Holocaust memoir shows power of finding meaning in the worst of times
I’VE just finished one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read: a personal account of the Holocaust called Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl.
Frankl was born in Vienna in 1905 and trained as a doctor, specialising in psychiatry.
While I’ve obviously heard a lot about the world’s worst genocide, this is the first book I have read about the period and I was expecting a catalogue of horror from concentration camp life.
I will share just one story, of a 12-year-old boy who had to spend hours outside in the snow barefoot because there were no shoes for him. His toes became frostbitten and, Frankl relates how the doctor on duty “picked off the black gangrenous stumps with tweezers, one by one”.
I also had the naïve idea that the prisoner experience was a common one, that they were somehow bonded together in battle for survival against the common enemy.
However, when a transport to another camp was announced, Frankl explains, “it was a fairly safe guess that its destination would be a gas chamber. The selection process signalled a free fight among the prisoners. All that mattered was getting your name and that of one’s friends off the list… knowing that for each person saved, another victim had to be found.”
But even from the depth of such horror, Frankl managed to show that it was still possible to feel other things, that the spirit does not have to be extinguished by evil.
He points out, for example, feeling a sense of curiosity on arrival at Auschwitz, “what would happen next … what would be the consequence of standing in the open air, in the chill of autumn, stark naked?”
Another time, he speaks of the messing that took place with fellow prisoners on discovering that when a shower started to run, what came out was water. Then there was the relative joy on arriving on a train at a new camp to see that it didn’t have a chimney.
He observed that sensitive people who were used to an intellectually rich life and who were often of a less hardy make-up seemed to be able to cope better with their situation and thus survived camp better than did those of a more physically robust nature.
He also tells, movingly, stories of people going around to those who were dying, offering them comfort and the last scrap of their own food.
Survival was largely a matter of chance.
But forging of human connections could also help. On one occasion, another doctor gave Frankl the following advice: “Shave daily, even if you have to use a piece of glass to do it. You will look younger and ruddier. If you want to stay alive, there is only one way: look fit for work.”
Frankl was liberated in 1945, to find that all his immediate family had been killed, including his parents and 24-year-old wife. He later remarried.
He spent the rest of his life (he died 1997) seeking to understand human nature.
As he had in the concentration camps, he tried to help others using his own psychotherapeutic method, name logotherapy, which involves identifying a purpose in life to feel positive about.
Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose.
He came to the conclusion that each of us is ultimately self-determining, that we choose in every moment what our existence will be.
“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman (except) one last thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude to any given set of circumstances,” he said.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
The need to find a meaning in life through purpose is every bit as true today.