Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is a deep book. It explores pain, in its most acute forms, on the human body, mind and soul, loss of everything and everyone you hold dear until you are left bare, with nothing, not even your name, because you are assigned a number, tattooed onto your skin.
The famed Austrian psychiatrists was imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, Nazi Germany’s biggest concentration camp during the height of Adolf Hitler’s reign. Frankl, who up to World War II was one of the brilliant Viennese minds in psychiatry, had written papers on his own form of psychotherapy, referred to as Logotherapy, a form of existential analysis.
He had just written his first manuscript and it was ready for publication, when it was confiscated by Auschwitz authorities. His parents had hoped he would move to America after he received his visa , but he chose to stay with them and his wife.
Frankl’s initial impressions of the camp are captured in what feels like a drawn out lamentation . There was the train ride there, the dreadful realisation from the doomed passengers, the SS man’s “attitude of careless ease” who’s “finger game” of pointing prisoners to his left or right meant life or death. Life, was one of constant hunger and freezing temperatures in flimsy clothing saved from the dead or gassed, while subjected to slow and hard labour, working towards certain death.
It was the better option in comparison to the gas chambers, popularly referred to as “bathhouses” where the “final solution” propagated by Heinrich Himmler, the SS chief, was carried out.
Cold curiosity, as Frankl terms it, predominated life in Auschwitz. He admits “textbooks tell lies!” he states the human body when subjected to conditions such as sleep deprivation, hunger and bodily harm or beatings, the collective hymn would be “a man can get used to anything, but don’t ask us how”.
Most prisoners selected for death, Frankl writes, did not fear it, mostly because of shock. Staying alive in Auschwitz meant looking fit for work, and that’s what he tried to do, look smart, keep his dead down and not attract the attention of the SS men.
Given his line of work, Frankl concerned himself deeply with his mental health and that of the prisoners.
He would make mental notes and occasionally write on scrapings of paper the reason why some prisoners survived the horrors and others gave up, how they kept themselves going, the cigarette trade for thin soup to keep warm, or a piece of bread to satiate the constant hunger.
Man’s Search for Meaning is not just about the horrors of the Holocaust. It is more about the human condition, our tenacity as beings facing the worst of humanity, and bouncing back to being human again.
Frankl underscores the importance of our thought life, his story is one of hope and how we can find meaning in the deepest of sufferings.
In the second part of the book, he focuses on the academic theories in logotheraphy.
Written with scholarly acumen, and precision of a psychiatrist, the book Man’s Search of Meaning, explores the phases of imprisonment at Auschwitz, from apathy to “primitive instincts” of survival, mostly pegged on undernourishment, as well as disease from the poor hygiene conditions in the prison barracks.
Frankl writes, “Those who have not gone through a similar experience can hardly conceive of the soul-destroying mental conflict and clashes of will power which a famished man experiences.”
Frankl, born in Austria like Hitler, emphasizes the intensity of the inner life of the prisoner, one that helps the prisoner escape the desolation of his capture. Man’s Search For Meaning seeks to show how we can cope with intimate suffering. The intensified his observations of nature, for example Frankl writes of the grey he notices in the sky, snow, the ashen faces of fellow prisoners all the while, as he did his hard labor in subzero temperatures in a trench, helped him cope. As did art and spirituality.
Contributing to “the war of nerves that was waged in the minds of all the prisoners”, were rumors of the political situation at the time of World War II, as well as the shifting frontlines. Frankl adds, even in spite of all “the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.” He came to a personal realization that “love is the ultimate and highest goal to which a man can aspire.” That a man, even with nothing, can still know bliss, albeit briefly, even through memories of his nearest and dearest.