Finding Meaning in the Most Terrible Times

On an early morning in Kaufering Camp, Viktor Frankl marched with his fellow prisoners and their Nazi captors.

Frankl stumbled through the darkness, against the icy wind, dragging his feet over big stones and large puddles. The guards kicked anyone who didn’t march smartly enough. A man marching next to Frankl whispered: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

The man’s words made Frankl think of his wife, Tilly. He hadn’t seen her since they were separated at Auschwitz nearly two years ago. Tilly hadn’t needed to go, her name hadn’t been on the deportation list then. But she’d been determined to follow her husband, and went with him on the same train to Auschwitz.

They’d been divided at the gate, and Frankl remembered weeping on the second night in Auschwitz. The day was his wife’s 24th birthday, and he didn’t know if she was still alive to see it.

As Frankl walked, slipping on icy spots, he thought of his wife. He imagined her in front of him, and she became real to him. He saw her face, her smile, he heard her answering his questions and encouraging him along the way.

Before the war, he’d bought his wife a pendant, a small golden globe with blue enamel oceans. On a gold band wrapping around the globe were engraved the words, “The whole world turns on love.” As Frankl marched, the sun began to rise, and it dawned in him how, “Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self.”

The men soon arrived at their work site, and Frankl resumed his previous day’s place in the ditch. Sparks flew as he struck the ground with his worn-out pickaxe, as the guards cursed and beat those who fell. Frankl kept Tilly in his mind. He talked with her, and it gave him strength. He felt love, his love for her and her love for him, giving him comfort among the bleakness surrounding him.

The salvation of man is through love and in love.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl was born on March 26, 1905, in Vienna, Austria. From the age of three, Frankl already knew that he wanted to be a doctor.

He was well acquainted with Sigmund Freud and Alfred Alder, the foremost psychiatrists of his time. When he turned 19, he published an essay in Freud’s International Journal of Psychoanalysis, and a year later, he published another in Alder’s journal.

But over time, Frankl distanced himself from his two mentors. He felt that both Freud and Alder explained human behaviour too much in terms of emotional problems, instead of emotional health.

Frankl began formulating his own practice of psychology, which he called logotherapy. The word logotherapy comes from two Greek words, logos, which translates to ‘meaning,’ and therapeia, which means ‘therapy’. Logotherapy, therefore, is a way of treating people’s problems by helping them find meaning in their lives.

Frankl believed that man is mainly driven by a need to find meaning in life, and he taught that there are three main ways to do so:

  • The first is through action or creation: meaning through action
  • The second is through an experience, a human encounter, or love: meaning through experience
  • The third is through difficult or even fatal situations that are outside of our control: meaning through suffering

After six years of schooling, Frankl received his medical doctor (MD) degree in 1930. When he finished his residency in 1937, he opened a private practice. Little did he know that he would soon be practicing logotherapy not in clinics and hospitals, but in the concentration camps of World War II.

In October 1944, the Nazis called Viktor Frankl to be deported. He and his wife Tilly arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, where they were separated from each other. Frankl had hidden his life’s work, a manuscript about logotherapy, inside his coat, but the guards forced him to give up the coat on entering the camp.

Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, 1944. Jews were sent either to work or to the gas chamber. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, 1944. Jews were sent either to work or to the gas chamber. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The guards humiliated him by shaving all the hair on his body, and forced him to shower naked with the other prisoners. When he emerged, the guards shouted at him to find something to wear from a pile of ragged clothes, which once belonged to people who had now been gassed.

Frankl took a thin coat from the heap, and as he slipped his hands into the pockets, he found a slip of paper inside. He took it out, and found a page torn from a Jewish prayer-book. The Shema Yisrael was written on it, the same prayer that Frankl had heard his father say every day when he was a boy:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One God; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

Shema Yisrael

Grasping the page in his hands, Frankl felt the prayer was a “challenge to me to live what I had written, to practice what I preached,” as he faced the dark days that now lay ahead of him.

Viktor Frankl would endure more than two and a half years of suffering, starvation and humiliation in four concentration camps throughout the war. He worked as a manual labourer for most of his time in the camps, building railroads, digging ditches, and building new camps.

One day, his captors forced Frankl to limp for kilometres in biting cold, with terrible sores on his feet. He was almost in tears, and wondered if there would be anything to eat that night, how he could find a piece of wire to tie his shoes, and whether he should trade his last cigarette for a bowl of soup.

After a while, Frankl found himself disgusted with his preoccupation of “the little problems of our miserable life.” He forced himself to think of something else, and saw himself standing on the platform of a pleasant lecture room. He imagined himself giving a talk on the psychology of the concentration camps, and the warmth of his imagined future helped him go on.

Over time, Frankl found that it wasn’t always the physically strong who survived the camps’ brutality.

Instead, he discovered that those who found a reason for living, in spite of their suffering, had better chances of surviving, while it was only a matter of time for those who had given up hope.

Frankl fought to find purpose and meaning in the camps, and he helped others to do the same. Even though it was forbidden, Frankl would counsel people who wanted to kill themselves, helping them find something to live for.

He spoke to his fellow prisoners about finding faith for the future, about loved ones or special tasks that were waiting for them, about how a person could find meaning even in suffering. And if it came to it, even finding meaning in dying.

Frankl himself kept two hopes burning: The first was to rewrite the manuscript he’d lost and share logotherapy with the world. The second was to see his wife and family once again.

