A must read Holocaust book | Sunday Observer

A must read Holocaust book

23 January, 2022

Title: Man’s Search for Meaning
Author: Viktor Frankl
Translator: Ilse Lasch
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Pages: 221

Among the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust books, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, is a highly inspirational and helpful book, especially for people suffering from mental distress. It was first published in German in 1946 under the title ‘Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager’ (‘A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp’), and then published in more than thirty languages around the world. Now it has become a bestselling book with 16 million sold copies.

The uniqueness of the book is that it, not only, reveals his experience in Nazi death camps – Auschwitz and Dachau - but also introduces a new way of psychological thinking – ‘logotheraphy’, a form of existential analysis that focuses on finding a meaning in one’s life – this is now considered to be the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy”, along with Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology.

Who is Viktor Frankl?

Viktor Frankle, in full Viktor Emil Frankl, was born on March 26, 1905, in Vienna, Austria as the second of three children. His mother, Elsa Frankl, nee Lion, hailed from Prague, while his father, Gabriel Frankl, a civil servant, came from Southern Moravia - he later became Director in the Ministry of Social Service. The younger Frankl showed an early interest in psychology, and in secondary school he studied psychology and philosophy. As a teenager, he entered into a correspondence with Sigmund Freud, who asked permission to publish one of his papers. So, a manuscript by him was published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis.

How the book came about

In 1924, Frankl started to study medicine at the University of Vienna Medical School. At the same time, as an enthusiastic youth, he became spokesman of the Austrian Socialist High School Students Association.

In 1930, he earned the doctorate in medicine and joined the staff of the Am Steinhof psychiatric hospital in Vienna, where he headed the female suicide prevention program from 1933 to 1937. Since his university days, he strived to explore the frontier between psychotherapy and philosophy, focusing on the fundamental question of meaning and values – a topic that would become the central subject of his life work.

So, in 1926, for the first time he propounded the idea of a meaning-centered approach to mental healing, using the term Logotherapy, based on the Greek word logos for meaning.

After the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, he, being a Jew, had to close his private practice. Then, he became chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital, which served the Jewish population. At the eve of World War II he was offered a visa to move to the United States by the US Embassy in Vienna, but he turned down it in order to care for his parents.

In 1941, Frankl started writing the first version of his book ‘The Doctor and the Soul’ (Aerztliche Seelsorge) in which he laid down the foundations of his system of psychotherapy, Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. But later, upon arrival at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, he had to throw away the unpublished manuscript.

In 1942, Frankl along with his family was arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where his father perished. In 1944 the surviving Frankls were taken to Auschwitz, where his mother and brother were exterminated, and then his wife died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

As a neurologist and a psychiatrist, Frankl observed the brutality and degradation around him, and theorized that those inmates who had some meaning or goal in their lives were more likely to survive. Then, when he was in Tuerkheim camp, a subsidiary camp of Dachau in Bavaria, he tried to reconstruct the manuscript of ‘Aerztliche Seelsorge’ which he had been forced to throw away before his capturing, on slips of paper stolen from the camp office.

This was because after contracting typhoid fever in the camp he had to keep himself awake to avoid fatal vascular collapse during the nights.

However, in 1945, Frankl’s camp was liberated by American soldiers, and he returned to his native Vienna after three years in Nazi concentration camps. Then, he became head of the neurological department at the General Polyclinic hospital in Vienna and produced his classic book ‘Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager’ (‘A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp’) in 1946, which was published in English as ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ – the book was appeared after he dictating it to a team of assistants in nine days.

In 1947, Frankl married Eleonore Katharina Schwindt, and had their daughter Gabriele Frankl in December – she later went on to become a Doctor. Viktor Emil Frankl died on September 2, 1997 at the age of 92 in Vienna, Austria.

Everyday life in a concentration camp

Frankl’s book is consisted of two parts: the first half discusses his experience at the concentration camps, and the second half describes universally applicable lessons gleaned from Frank’s struggle. The main characteristic of the book is that its captivating quality. He describes any harrowing experience with some soft voice so that readers could absorb it without any shocking. This how Frankl starts the book:

“This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”

Not about suffering

There, he further writes: “Most of the events described here did not take place in the large and famous camps, but in the small ones where most of the real exterminations took place. This story is not about the suffering and death of great heroes and martyrs, nor is it about the prominent Capos — prisoners who acted as trustees, having special privileges — or well-known prisoners. Thus it is not so much concerned with the sufferings of the mighty, but with the sacrifices, the crucifixion and the deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims. It was these common prisoners, who bore no distinguishing marks on their sleeves, whom the Capos really despised.”

Eye opening accounts

The book is full of eye opening accounts on the camp people. The following is such thing which marvels the reader:

“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 own way.”

Insightful preface

The preface of the book is written by Gordon W. Allport, formerly a professor of psychology at Harvard University who was one of the foremost writers and teachers in the field in this hemisphere. He ends his preface like this:

“I recommend this little book heartily, for it is a gem of dramatic narrative, focused upon the deepest of human problems. It has literary and philosophical merit and provides a compelling introduction to the most significant psychological movement of our day.”

Considering all these facts, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl is a must read book, especially if you are a reader of Holocaust literature.