God’s Answer to Frankl’s Holocaust Dilemma

“Our generation has come to know man as he really is: the being that has invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and also the being who entered those gas chambers upright, the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” Viktor E. Frankl, “Psychotherapy and Existentialism.”

In an interview with Dr Robert Schuler, Viktor Frankl said that he had prayed that God would give him some direction about what to do – to flee to safety in America, or stay with his family? Though he earnestly prayed, he couldn’t discern the answer, and felt that God was ignoring him.

When he came home that day he found his father in tears. “The Nazis have burned down the synagogue,” said the father and showed him a fragment of marble he had salvaged. That piece of marble had just one letter of the Ten Commandments engraved on it, the beginning of the commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Frankl called the American embassy and canceled his visa.

God’s Answer to Frankl’s Holocaust Dilemma

It was Austria, 1937. The future looked grim. Viktor was thinking of emigrating, but was hesitant. He hoped that as a psychiatrist, he would be able to take care of his parents, his younger sister and brother and his fiancée. But, he also knew that despite his international status and fame, he would never be able to defend them against possible Nazi persecution. Eventually he submitted an application for an immigration visa to the American embassy – a visa he was not destined to use.

That is how Victor Frankl recalls those dramatic events in his Autobiography. “I had to wait for years until my quota number came up that enabled me to get a visa to immigrate to the United States. Finally, shortly before Pearl Harbor, I was asked to come to the US consulate to pick up my visa. Then I hesitated: Should I leave my parents behind? I knew what their fate would be: deportation to a concentration camp. Should I say good-bye and leave them to their fate? The visa was exclusively for me”.

In an interview with Dr Robert Schuler, Viktor Frankl said that he had prayed that God would give him some direction about what to do – to flee to safety in America, or stay with his family? Though he earnestly prayed, he couldn’t discern the answer, and felt that God was ignoring him.

When he came home that day he found his father in tears. “The Nazis have burned down the synagogue,” said the father and showed him a fragment of marble he had salvaged. That piece of marble had just one letter of the Ten Commandments engraved on it, the beginning of the commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Frankl called the American embassy and canceled his visa.

The Death Camp

The Frankl family was deported to the Theresienstadt camp in July 1942… Frankl’s father died in Theresienstadt; his mother was gassed in Auschwitz; his wife Tilly died in Bergen-Belsen after she had been liberated by the British; his younger brother died in a branch camp of Auschwitz, working in a mine; only his sister survived the camps and later emigrated to Australia.

Frankl’s experience, as a death camp prisoner, was described in his first book written after the liberation. First published in 1946 in Vienna as “Ein Psycholog Erlebt das Konzentrationslager”, and later translated into many languages and sold in millions of copies. The English translation: Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning.

“…The train, overloaded with humans about to lose their human identity in exchange for a tattooed number (if lucky enough not to turn into a burst of black smoke in the crematorium chimney); German shepherds and SS men with submachine-guns; the “selection”: those on the right will get their numbers and will live, and, at last, the real shower and striped “uniform,” whose previous owner does not exist any more… Frankl writes: “While we were waiting for the shower, our nakedness was brought home to us: we really had nothing except our bare bodies – even minus hair; all we possessed, literally was our naked existence. What else remained for us as a material link with our former lives? We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives”

That is what Frankl writes in his autobiography: “I have never published what happened at the first selection at the Auschwitz train station. I have never published it, simply because I still am not sure whether I perhaps only imagined it. This was the situation: Dr. Mengele turned my shoulders not to the right, that is to the survivors, but to the left, to those destined for the gas chamber. Since I couldn’t make out anyone I knew who was sent left, but recognized a few young colleagues who were directed to the right, I walked behind Dr. Mengele’s back to the right. God knows where the idea came from and how I had the courage.” This episode has an almost mystical flavor: as if the mission Viktor Frankl was destined to fulfill had been secured and enforced.

Sustaining Power

“… We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

“That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….” [1]

Another important conclusion for Frankl was: If a prisoner felt that he could no longer endure the realities of camp life, he found a way out in his mental life– an invaluable opportunity to dwell in the spiritual domain, the one that the SS were unable to destroy. Spiritual life strengthened the prisoner, helped him adapt, and thereby improved his chances of survival.

Viktor Frankl passed away in Vienna on September 2, 1997.

A Day Of Remembrance

Today, we remember the Holocaust; the tragedy that the human brain simply refuses to comprehend. The generation of Holocaust survivors is gradually leaving this earth, taking with them the agony of their memories. For us, who have never felt what it was to be jammed into a cattle car slowing down at an obscure place named “Auschwitz,” a semi-mad woman screaming: “Fire, I can see fire!” (Elie Wiesel, “Night”), there is only imagination. The gift of conscience that does not allow us to forget, that reminds us how fragile our civilization is and how thin is the layer of our humane culture. Frankl’s account is extremely important for us, who are distressed that that layer of humanity in our civilization is so thin.

Frankl writes: “Life is a task. The religious man differs from the apparently irreligious man only by experiencing his existence not simply as a task, but as a mission. That means that he is also aware of the taskmaster, the source of his mission. For thousands of years that source was called God”.[2]

 

[1] Man’s Search for Meaning, Part One, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp”, Viktor Frankl, p. 33-34, 56-57, 123
[2] The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy, Viktor Frankl, p. xv