On April 27, 1945, Viktor Frankl was finally liberated from Türkheim camp.

Prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau during liberation. By the Russian government. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau during liberation. Photograph by the Russian government. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

He had lived through the horrors of the concentration camps, but upon returning to Vienna, he received the devastating news that his wife Tilly had not survived.

After they were separated at Auschwitz, Tilly was sent to the Bergen-Belsen camp. Although she made it to the end of the war and saw her camp liberated, she was among 17,000 of the remaining 60,000 prisoners who died of starvation, exhaustion, and disease before they could be helped.

It wasn’t only Tilly who had died. Frankl’s parents, brother and sister-in-law had all perished in the war. Viktor Frankl was alone. He had endured unspeakable anguish and survived, by dreaming of the day when he would be reunited with his family … and now that dream was extinguished.

When Frankl visited his friends, he would break down and cry. His friends worried that he might kill himself. He felt that he was a man, who “… for years had thought he had reached the absolute limit of all possible suffering now found that suffering has no limits, and that he could suffer still more, and still more intensely.” In the camps, Frankl had not hoped for happiness, but he hadn’t expected yet more unhappiness after liberation.

And yet, just as his will to meaning had given him the will to survive in the camps, it helped him once more in this tragic period. Even as he thought of killing himself, Frankl felt that life was asking more from him, that his life must still have a purpose.

He told a friend, “When all this happens to someone, to be tested in such a way, … it must have some meaning. I have a feeling … that I am destined for something.”

During the war, Frankl fanned the embers of two hopes. He had lost one, so now, he turned to the other. He wanted to die, but he decided he would at least finish the book he had started before the war. Finding a brief purpose, once again, helped him live through those difficult times.

After he took The Doctor and the Soul to his publisher, Frankl felt that he needed to write another book about his personal experiences in the camps. He dictated the entire manuscript in just nine days, and the book was published as Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager (translated as A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp), titled Man’s Search for Meaning in English.

In time to come, Man’s Search for Meaning would go on to sell more than 10 million copies in 24 languages throughout the world.

A year after the war, Viktor Frankl became the chief of neurology at the Vienna Policlinic Hospital. He was still depressed, and he gained a reputation at the hospital for being difficult to work with.

One day, Frankl met 24-year old Eleonore Schwindt, an oral surgery assistant at the hospital, and the two fell in love. On a July day in 1947, Elly Schwindt and Viktor Frankl married, and not long after, they welcomed the birth of their baby daughter, Gabriele.

Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, grew more and more popular. Frankl and Elly began travelling to speak around the world, and the logotherapy movement spread.

Frankl’s life was starting anew, and he began to feel joy again. He had found purpose during the war in meaning through suffering, and it had given him the strength to endure.

After the war, he found meaning again in meaning through action, by writing, speaking and sharing logotherapy with the world.

And he regained love lost in meaning through experience, with his wife Elly and daughter Gabriele.

Afterword: Starting Over after Tragedy

How do you start over again after tragedy?

After writing about starting over again in ‘Bruce Lee and the Beginner’s Mind’, I wanted to dedicate a series, to look at the lives of exceptional people who have all started over again at some point in their lives.

When I thought about who to write about, the first name I thought of was Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychologist who survived the Holocaust, and came through it with a remarkable message of hope for all mankind.

Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is an essential read. Not just for anyone who wants to know how man can endure and even find meaning in suffering. But also to remember the horrors of the war, so we don’t doom ourselves to repeat it.

While I drew from Frank’s book for his time in the camps and the essence of logotherapy, I wanted to find out more about how he rebuilt his life after the war. I am indebted to Anna Redsand’s biography Viktor Frankl: A Life Worth Living, which helped to fill in the gaps of Frankl’s life before and after his time in the camps.

In closing, there are three aspects about logotherapy that struck me as I was writing this post.

The first is that logotherapy is imminently practical. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl stressed “…the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.” Logotherapy “is a method less retrospective and less introspective. Logotherapy focuses on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in the future.”

Just as he lived, Frankl felt that the meaning of one’s life was to be found through action, experience, and (unavoidable) suffering.

You can’t discover the meaning of your life through endless navel-gazing, but by participating in the world, and nobody but you can find the meaning of your own, unique life.

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Viktor Frankl

The second is that not all suffering is bad. To suffer unnecessarily is foolish, but suffering can sometimes point the way to a more positive path. When someone is depressed because of dissatisfaction at work, that dissatisfaction may simply be a signal for her to make changes in her life, and not a sign that she’s mentally ill.

Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.

Viktor Frankl

The third, and this connects with the second, is that sometimes there’s simply no way out of a hopeless situation. Frankl was clear that in the concentration camps, death was often inevitable.

And yet, when faced with a fate which we cannot change, we can still change ourselves in the midst of suffering, and find meaning in the doing.

And it’s in finding meaning — a purpose to which we can dedicate ourselves — that Frankl says is the key to staying resilient in the face of suffering. It’s vital to find something to draw us forward and give us faith for the future. Otherwise, we risk collapsing to our fears. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

And among us has not suffered? Who has not had to endure difficult conditions which we could not change? In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote that how we face these conditions is the very last — or I would say, the very first — of our human freedoms. To start over, remember Frankl’s words, forged in one of the darkest periods in human history:

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 way.

Viktor Frankl

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