Finding meaning in the horrors of a deathcamp
The author was Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and a Jew, who spent about three years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz. His father, mother, brother and his pregnant wife all perished in the camps.
Frankl was astonishingly productive and soon after he was released in April 1945, he was back at work. The next year he wrote his memoir of Auschwitz. In German the title of the first edition was Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager, which translates roughly as “In spite of everything, say Yes to life: a psychologist’s experience of the concentration camp”. Later he added a section reflecting on his experiences and sketching what became the third school of Viennese psychology, logotherapy.
Man’s Search for Meaning was an immediate best-seller which made the author famous around the world. By the time of his death in 1997, it had sold more than 10 million copies.
It’s astonishingly contemporary, for more than any other book I’ve read, it speaks to the anxieties of a society in which suffering has no meaning and euthanasia seems like a plausible solution to life’s pain.
The horror of the Holocaust has been chronicled in thousands of books. Frankl’s brief reminiscences are different. They are not lurid stories of sadism, despair and death. Rather, he asks himself: how did we survive? Only one in 28 did. It was not uncommon to see prisoners give up. They no longer desired to live and in a few days, death carried them off.
This was a question which had been with him from the beginning of his professional life. In 1930, as a young doctor he organised a special counselling program for young people. In 1931, for the first time in years, there were no youth suicide in Vienna. For several years he also ran a clinic for women battling suicidal thoughts.
At Auschwitz suicide was a temptation, but relatively few “ran into the wire”. When someone began to speak about suicide, the other prisoners tried to talk them out of it. Frankl saw what kind of arguments brought the desire to live back. He found that when people believed that they were irreplaceable, they felt a responsibility to persevere. “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’."
In one remarkable vignette, Frankl recalled the misery of one night in the barracks when 2,500 men were starved for a day after a prisoner stole a few potatoes. As they lay in the dark, the warden of the block asked Frankl to explain why they should keep on living. It was an impossible request, but he rose to the occasion. First he quoted Nietsche: “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger”. The dreadful experiences of the camp would make them strong and resolute. He looked then to the future: it was possible that they could survive. And then to the past, citing a German poet, “What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you”.
And finally, he argued that they could give their lives a meaning. Even if their struggle was hopeless, it still had dignity. “I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours—a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God—and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly—not miserably—knowing how to die. “ He continued:
“Our sacrifice did have a meaning. Those of us who had any religious faith, I said frankly, could understand without difficulty. I told them of a comrade who on his arrival in camp had tried to make a pact with Heaven that his suffering and death should save the human being he loved from a painful end. For this man, suffering and death were meaningful; his was a sacrifice of the deepest significance. He did not want to die for nothing. None of us wanted that.”When the lights went on again, his fellow prisoners stumbled toward him to thank him for giving them the strength to go on.
Frankl was a devout Jew, but his theory, which he called logotherapy, was not meant just for believers. Its cornerstone was the observation that the strongest impulse in human life is not food, or sex, or money, but the search for meaning. With meaning, we can endure anything; we can even find happiness amidst the desolation of a concentration camp. Without it, the smallest obstacles become unbearable burdens.
In fact, obstacles are essential for the growth of our humanity. “I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene, to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, ‘homeostasis,’ i.e., a tensionless state,” he wrote. “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”
Some editions of the book were titled, in English, “From Deathcamp to Existentialism”, which highlighted the philosophical underpinnings for Frankl’s novel approach to psychiatry. Man’s duty is to confront the challenge of each minute. At one point he makes the almost shocking assertion that we should abandon the academic quest for the “meaning of life”.
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”The astonishingly corollary to this is that life can never be boring, that every moment has a kind of divine spark which lights the road ahead.
After World War II, Frankl’s life was dedicated to promoting logotherapy. He married again in 1947 and had one daughter. He wrote a number of books which were translated into a number of languages and received 29 honorary doctorates. He died in 1997.
If his star has faded in recent years, it is not because his message is no longer needed. Now, more than ever, people dread meaningless suffering. But with his own life Viktor Frankl showed that no moment of suffering lacks dignity and meaning.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet
MercatorNet: 7 astonishing quotes from Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl
7 astonishing quotes from Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl
This week Israel celebrated Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, in memory of the six million Jews who were killed by the Nazis during World War II.
The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived for three years in several concentration camps – Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Dachau. His brilliant memoir Man’s Search for Meaning contains moving reflections on how noble the human spirit can be even amidst filth, cruelty and horror.
Here are seven inspiring quotes from this famous book:
1. Here is his first day at Auschwitz, a scene that you have probably read many times. Frankl’s experience just was as brutal as everyone else’s.
We who were saved, the minority of our transport, found out the truth in the evening. I inquired from prisoners who had been there for some time where my colleague and friend P had been sent.2. The struggle for survival in the camp could lead to great spiritual richness:
"Was he sent to the left side?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Then you can see him there," I was told.
"Where?" A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred
yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.
"That's where your friend is, floating up to Heaven," was the answer.
And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.3. Suffering is not necessarily an obstacle to living a fulfilling life:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth —that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way— in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."
The attempt to develop a sense of humour and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the "size" of human suffering is absolutely relative. It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys.4. He was not an absolutely helpless victim, despite his apparently hopeless circumstances:
The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.5. Without suffering and death, our lives are not complete. Everything depends on how we meet them:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.6. One particularly poignant moment came when he treated a dying woman:
This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. "I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard," she told me. "In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously." Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, "This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness." Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. "I often talk to this tree," she said to me. I was startled and didn't quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. "Yes." What did it say to her? She answered, "It said to me, 'I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.'"7. Suffering is a task which we can freely accept as our unique destiny:
Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp's tortures by ignoring them or harbouring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn out backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, "Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!"(How much suffering there is to get through!) Rilke spoke of "getting through suffering" as others would talk of "getting through work." There was plenty of suffering for us to get through. Therefore, it was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum.Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.
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