Psychological Phases Of People In The Nazi Camps In The Book Man's Search For Meaning
In the book Man’s Search for Meaning, we get a personal perspective of one man’s experiences and survival of the Nazi concentration camps. During World War II, Victor Frankl was separated from his wife, his parents, and everything he knew and was taken to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and psychotherapist. While at the camps he derived his logotherapy theory which concentrates on the meaning and purpose of one’s life. Frankl observed that the average prisoner had three distinct phases as psychological responses that they experienced while in camp; the first after arrival into camp, the second when they had become established in camp life, and the final was after they had been freed (Frankl, 2006).
The first phase, which happened upon arrival to camp, is characterized as shock. He was taken to Auschwitz by train along with 1500 other prisoners (Frankl, 2006). As they arrived at the concentration camp they were greeted by the Capos, who looked to be well nourished and were joking with each other, this site gave them a great sign of encouragement (Frankl, 2006). However, false, as the Capos were some of the cruelest of the prisoners in camp. The prisoners tried to hold on to any little bits of hope, trying to believe that it wouldn’t be so bad. They believed that would somehow be saved at the last moment and things were not as awful as they seemed. This is known as a delusion of reprieve (Frankl, 2006, p. 10). Immediately they were separated into groups either the right or left; Frankl was put in the right group. Then his group was rushed from one area to the next all while being beaten physically and emotionally. Finally, they were stripped of all their belongings, shaven bare and given a bath. Later, they had found out that everyone who was put to the left group had died in the gas chambers. Frankl realizes that his former life is over (Frankl, 2006).
The second phase started after they had been in the camps for a few days; it is characterized as detachment or emotional death (Frankl, 2006). Frankl describes the everyday sufferings of the prisoners, which included starvation, abuse, weather, and slavery. Detaching one’s self from reality was a necessary defense mechanism. The only thing anyone cared about was their own survival and the survival of their friends. The food rations for the day were often a piece of bread and a cup of watery soup. The prisoners worked in the freezing temperatures with no jackets and poorly fitting shoes if they had shoes at all. They stayed in huts with 1500 prisoners, which had been built for 200 (Frankl, 2006). Beds were constructed in tiers, and they slept with nine men and two blankets per tier (Frankl, 2006). Frankl describes how a man who he was speaking to only hours before passes away. The inmates see no issues with stealing his shoes, clothes, or anything he had, as he wouldn’t need them anymore. It is all about their survival. He also describes how he watched as they removed the man from the hut, the man is dragged away with his head hitting the floor and the stairs. There is no remorse, no sadness. There are no feelings anymore.
Frankl describes how he struggled to keep not only his body alive but his mind as well (Frankl, 2006). Finding meaning for life helped pave his way to survival (Frankl, 2006). He was able to accept the circumstances as they were. For him, having something to live for was the only way anyone survived such conditions. He thought of seeing his wife again, rewriting his lost manuscript, returning to work. Many of the prisoners were unable to do this, so they ended their life with suicide or surrendered to death. However, those who were able to find meaning, like Frankl, had better chances of surviving. He shares a touching story of how, while digging a ditch, in the middle of the winter, he had a conversation with his wife in his mind. He didn’t know at the time if she was dead or alive, but the feelings he had while speaking with her were real (Frankl, 2006). Frankl’s realizes that “that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which a man can aspire” and that “the salvation of man is through love and in love” (Frankl, 2006, p. 37).
The final phase, which happened after liberation, is characterized as depersonalization (Frankl, 2006). Frankl describes it as living in a dream; nothing is real (Frankl, 2006). He, like so many other prisoners, had dreamed of this day, just to be awoken by the camp alarms. They had come close to freedom before; it was hard to believe in it now. They were now able to eat, talk, smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, etc. People who are liberated from such overpowering mental pressure can suffer damage to their moral and spiritual health as well as their character (Frankl, 2006). People thought they could use their freedom, recklessly, and ruthlessly. The oppressed became the oppressors and would justify their behavior by what had happened to them (Frankl, 2006). Each liberated prisoner’s character was threatened by bitterness and disillusionment when they returned home (Frankl, 2006). The bitterness came from going back home and seeing that others had carried on without them. Most of their neighbors didn’t know what to say, or they’d say they didn’t know that these awful things had happened to them. Disillusionment happened within the person. To think you have reached the limit of suffering that any one person can endure and to find that suffering has no limits, and you could not only suffer more but more intensely than before (Frankl, 2006).
Frankl’s book relates to nursing in many ways. As nurses, we care for patients who are confronted with a new diagnosis, that can be devastating. We see our patient’s go through the same stages as the prisoners in the camp. For instance, a patient is newly diagnosed with cancer. Their initial reaction is shock, not knowing what the future holds. Next, we see them in acceptance; they have started their chemo and know what’s expected of them as they go for their treatments. Some succumb to the disease, tired of holding on, tired of fighting. Some only see their freedom in death. Some become numb to seeing other patients die around them. Finally, liberation, to the ones that make it, they are in remission. Without the right support, they can become bitter; disillusionment can take over, they have been sick for so long that it is hard to go back to normal life. In some way’s illness is like a prison, and it is unknown if or when there will be freedom. As nurses, we need to be able to recognize these within our patients, to help them cope.
Victor Frankl’s logotherapy theory helps nurses to care for and understand their patient’s better. Not unlike Henderson’s needs theory. Henderson’s theory focuses on action, knowledge, and control; it also deals with caring for the whole person to get them back to their best self (Ahtisham & Jacoline, 2015). Like Frankl’s theory, which concentrates on knowledge and control of the mind to help find purpose and happiness, to get someone to their best self. He stated, “If one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude” (Frankl, 2006, pg. 147). By utilizing these theories, nurses can help their patients’ outcomes be more positive. They help by treating not just the body but the mind as well. Treating the whole patient can get them to their best self.
In conclusion, Frankl gives a great interpretation of human suffering and loss, how he managed to overcome the daily tragedies of the concentration camps, and how a person can survive if they find purpose in their life. The book speaks to the heart. As a human, you can’t help but feel for the people who were mistreated, and sadly to imagine if it happened to you. As a nurse, you want to improve your care so you can help your patient’s find purpose. Overall it is an excellent book that reminds us that health is mental, physical, and emotional, and it takes all aspects to make the whole person healthy.
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