This is a book I suggest everyone read for the sake of humanity. Dr. Frankl, a doctor specialized in psychiatry, tells his story of what life was like in the concentration camps during World War II. One thing that surprised me was that Judaism is not an overarching theme (rarely even mentioned) in this book. He does not reference or explain things in terms of his religion; you get the feel that he was just an unlucky man in an unlucky time period, which after all, is completely true.
It is very moving to hear the story from a first -hand account. Several times throughout the book I felt an autonomic response in my body; sickness, a lump in my throat, stinging eyes, intense sadness and remorse. Several passages stuck with me, for example, one where Dr. Frankl watches as the dead corpse next to him is being pulled out by the feet, head slamming against the stairs, passing outside his window where the corpses’ glazed eyes make contact with his…his desensitization allows him to calmly watch the body (who he was just talking to less than 2 hours ago) while he ‘greedily sips his soup’. Thus was the everyday life at these camps (the reason why he wasn’t slaving away was because he himself was very ill in bed).
Other passages had me thinking as well, there are a handful of times when Dr. Frankl gets helped out by Capos (other prisoners who were given special authority) or other people with high influence in the camp. It had me thinking, how often did other people get these perks? Did Dr. Frankl get them because he was easy to get along with? Handsome? Intelligent? Charismatic? Trustworthy? A doctor? It seems impossible how many times Dr. Frankl avoided death. It is incredible when you think about how much they suffered; tiny portions of bread and watered down soup, heavy labor work in the snow with shirts that were no more than rags, some even barefoot, edema and typhus everywhere. There is a point when Dr. Frankl describes themselves as being a mass of skin and bones….unable to lift themselves up a few stairs. How quickly I felt shameful for cursing the 1 degree Celsius weather I endured for 12 minutes to walk to the coffee shop to read this book in Edinburgh!
Dr. Frankl organizes the book around psychology, which I found especially interesting. He explains a term and then references with examples and anecdotes that make the story what it is. He explains the psychological process of prisoners sort of like chapters; first shock, apathy, depersonalization…and their attempts to readjust back into civilization. The end of the book goes into Dr. Frankl’s psychological work of Logotherapy, or the focus on the future of your life and its meaning as a psychological approach.
The book made me feel very grateful for everything I have–for the life that I have. It inspired me (even more) to want to help those suffering. I do not know how yet, but I hope I can find a satisfying and helpful way to contribute to the wellness of the world. The other fact is that it shows how much of life may be due to luck; if you were a Jew in the 1940’s you were pretty unlucky, no matter how good a person you were, no matter all the helpful deeds you did. It makes you think of life in strange unfamiliar terms…
Dr. Frankl’s message is that those who survived did so due to their perceived meaning in life, ‘those who knew there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive’. Dr. Dr. Frankl believes, ‘Man needs the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task,’ he needs a call of potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him and that can only be fulfilled by him. Viktor explains how he backed out of escaping with his friend to help those sick in camp which meant [almost] certain death, ‘if I had to die there might be some sense in my death’. The spectrum of human actions, from the SS guards’ ‘reasons’ to batter you, to the willingness to give up freedom to help strangers, is astonishing.
We find meaning of life from work, attitudes to unavoidable suffering, or experiencing something or someone. How I wish to share that with my family and friends who seem to be in this ‘existential vacuum’ Dr. Frankl describes! This is a sense of meaningless, emptiness, a boredom of life, what at least 60% of American students feel. We all need a passion and meaning in life, after all, it is what drives us, what keeps us going. Viktor tells of a touching moment when he remembers his wife when he is suffering; whether she is alive or not hardly matters anymore, but what does matter is what she stirred in him, her conversation with him in his head was enough for him…his love, his meaning for life allowed him to endure on and keep going…
Lastly, a nice quote I appreciated that I hope we can all remember, ‘There may have been few in but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from man but one thing, the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose ones way’. How a man can live through such horrid experiences, find a reason to live, recover (!) and positively affect other people’s life afterwards is extraordinary. Inspiring. He certainly had a great meaning of existence.
I recommend this book to everyone, especially those who have an interested in Judaism, psychology, the holocaust, group mentality and perseverance. An essential read, and is additionally quite short. I took two days to read it and found it hard to put down, although it can be finished in one. Take a couple nights out of your life and respect the brutal truths of life endured by those less fortunate than yourself. Remember to be grateful for everything you have, everyday, and never take your life for granted.
Published by Rider, £7.99, $9.99 USD
Have you read other remarkable books on the Holocaust or Judaism? Or another book that has inspired you, as this one has inspired me? Share!