Frankl Revisited

Cultic Studies Review, volume 2, Number 1, 2003

Frankl Revisited

Rev. Walter Debold, Seton Hall University

Some of the friends of the Cultic Studies Review may have had the opportunity in the past to read and discuss Frankl’s book, Man's Search for Meaning. It was first published in 1963 and it had grown out of his reflection on his experiences as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Those who are familiar with the book recall that Victor Frankl was a psychiatrist, the only one of his family to survive the holocaust. His recollections are no less valuable today than when he first published them.

When we first opened that book, one of the earliest lines to catch our attention was one that Frankl borrowed from the philosopher, Nietsche: “He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW.” The thought stayed with him helping him to comprehend in some way how a man could endure the horrors of camp life. Frankl was sustained through difficult days by the thought of his wife and family, even though he could not know whether they were dead or alive. At one point, considering his own death, he was inspired by the thought that he should go to his end with the dignity that she would expect of him.

Another thing that sustained him, although he takes no credit for it, was his professional training and commitment to psychiatry. This enabled him to be a source of strength and service to his fellow prisoners. He had what psychologists would call a “sense of self” and a perspective on their common plight. Through his compassionate concern for others he was able to escape some of his own agony.

Frankl reminds us of the first scrutiny under the stern eyes of the jailers. The prisoners were lined up and commanded to strip off all their clothes and surrender all possessions. They were being reduced to “nobodyness.” Each human being is convinced that he is “somebody” but they were being reduced to a number. Perhaps some of us have had the chance to see on the wrist of a survivor the number in green indelible ink that he or she would carry to their grave. How fortunate were the few who managed to carry that number out of the gates when the camp was liberated at the war’s end.

It is interesting to see that in such extreme situations a person’s religious interests might become manifest and his prayers very sincere. In fact, it became plain to Frankl that one’s spirituality actually deepened.

There are very moving stories about the forced separation of prisoners. We may note parenthetically that the word “friend” was lost from one’s vocabulary; the most one could acknowledge was that another was a “comrade.” On one occasion when Frankl was going to be reassigned he went to one barracks-mate and confided it to him. The man actually cried. Consoling him, Frankl gave him the information that was his last will in mostly comforting words to his wife if she should be found alive. As it turned out, Viktor was the one to survive.

Love, the psychiatrist found, goes beyond the physical presence of the loved one. It can motivate one’s conduct and decide one’s direction as it did for Frankl when he no longer knew whether his wife was dead or alive. He maintains, on Page 59 of our earliest edition, that “the salvation of man is in and through love.” “Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man may aspire.”

In seeing fellow prisoners who, with a short time to live could give away what was perhaps their last scrap of bread, one must admire their humanity. One could conclude that power and violence might take away everything from a man but the one last thing: the freedom to decide how one is to die. One can choose one’s attitude, decide what one’s existence will become in the next moment.

If Frankl were still living, it is this last conviction about which we would like to question him. It is a noble exhortation, but I am not so confident that each of us might succeed in overcoming by his or her own will the diabolical forces that threaten us. We will need superior strength from beyond. In such a critical moment we will need, as Frankl admits, “the consciousness of one’s inner value that is anchored in higher, more spiritual things ad cannot be shaken by camp life.” However, then he adds, “But how many free men, let alone prisoners, possess it?”