Viktor Franklin is a hero for our epoch. A former prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, he wrote a moving book entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning.” The book delineates his agonizing experience of Nazi evil and the subsequent wonder of finding love and hope out of the physical and psychic atrocity.
Frankl limns a picture of German concentration camps that is unimaginably disturbing. He mines the troubling emotions of how Jews responded to the Holocaust. First came shock and then numbing apathy.
When he and others went to Auschwitz, they had no notion of how ravaging their plight would be. Frankl said they dealt with a psychiatric state called delusion of reprieve, which meant that they hoped everything would be alright. They entered the Auschwitz station and were greeted with prisoners who had uniforms and shaved heads but were sanguine and seemed fed in a good manner. Yet little did Frankl and others know that this group of prisoners was elites who were hiding the evil that would ensue.
Some 1500 of he and others were packed into a shed that were made for a couple hundred. They were soon to be separated for work or the gas chamber. Frankl would live, but the majority would die. Frankl was a psychiatrist and a manuscript of his life’s work was stolen from him. He said the taken manuscript was like losing a mental child.
Later, the Jews were told to remove their clothes for a shower, and they were eventually shaved and then whipped by the Nazis. Many prisoners had thoughts of suicide.
“We really had nothing except out bare bodies,” Frankl said. “All we possessed, literally, was our naked existence.”
Then came apathy. Feelings were blunted about being surrounded by the dead and dying. Prisoners were famished. Beatings were commonplace, and bread was rationed. The labor was brutal. Lack of concern for life was a mechanism for self-preservation and defense.
Yet out of this wretched carnage came meaning. Frankl realized love for others could not be extinguished.
“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 highest goal to which man can aspire,” he said.
With love as a foundation, hope springs. To be sure, Frankl cites many examples of how even in the midst of unfathomable evil, the human spirit can survive and flourish.
Love and hope transpire when humans feel they have a future. In one instance, a suicidal prisoner thought about his good child. It was like a memory that kept the war in abeyance and allowed him to see the beauty of parenting. Another suicidal prisoner, a scientist, thought about an unfinished text and how he would work on it. He was buoyed by his thoughts of the future.
Frankl’s Holocaust experience, and the meaning he wrested from it, segued into a theory of psychiatry he invented called logotherapy. Logos means meaning in Greek, and Frankl says a deep hunger for meaning is the central motivation for humans. He cited a poll in which 89 percent of people surveyed said they needed something in order to live, and 61 percent said there was someone or something for which they would die.
The crux of his therapeutic idea is to present a range of meanings to his patients so that they may find what is most meaningful to them. He says true meaning is not found in the psyche but in the world. He argues that humans find purpose by giving themselves to another person or to a cause.
Frankl said he is optimistic even in the midst of hardship. He cites how even in the evil nadir of the Holocaust, some were heroic by soothing others and giving them bread. He said heroes and saints are in the minority, but he is convinced that every human can strive for goodness. Even with greed and hurt, humans can pray that humanity might change. A universal brotherhood in which love and hope for each other and the world just may triumph.