Sigmund Freud once said that, if you take a widely diverse set of people and starve them, soon all their differences will fall away to be replaced by “the uniform expression of the one unstilled urge” for food.
That didn’t happen “in the filth of Auschwitz,” writes psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy.
There, the “individual differences” did not “blur” but, on the contrary, people became more different: people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.”
Frankl’s short, powerful book, rooted in his three years in Auschwitz and other German concentration camps, is an argument against the view that human life is simply biological responses to stimuli.
In some ways, the Holocaust can be seen as the epitome of this mechanistic view. Prisoners were stripped of identity and became, as Frankl notes, simply numbers in a system of slave labor and mass murder.
This genocide was carried out by the nation of Beethoven and Goethe, of Freud and Einstein. And it has been seen as proof that great science, great art and great thinking are insubstantial and unimportant in the face of power.
Could life have any meaning for any person living in a world that produced the Holocaust?
Even more, could life have any meaning for someone, like Frankl, who found himself in a concentration camp?
The answer, Frankl asserts, is “yes.”
The meaning of life, he writes, isn’t as an object or a thing or an idea out in the world, a system or pattern that a person fits into. Rather, it is something that each person chooses. Far from being determined by outside forces, each person has the freedom — and the responsibility — to determine the meaning of his or her life.
A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes — within the limits of endowment and environment — he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.
Creativity, love and suffering
Man’s Search for Meaning is a short book, and it was originally even shorter.
Frankl’s account of his experience in the concentration camps is the core of the book and its oldest element. Totaling about 28,000 words, it was published in 1946.
The 1992 edition I read contained an additional 14,000 words in two sections that were added later. One was about logotherapy, Frankl’s theory of psychotherapy. (This theory, which Frankl began developing before being sent to the camps, is rooted in the idea of will to meaning, as opposed to Freud’s will to pleasure and Alfred Adler’s will to power.) The other is a postscript, based on a 1983 lecture and titled “A Case for Tragic Optimism.”
These two sections spell out in general terms Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy and mental health in general. As he sees it, a human being has the right to determine the meaning of his or her own life — and a duty to do so.
In declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it was a closed system…..
[B]eing human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.
Frankl writes that there are three ways of finding meaning in life: by creating and doing, by experiencing and loving and by one’s attitude to unavoidable suffering.
Suffering isn’t necessary to be creative or to be loving. And suffering for the sake of suffering isn’t a healthy goal. Not something to be sought.
Yet, suffering is, by nature, part of human life. And, Frankl argues, a person has control over his or her attitude toward suffering. A patient with terminal cancer has the ability to approach this pain and coming death in a variety of ways. So did the victims of the Holocaust.
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
“A rasping hoarseness”
Frankl’s theories gain power from his unflinching yet nuanced depiction of daily life in the camps — “the sacrifices, the crucifixion and the deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims.”
As the train carrying Frankl and hundreds of other prisoners neared Auschwitz, “The engine’s whistle had an uncanny sound, like a cry for help sent out in commiseration for the unhappy load which it was destined to lead into perdition.”
Yet, if the inanimate railroad engine seemed to feel pity on his passengers, the SS men and the Polish Capos at the camp met the prisoners with a solid ominously discordant wall of sound, a blast of shouted commands:
We were to hear those rough shrill tones from then on, over and over again in all the camps. Their sound was almost like the last cry of a victim, and yet there was a difference. It had a rasping hoarseness, as if it came from the throat of a man who had to keep shouting like that, a man who was being murdered again and again.
Most of the new arrivals from Frankl’s train were sent to the gas chamber. The lucky few were assigned to slave labor crews, and most of these eventually died. Life was reduced to simple questions of survival, and it was impossible, Frankl writes, not to grow numb to the pain and suffering of others.
After [one of his typhus patients] had just died, I watched without any emotional upset the scene that followed, which was repeated over and over again with each death. One by one the prisoners approached the still warm body. One grabbed the remains of a messy meal of potatoes; another decided that the corpse’s wooden shoes were an improvement on his own, and exchanged them. A third man did the same with the dead man’s coat, and another was glad to be able to secure some — just imagine! — genuine string.
The prisoners were cold and hungry and exhausted and often beaten and scorned and sick and crowded together and infested with vermin and in constant fear of death.
One night, Frankl was awakened by the sounds of a fellow prisoner who was thrashing about in the depths of what was obviously a horrible nightmare.
I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.
“Dance of joy”
Even so, Frankl writes that, despite all the privations in a concentration camp, “it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.”
That happened for many prisoners, he says, and it happened to him in this way. On the long walk to a work site in the dark of early morning, the man next to Frankl whispered the hope that life was better for their wives in the camp where they were held.
This brought the image of his wife present to Frankl in an intense way. He could see and hear her.
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 of so many thinker. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.
He did not know if his wife was alive. (She died in the camp where she was being held.) But, for him in this moment — and later in his captivity — it didn’t matter. Even though physically imprisoned, he was able to escape the camp by living much of his time in the presence of his memories of his spouse.
When his camp was liberated, Frankl and his fellow prisoners did not initially react with elation. They were starved and numb, and feared disappointment.
Nonetheless, during their months and years in the camps, they had become expert at finding humor and happiness, even in the most unlikely situations.
For a prisoner who could find and develop this rich inner life, the beauty of art and nature could still be something rich and rewarding. Frankl describes a train journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp that went through “the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset.”
The men in the over-crowded train car with him crowded around the little barred windows, and “we were carried away by nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.”
There was even joy to be found in the camps although it was often macabre.
Frankl was among a group of prisoners taking another train to a new camp, and they were afraid they were heading for Mauthausen, a camp infamous for torture. They knew that, at a certain bridge, the train would turn one way to go to Mauthausen, and another to head for another camp affiliated with Dachau.
Those who had never seen anything similar cannot possibly imagine the dance of joy performed in the carriage by the prisoners when they saw that our transport…was instead heading “only” for Dachau.
And, when they arrived at the new camp to learn it had no oven, no crematorium and no gas chamber, “We laughed and cracked jokes in spite of, and during, all we had to go through in the next few hours.”
“I am life”
Despite the inhumane character of the camps, prisoners had the freedom to choose how to react to that inhumanity.
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.
Frankl tells the story of a young woman in a camp who knew she would die in a few days. Yet, when Frankl talked with her as her doctor, she was cheerful.
Her sufferings, pain and illness had taught her much, she told him. Pointing out the window, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Only one branch of the tree could be seen from her bed, and on that branch were two blossoms.
She said she talked to the tree, and it talked back, saying, “I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.”
Frankl came into the camps with the manuscript of his first book, his initial description of logotherapy and its emphasis on the need for every human being to determine and pursue the meaning of his or her life.
Despite his efforts to hide and hold onto the manuscript, he lost it when he had to give up his clothes before taking a shower.
Coming out he “inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chamber immediately after his arrival at the Auschwitz railway station.”
In a pocket of his newly acquire coat, as if as a substitute for his manuscript, he found a single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael (“Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One”).
How should I have interpreted such a “coincidence” other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?
Patrick T. Reardon