Unfortunately, the world we live in today is full of violence, chaos, and mass destruction and it’s hard to imagine living in something worse. Although, close to eight decades ago World War 2 was led by the infamous dictator named Adolf Hitler in the regime against the Jewish people. He created an environment far worse than what we live in today. His orders consisted of genocide and eradication and ultimately murdering six million people. The author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl, was in the midst of this chaos when he was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl was POW for essentially the most dangerous people in the world at that time. Despite his circumstances he tried to live his life inside the camp in the most positive way possible. Even with what little he had, he always made sure to remember the little importance of the material world. The themes of love and hope are what pushed him to his ultimate level of survival.
Before the war, Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna, Austria with his wife Eleonore Katharina Frankl and his daughter Gabriele. He is now a holocaust survivor because of his education and what he practiced for so long. Within the camp he used psychotherapeutic methods which stemmed from identifying one’s purpose in life with a positive forefront of the future. This book is unique in itself amongst all other WWII concentration camp books. Frankl was brutally honest throughout the entire book about his personal experiences and how he developed relationships with his fellow prison mates.
In my opinion, this book was particularly hard to read with the knowledge that Frankl genuinely experienced these horrific events. Although, it is very interesting how it’s set up. I’ll focus on his life in the camp and the importance of the mental aspect of survival.
Frankl sets up the story of his experiences through 3 different phases that the general prisoner goes through inside the camp. He states that he wants his readers to know about his pain by living vicariously through him by reading the book. The stories vary tremendously throughout the book’s entirety by their effect on the reader. Some stories are harder to read than others, but I think it’s important for people to know the history behind this war no matter how difficult the circumstances were.
The emotional non-fiction consists of three crucial phases that each inmate will endure. Many themes are evident throughout the narrative like survival and suffering, even ones consisting of hope and love. Frankl uses these themes as motivation to take his experiences and use them as opportunities to find himself in the darkness and becomes the best version of himself.
The first key idea that Frankl writes about is the time frame soon after the POW is brought to the camp. This is where the inmates experience their crucial reaction, shock. This is a make or break for most new prisoners. Frankl states how many don’t make it out of the first phase due to the immense life change. This is due to their identity being stripped and treated like they’re inferior. This is also particularly difficult because these inmates wrestle with the idea that they are “criminals” for solely who they are as a person. They didn’t commit a crime, they didn’t hurt anyone, they’ve merely been punished because their race is considered insubordinate. I think that’s what would get to me the most. Knowing there’s something wrong with me just for existing. This is where I imagine the shock setting in for most of the prisoners. Frankl says that reality hits you within this phase and it’s the most important test to the prisoner’s strength throughout their entire time. “The engines whistle had an uncanny sound like a cry for help sent out in commiseration for the unhappy load which it was destined to lead into perdition” writes Frankl. He explains how the majority of the Jewish families in his entire city, including his own, were taken from their own homes and separated on trains heading for different destinations. He said the overwhelming feeling of shock began to overcome them when they realized they had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next. The possibilities were endless at this point. Even upon arriving to the camp, they never knew when the war would be over, when they could go home, or even if they could ever leave at all. Frankl compares the sound of the train whistle to eminent death, good evidence for symptoms of shock to set in. After hours of anticipation, the train that Frankl was on finally arrived to what would be their new home for quite some time, the sign read “Auschwitz.”
In chronological order, the next phase was even more devastating. This was the ultimate life challenge. Frankl called it “relative apathy.” This is the stage where each prisoner must confront their emotions and cut them off. It’s challenging because you must take full control over your mind in order to stay sane in circumstances like Frankl’s. It was an “emotional death” as he called it. He writes, “Apart from the already described reactions, the newly arrived prisoner experienced the tortures of other most painful emotions, all of which he tried to deaden.” I could imagine the emotional torture would be just as bad the physical. The mental game could beat the majority of the people inside the camp merely from the unknown factors. The future for the prisoners consisted of torture, illnesses, and starvation. They had to accommodate for the amount of death that they were about to witness. The development of the prisoner’s mindsets is what set them apart. Living life in the midst of an emotional death could be considered as not living at all. The fact that murder became just another situation to occur at the camp is scary in itself, but it was the only way to keep your head on straight. In the long run, the survivor and the victim were only separated by a positive attitude. Even though Frankl coined the term “emotional death” he was a great example of taking over full control of his emotions while keeping the most important ones intact. Even in grave danger, Frankl was able to show his sense of humor here and there during the book. This was his trick. As long as the prisoner could change their perspective and kept looking forward the chance of survival greatly increases.