Holo­caust mem­oir shows power of find­ing mean­ing in the worst of times

Irish Independent - Farming - - ANALYSIS - ANN FITZGER­ALD

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.

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