Life and Choices – Summarizing Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Auschwitz was located in southern Poland. It was known for its gas chambers, crematoriums, and massacres. It was opened in 1940 and during WWII (1939-45), it served as one of the largest concentration and death camps, where prisoners (mostly Jews) were put to death, used as slave labor and subjected to gruesome medical experiments. Approximately, 1 million people lost their lives in Auschwitz.

Viktor E Frankl, a psychiatrist, neurologist, founder of logotherapy, and a holocaust survivor, spent his time as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps from 1942 to 1945. He lost his father, mother, brother, and wife in the concentration camps. Yet, having stripped off from all endearing and valuable possessions of his life, suffering from hunger, brutality and cold, always expecting death, he finds life worth preserving. In his autobiographical fragment “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl tells the value of human volition to make choices in moribund circumstances.

Frankl was among fifteen hundred prisoners brought to Auschwitz via train. Unaware of what will happen next, they were under the “illusion of reprieve”, a condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets an illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. Women and men in separate lines moved towards the prison. A SS (Schutzstaffel) officer at each end of line did the first selection, those who were sick and unable to work were sent directly to crematorium and put to death. The remaining “healthy” prisoners were stripped off their possessions, shaved from head to toe and were taken to showers. Nine men, sharing two blankets, were slept in beds, which were constructed in tiers. There were no pillows, therefore, some men used their mud laden shoes to serve that purpose.

Due to the hopelessness of the situation, by seeing the deaths of many and not knowing one’s fate, everybody had suicidal thoughts. However, Frankl made himself a promise that he would not do suicide, although the chances of survival were rare. The prisoner passed from one stage of emotions to the other. At first, he had a state of longing for their home and family, in its most extreme form, then disgust takes its place, from everything that surrounded him. One favorite disgusting task assigned to new prisoners was to clean the excretion and filth between the camps. If some excrement splashed onto the face during movement of the filth through bumpy ground, an attempt to wipe it off or shown any sign of disgust was met with punishment from guards.

In the second psychological stage, the feelings and emotions were blunted. No amount of torture, disgust, and death could cause a prisoner to avert his eyes away. Frankl explained this by narrating an event when he was serving some time in the hut of typhus patients. After one patient died, he watched the scenes following his death “without” any emotional upset. The still warm body was approached by prisoners one after another. One seized the remains of messy potatoes meal; another exchanged his shoes with that of corpse’s, thinking that those were better than his; and another went for the coat. The “nurse” was told to remove the body, who clutched its legs and dragged it across the hut and down the stairs, with its head bumping on the surface.

Beatings were very common and could happen even on very slightest incitement. Although, prisoners got acclimatized to them; however, in many circumstances the insults and injustice affected the most. Sometimes, knowing that death was always lurking, a man could muster all his courage to say a few words to defend himself against the insults thrown at him.

Almost every inmate was suffering from edema, swollen legs, and feet such that one could hardly bend his knees and wear his shoes. With partly bare feet prisoners had to walk in the snow, bearing too much pain and suffering from chilblains and frostbite.

One bread was rationed to each prisoner once a day. Some used to eat it at once to stop severe hunger pangs, momentarily, while others ate it bit-by-bit throughout the day. Apart from self-preservation, satisfaction of hunger is a primitive human instinct. Prisoners were severely malnourished, their bodies turned into skin and bones. The wishes that could not be satisfied, appeared in dreams. They dreamt of cake, warm baths, bread, and cigarettes. When working close to each other or not being watched, they started discussing about their favorite foods.

There were discussions on politics in the camp. The rumors giving the hope that the war would soon end, kept many alive. Religious conviction and hope generated from the prayers was strengthening many to bear the unimaginable. Nevertheless, the longing of the beloved (wife, for example), the moments spent together, her memories carried oneself away from all the
torment to a place of momentary bliss. This showed that love transcends beyond the physical being and finds its deepest meaning in the spiritual self, irrespective of the presence or absence, and life or death of the person.

