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.”

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 even with his international status 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.

God’s Answer to Frankl’s Holocaust Dilemma

This 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. He chose to sacrifice his chance of escape in order to stay and suffer with his family.

Frankl’s decision to sacrifice his chance of escape in order to honor his family as God commanded has left the world with some of the most profound wisdom from the Holocaust. His writings, especially “Man’s Search for Meaning” still impact the world today.

The Death Camp

The Frankl family was deported to the Theresienstadt camp in July 1942. Frankl’s father died in Theresienstadt; his mother gassed in Auschwitz; his wife Tilly died in Bergen-Belsen after it 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. Here is an extract from the English translation: 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… 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”.

Frankl describes another episode which has an almost mystical flavor, as if the mission he was destined to fulfill had been secured and enforced.

“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.”

Sustaining Power

Recalling how the thought of his beloved wife sustained him, Victor explains how it led to this revelation about love and salvation:

“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

“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, but his insights endure.

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”, there is only imagination. Frankl’s account is extremely important for us, who are distressed that that layer of humanity in our civilization is so thin.

“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.”2

There were many heroic acts from the depths of this horror, and many heroes who have gone unsung. Frankl’s selfless decision to give up his safety for his family, to obey God’s command and honor his parents at great cost, has enriched so many. Let’s honor the heroes of the Holocaust and all those who perished today.

[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

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