Friday, March 21, 2008

Victor Frankl and the Holocaust

What is to give light must endure burning—Victor Frankl

Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz to write those words (whose meaning resonates more profoundly, given his experience).
So, on this day, when Christians all over the world (myself included) are observing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for us, I dedicate this Good Friday Feature to the men, women and children who gave their lives in Nazi World War II concentration camps. Let us not forget their sacrifice and the lessons we can learn from the Holocaust.

Six million European Jews were brutally executed during World War II, as part of a program to deliberately exterminate them by the National Socialist (Nazi) regime in Germany led by Adolf Hitler. The persecution and genocide of the Holocaust ("completely burnt”) was accomplished in stages. Legislation to remove the Jews from civil society was enacted years before the outbreak of World War II. Concentration camps were established in which inmates were used as slave labour until they died of exhaustion or disease. Where the Third Reich conquered new territory in eastern Europe, specialized units called Einsatzgruppen murdered Jews and political opponents in mass shootings. Jews and Roma were crammed into ghettos before being transported hundreds of miles by freight train to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, the majority of them were killed in gas chambers. Every arm of Germany's bureaucracy was involved in the logistics of the mass murder, turning the country into what one Holocaust scholar has called "a genocidal state."

In a stirring speech, upon her resignation from office, Alexandra Levi said, “…when we journey into Holocaust remembrance and stay there for an extended time, we cannot come out the same persons we went in…When we make ourselves serious students of the Holocaust we must regularly recuperate from our study, go out into the sunlight, partake in the peace and cheer of today. Look: the sun is shining, the season is changing, lives are being lived. But when we return to the books and the testimony, we enter once again the truth of a time when Jews cringed in death camps like beaten animals, eating with a feral rush what little they were given, and knowing in the words of Primo Levi, "that in a few weeks nothing will remain of them but a handful of ashes in some near-by field and a crossed-out number on a register." …when infant children were torn from their parents' arms to be smashed upon paving stones; that grandmothers and grandfathers were stripped naked and lined up at the edge of muddy pits to be machine-gunned into mass graves; that nearly half of our total nation was herded and sheared like worthless livestock to be gassed and burned…Those scenes were painted on the canvas of history. They must now be made imperishable in our consciousness, and taken as a lesson - and a turning point.”

Viktor Emil Frankl, M.D., Ph.D., (March 26, 1905 - September 2, 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, whose book Man's Search for Meaning (first published in 1946) chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most sordid ones. Frankl was one of the key figures in existential therapy. He founded logotherapy and Existential Analysis, the "Third Viennese School" of psychotherapy.

In the preface to Frankl’s book, Man's Search for Meaning, Gordon W. Allport writes:

" one life there is love for one's children to tie to; in another life, a talent to be used; in a third, perhaps only lingering memories worth preserving... As a long-time prisoner in bestial concentration camps he [Viktor Frankl] found himself stripped to naked existence. His father, mother, brother, and his wife died in camps or were sent to gas ovens, so that, excepting for his sister, his entire family perished in these camps. How could he - every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly expecting extermination - how could he find life worth preserving?"

Frankl references Nietzsche, "he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how," and argues that what made the difference between those who survived and those who did not was not the intensity of their suffering, but whether or not they retained meaning and purpose in their lives.

Frankl writes of his experience as the guards herded them in forced labor in the Nazi concentration camp:

“We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road running through the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk.” Even there, in the degradation and abject misery of a concentration camp, Frankl was able to exercise the most important freedom of all - the freedom to determine one's own attitude and spiritual well-being. No Nazi SS guard was able to take that away from him or control the inner-life of Frankl's soul. One of the ways he found the strength to fight to stay alive and not lose hope was to think of his wife. Frankl clearly saw that it was those who had nothing to live for who died quickest in the concentration camp.

It was as he contemplated his beloved wife that a transcending thought came to Frankl: “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 may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a 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 words, The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

Frankl continues, “My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive, and I had no means of finding out (during all my prison life there was no outgoing or incoming mail); but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, and the thoughts of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I still would have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of that image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death."

In a compelling post, Gavin Ortlund wrote this in his blog recently: “What gripped me most about [Frankl’s] book, and has stayed with me to this day, is not the horror and barbarity of his experiences in concentration camps - when you pick up a book about the holocaust, you expect that. What really struck me was Frankl's repeated insistence that even there, in the most inhumane and horrific conditions imaginable, the greatest struggle is not mere survival. The greatest struggle is finding meaning. As I was reading, I was struck with this thought: going to a concentration camp is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst that can happen to a person is not having a transcendent reason to live. Life is about more than finding comfort and avoiding suffering: its about finding what is ultimate, whatever the cost.”

Said Frankl, “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.”

Easter is a time of contemplation, of reflection. A time of death and resurrection (yes, creative destruction too)… It is a time of tolerance and acceptance, of forgiveness, of healing and reconciliation. A time to set aside our differences and embrace our humanity, foibles and all. A time of humbleness, of humility. A time of consciousness, of integrity, and honor. And uplifted spirits. A time to walk deep into one’s soul and find one’s inner calling, one’s gift to the world. It is a time surely for giving. A time of service and love.

Then again, why confine this thinking to Easter? Do we confine our love and proclamation of love to Valentine's Day?

So, I leave this post with you for NOW and always...And with another piece of wisdom from Frankl on SUCCESS:

"Again and again I therefore admonish my students in Europe and America: Don't aim at success - the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run - in the long-run, I say! - success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it."

Happy Easter!

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

An excellent Easter post, blended in with the holocaust.

cooper said...

Excellent post. I spend some time in a forum in which the question was asked what is the meaning of your life. I was considering writing many things but this is too perfect and what I cold have written had I been able to articulate it.

JewWishes said...

The last man on the right, in the photo of the barracks, on the second row from the bottom, is Holocaust Survivor, Author, Foundation CEO, and genuine human and humane being, Elie Wiesel.

Wiesel wrote Night, Dawn, and many other books related to the Holocaust. He writes fiction, also.

JewWishes said...

I forgot...Happy Purim!

sfgirl said...

Thank you for your comments, Jean-Luc and Cooper. Thank you especially, Jewwishes, for identifying Elie Wiesel and for your well wishes. :) Happy Purim!

Anonymous said...
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kathleenmaher said...

Riveting, Nina. I read Frankl's book not long ago; I can't recall who recommended it to me.
Thanks to for sending the notice to me. I get swamped and end up missing the posts I want to read most.

sfgirl said...

Yes, Frankl IS rivetting. He has a writing style that is both accessible and compelling with content that, of course, is illuminating. He captured and identified the essence of humanity at its best at a time when humanity was ironically behaving at its worst. He is a poet.