In the free moments, the mind would delve into the events of past for a temporary refuge. The intensity of life of a prisoner would help him appreciate and think about nature and art in a way he never had done before. The sight of a setting sun, its light shining through trees, glimmering peaks of mountains, and every natural phenomenon, which seemed quite ordinary in the past had now spellbinding ability. Songs, jokes, poems and finding amusement in daily camp life helped a lot in bringing some energy to life, even momentarily.

Although, suffering was always there at the camp, yet it was a person’s choice as to what extent he would let himself overwhelmed by it or overcome it by finding meaning and joy in little things of his surroundings. The prisoners were transferred from Auschwitz to Dachau camp after travelling for three nights in train coaches, in which they were so stuffed that they had to take turns to squat on urine laden hay straws. Despite the rigor of travelling and a punishment afterwards in which they stood for more than one day in chill breeze due to a missing prisoner (later found), they were pleased to know that Dachau camp had no gas chambers and crematoriums.

Frankl believed that luck and the choices he made, together played a role in saving his life in the camp. Apathy, because of hunger, sickness, and camp life, caused the inmates to lose their will to make decisions. They tend to leave themselves to fate, which sometimes proved helpful. Once he was assigned a work on which he was certain of his death; however, an air raid alarm interrupted the work very early. In the last days of his imprisonment, when battlefront came very close and camps were being evacuated, the prisoners were told that a transport will take them to Switzerland from where they will be exchanged for their freedom. He chose to be left behind, later to know that those other prisoners were burnt alive.

Is human being always influenced by his surrounding? Does man have no spiritual freedom under the influence of his surroundings? Is he just a product of psychological, sociological, and environmental factors? Can he make choices under harsh circumstances, as faced in the concentration camp?

Frankl contended that even in the most dreadful circumstances, man can overcome all the resistances and can preserve the remnant of spiritual freedom and independence of mind. He can overcome the apathy, irrespective of his physical and mental torment. There were some heroic men, emaciated and unaware of their fate, who comforted others by giving them hope and sharing their (once a day) rations. This showed that even when everything was taken from a human being, no one could take away his volition to choose his attitude in difficult circumstances. There were always decisions to make, every moment, whether to surrender one’s inner freedom to the circumstances or choose a different attitude. There was hunger, death, fear, pain and a lot of stress in the camp; however, at the end, what a prisoner became as a person was the result of his own choices, let alone influence of camp conditions.

Any person can decide himself what he spiritually and mentally wants under any circumstances. He can preserve his human self and dignity even in the misery of a concentration camp. Frankl noted that this form of spiritual freedom gives meaning and purpose to life. Hope and courage in difficult circumstances and in disease have a very positive effect on the body. The time when a person starts losing psychological war with the disease, his immunity began to fall. Frankl had a healthy friend in the camp, who dreamt that the war would be over by March 30th of 1945 and he would get his freedom. As the date drew nearer, the war news reaching the camp told that freedom was very unlikely. That friend suddenly became ill on March 29th, and on March 30th, the day for which he had dreamt of freedom, he became delirious and unconscious. He died on the very next day on March 31st. Apparently, he died of typhus; however, in reality he was engulfed by disappointment. Similarly, very high death rate was observed in the camp in the week between Christmas of 1944 and start of new year 1945. Frankl’s fellow doctor noted that it was due to losing of hope by the prisoners who thought that they would celebrate the Christmas in their homes.

In the words of Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” An aim or goal instills an ambition and provides volition to bear the worst of circumstances of life. A person who does not see any purpose in his life is living an inanimate life or maybe life of an animal. Suffering and difficult circumstances gives life a meaning, they provide an opportunity to rise above one’s ordinary self, to overcome the resistance, and to evolve to a greater human being. As Dostoevski said, “there is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

To every person life provides unique opportunities and unique challenges. Even seemingly similar or repeating situations have subtle differences. Lives of two persons living close to each other in a similar environment cannot be the same because the volition to overcome the obstacles of life varies, which creates the difference between an average man and a great man.

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