Written by Victor E. Frankl. Read June 2010 and reread Dec 31, 2013 Summarized 1-1-14. Summary of Part I of the two part Book. You will be blessed reading all of it. If you would like to order a copy for yourself, please see the Amazon order link at bottom of this page.
One of the great books of all times is this autobiography by Viktor Frankl concerning his experience in a Nazi Concentration Camp during the Jewish Hollocast (1939-1945).
The book focuses on the sources of Frankl’s miraculous strength to survive while most died. He mentions several times throughout the book a quote by Nietzsche,
“He who has a Why to live for can bear almost anything.”
The prisoners around him who gave up on life were inevitably the first to die. The truth is they died less from lack of food or medicine than from lack of hope. The question Frankl explores is not why most died, but how anyone at all survived.
I am reminded of the Biblical principle: “without a vision my people perish.”
Frankl’s terrible experience at Auschwitz reinforced one of the key ideas he already had: The greatest quest any human being has in life is not the quest for pleasure or for power, but to find meaning for his or her life.
Frankl saw three possible meanings for life:
- Doing something significant in work
- Love through caring for another person
- Courage in difficult times
He saw very clearly that suffering in and of itself is meaningless. The way one responds to suffering (by remaining brave, upright and unselfish) was a response very few of the Nazi prisoners were able to do. However, Frankl concludes, “but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’ s inner strength may rise him above his outward fate.”
Rabbi Harold Kushner expresses that Viktor Frankl’s most enduring insight in this book is:
“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
A most interesting side note to me is:
Shortly before the US entered WWII, Frankl received an invitation to go to the American consulate in Vienna to pick up his immigration visa. He was in a dilemma. Should he immigrate to a safe soil to fulfill his career of writing or should he honor his responsibility to care for and protect his parents? This dilemma made him wish for a “hint from Heaven.”
He noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at his home. His father explained he had found it on the site of a large Viennese synagogue, which had been burned down by the National Socialists. His father brought it home because it had part of the Ten Commandments inscribed on it:
“Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land.”
He had received his “hint from Heaven.” He let his visa to America lapse.
The first part of the book describes his horrific experiences in the concentration camp. As terrible as these experiences were, he absorbed many insights never forgotten:
Many things he had learned from textbooks about the limitations of the human body were absolutely wrong:
- Man cannot exist without sleep for a stated number of hours
- Man could not sleep without this or that
- Man could not live without this or that
Surprises to him:
- The prisoners couldn’t clean their teeth and had a severe vitamin deficiency and yet had healthier gums than ever before
- Unable to wash for days and yet the sores and abrasions on dirty hands did not suppurate (unless they were frostbite.)
- Light sleepers now slept soundly even with loud noises
- Man can get used to ANYTHING
There are stages each prisoner went through in his psychological reactions to what was going on. These stages went from hope of release to the second stage of insensitivity to the pain and beatings by surrounding himself with a very necessary protective shield with all efforts and emotions centered on preserving one’s own life and the life of the other fellow.
During sickness outbreaks, prisoners would have attacks of delirium. Many tried to stay awake to avoid these attacks.
Frankl spent hours composing speeches in his mind.
During silent, treacherous, forced walks for miles, Frankl determined to keep his mind focused on his wife’s image. He vividly imaged her smile, her encouraging looks, her answers to him. He spend many hours communing with his beloved. He felt she was right there with him in spirit. It seems this was a major key in his ability to survive.
He saw the truth as declared by so many wise men: “Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart. The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world stall may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”
“Set like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.”
Frankl found that humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for life. Humor gives a person an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation even if it be for only a few seconds. Developing a sense of humor can be learned while mastering the art of living states Frankl. “Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.”
I think on Gods wisdom telling us that a merry heart does good like a medicine.
The author gives the analogy of the behavior of gas pumped into an empty chamber. It completely fills the room no matter how big. Likewise suffering, no matter how big or small can fill the human soul. On the other hand, even a tiny thing can fill the soul with great joy. The prisoners learned to be grateful for the smallest of mercies.
The power of choice to keep oneself and one’s closest friends alive became of highest and of only value. Everything could be taken from a man, Frankl found, except one’ s attitude in any given set of circumstances to choose, to decide, whether or not to give up and give in to circumstances.
That last inner freedom of human dignity cannot be lost unless chosen to be given up.
Many gave up in the prison camp. They lost hope and lost their will to live. Frankl chose to never give up. He chose to keep his thoughts focused on his future, his love for his wife, his goals.
Remember the quote he so often referred to: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” – Frankl
“The corpses near me, crawling with lice, did not bother me. Only the steps of passing guards could rouse me from my dreams,” writes Frankl.
Frankl kept the attitude that whatever he went through could still be an asset to him in the future. He thought on the quote by Nietzsche, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
Frankl survived. After his release, he had but one sentence in mind that he repeated over and over, ” I called to The Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.”