stick out from the crowd –
“When no one else is doing anything, I won’t either”
- We think that we cannot change and we cannot change others –
“I was never made to become a hero”
The initiative is aiming at destroying these limitations through special trainings, which are based on the result of research by Heroic Imagination Projects, a research group led by American social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who supports his Hungarian colleagues. You can read more about the Heroes Square initiative in our next edition.