Man’s Search For Meaning
“THIS BOOK DOES NOT CLAIM TO BE an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”
The life of an average concentration camp prisoner, of one who had no special status or distinguishing marks on their sleeves, was one of daily struggle for existence.
Tattooed on flesh, stolen of possession and identification, reduced to number among other numbers. To live, if only barely, if only briefly, was to know of another’s death.
“Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another ‘number,’ to take his place in the transport.”
Viktor Frankl was Number 119, 104. His job inside camp was digging and laying tracks for railway lines before eventually tending to the sick, injured, and dying.
For the Capos with their regular rations, they earned cigarettes as well as other perks. For ordinary prisoners, cigarettes were luxury items, traded for soup to prevent starvation. Then there were cigarettes for those who had lost themselves in despair.
“The only exceptions to this were those who had lost the will to live and wanted to ‘enjoy’ their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned.”
When a prisoner first entered the camp, they were shocked. Unable to grasp the brutal reality of their situation. Barbed wire and spotlights. Shrill commands in German. Ragged humans slumped in a gray dawn. As the days passed from the train to the camp, prisoners dulled into a nightmarish world.
“In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as ‘delusion of reprieve.’ The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.”
Prisoners who first arrived to camp were starved and cooped together in the cold. Guards would walk to each person and inspect them, deciding on whether they would work or be sent to die. With one finger pointing to the right or left, there was existence or non-existence, life or execution.
“‘Was he sent to the left side?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Then you can see him there,’ I was told.
A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.
‘That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,’ was the answer. But I still did not understand until the truth was explained to me in plain words.”
Prisoners were removed of all their items, including wedding rings, writings, jewels, photographs, anything resembling their former lives. They were stripped into a trembling nudity, whipped and beaten, washed of lice, shaven until completely hairless.
“Thus the illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays! Apart from that strange kind of humor, another sensation seized us: curiosity. I have experienced this kind of curiosity before, as a fundamental reaction toward certain strange circumstances. When my life was once endangered by a climbing accident, I felt only one sensation at the critical moment: curiosity, curiosity as to whether I should come out of it alive or with a fractured skull or some other injuries. Cold curiosity predominated even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. At that time one cultivated this state of mind as a means of protection. We were anxious to know what would happen next; and what would be the consequence, for example, of our standing in the open air, in the chill of late autumn, stark naked, and still wet from the showers. In the next few days our curiosity evolved into surprise; surprise that we did not catch cold.”
In Auschwitz, a prisoner adapted to the worst conditions imaginable. Cold and unclean, sleeping huddled for a couple hours after hard labor, shirt weathered, feet cracked in mud.
Suicide loomed in every prisoner’s mind — from the ever present danger that took those around them, threatening at every moment, to the utter hopelessness of the future. While some did kill themselves, most popularly by electrocution when touching a barbed wire fence, others, despite their small chance of living on, bared grueling days of survival, aware that they would still be sent to the gas chamber.
As time went on under harsh conditions, prisoners were desensitized to emotions such as disgust and pity and compassion. From being around so much trauma, they had become apathetic, blunted of caring, in the instinct to survive. From day to day, physical punishment didn’t matter as much as the agony of injustice, of the helplessness to do anything about the terrible conditions that spread through camp.
Guards regularly punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. If somebody stepped out of line, talked back, helped another person who was struggling, or couldn’t do their work, they would be murdered, if not beaten. They were treated with the same respect as livestock.
Prisoners, who had once identified as husbands and wives and students and doctors and professors and musicians and teachers and shopkeepers, were barely afforded the dignity of being human.
After being reduced to such a blunted state, prisoners became primitive in their need to live each day for one more day. Just a little longer. They often dreamed more than they lived. Imagining that they had simple desires fulfilled from cake to cookies, from warm baths to deep sleep, they craved the illusion of peace while living a terrible reality.
“When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain. ‘He won’t last long,’ or, ‘This is the next one,’ we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh … of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless.”
Once woken from their longing in dreams, prisoners huddled together to work from a shrill whine of sirens. They barely fit their swollen feet into wet shoes before a day of labor began. If their feet could not fit inside those shoes, they would have to trudge through the snow, barefoot and frostbitten. While undernourished and starving, prisoners generally lost the ability to care about sex or anything except for a fulfillment of basic needs. Even feelings of sentiment, of caring, numbed from repeated daily trauma.
“There were fifty of us in the prison car, which had two small, barred peepholes. There was only enough room for one group to squat on the floor, while the others, who had to stand up for hours, crowded round the peepholes. Standing on tiptoe and looking past the others’ heads through the bars of the window, I caught an eerie glimpse of my native town. We all felt more dead than alive, since we thought that our transport was heading for the camp at Mauthausen and that we had only one or two weeks to live. I had a distinct feeling that I saw the streets, the squares and the houses of my childhood with the eyes of a dead man who had come back from another world and was looking down on a ghostly city. After hours of delay the train left the station. And there was the street — my street! The young lads who had a number of years of camp life behind them and for whom such a journey was a great event stared attentively through the peephole. I began to beg them, to entreat them, to let me stand in front for one moment only. I tried to explain how much a look through that window meant to me just then. My request was refused with rudeness and cynicism: ‘You lived here all those years? Well, then you have seen quite enough already!’”
As prisoners endured the nightly struggle of a concentration camp, sometimes only salvation could come through thought, in the rituals of religion, prayer and debate, in the rumination of a loved one. Frankl imagined his wife while marching with sore feet, touching her with memories, with his imagination of where she was, how she was, and how deeply he loved her.
“This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past.”
By creating such a rich inner life for themselves, prisoners developed an intense appreciation for nature and art. In contrast with their suffering, they found glory in the small miracles of existence.
“Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’”
“Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’ — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.”
Most of camp life, however, wore on the very existence of the prisoner. One lived with mental turmoil, pain which constantly threatened one’s values, beliefs, and high purpose, “throwing them into doubt.” This brutal world ground the prisoner’s human dignity down to nothing, where the end of all struggle was death. People were used up until they their bodies failed, until their will to go on faded, like the flickering light of a candle, falling to enfolding darkness.
Camp inmates often were tormented with making decisions and taking an initiative, believing that their lives were subject to fate. Small decisions could lead to life or death, whether in the moment or future.
As Frankl wrote on his last days at camp before being rescued, when he thought about escaping, “We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death. I was confronted with photographs which had been taken in a small camp not far from ours. Our friends who had thought they were traveling to freedom that night had been taken in the trucks to this camp, and there they were locked in the huts and burned to death. Their partially charred bodies were recognizable on the photograph.”
Trusting in fate, at times of certain death, was acceptance of what was to come. In other ways, it was a defense mechanism against the evil of the camp. Apathy was another way of survival, of psychological defense. In conditions of starvation and death, of malnutrition and poor hygiene, of regular slaughter and grueling work, of being treated as livestock instead of as humans, prisoners had to find ways to endure.
Despite the apathy, exhaustion, and irritability of the prisoners, they were never completely lost, forsaken to the hells of their psychological conditions. They still had a choice, a chance within every moment, to act humanely. There were many who, under extreme duress, acted heroically.
“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Everything could be taken from an inmate but their inner freedom. Some prisoners, despite the most terrible conditions, still maintained their human dignity. Amidst great suffering and death, they had to choose and not choose.
Surrounded by the most extreme external restrictions, prisoners had the choice to reflect upon what had meaning for them, holding onto their purpose. Their attitude of spiritual freedom was a crucial element in an ongoing struggle for their existence.
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”
While many prisoners slumped into despair or conformity under a brutal injustice, there were some who remained compassionate, courageous and loving, giving of themselves when they had no obligation to, accepting their fate while selflessly helping others, up until their extermination. They died with no names, no families and friends, but still had the integrity to not lose their humanity.
To maintain dignity while trampled on by the jackboot, to give a last piece of bread away to a sickly child, to offer a kind word before walking before the gas chamber, despite not being known or praised for their sacrifices, was to act with freedom.
“This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. ‘I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,’ she told me. ‘In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.’ Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ What did it say to her? She answered, ‘It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.’”
Inside the camp, there was no time, no sense of a future. Outside of the barbed wire fence, prisoners felt an unreality, an alien world to their own. Prisoners had to struggle to grasp the meaning of life and not lose themselves in the past, in apathy, in giving up to future possibilities. Some strengthened their inner lives, maturing under the horrors of their experiences, while others resigned themselves to a previous way of life that was no more.
“Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: ‘Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.’ Varying this, we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”
A prisoner who could imagine a reason to survive, a “why” for their existence, in the moment or future, could endure the most unbearable circumstances.
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand. When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
Inside the camp, there were those who could endure daily atrocities and those who could not. Even among those who could, they survived not only from hope, from genuine purpose in a world against them, but from chance.
For the guards themselves, there were those who took a sadistic pleasure in making the prisoners suffer. Then there were those who were sympathetic but remained silent to the abuse, to the tortures, hardening themselves after years. Finally, there were those who secretly helped and cared, despite negative consequences from their superior officers.
Some prisoners, who had been promoted to marginal powers, became as sadistic as the worst guards. Other guards, moved by compassion, could bring a prisoner to tears from the smallest act of kindness. No one in either group was entirely good or entirely bad. Life asked the question, in every circumstance, what type of person would they be?
“From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’ — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.
Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.”
When the prisoner was finally released from camp after so many years of hard suffering, returning to the world was an ordeal. A prisoner drifted as if lost in a dream, unable to feel, unable to become human. It was so difficult for prisoners, after being routinely abused, to recover from the endlessness of a camp, where starvation and death were companions.
Prisoners often ate an enormous amount once liberated, compensating for years of watery soup and stale bread.
There was a pressure that had built inside every inmate, a repression of their yearly suffering into the unconscious, which had to eventually erupt though talk, through a discussion of what had been taboo to speak about in camp, through screams and nightmares and long cries to those murdered, a readjustment back to the unfamiliar world of the living.
“One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky — and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world — I had but one sentence in mind — always the same: ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.”
Some of those freed returned and found no homes, no families anymore. Others traveled to their hometowns, where their community could not truly empathize with them or know the magnitude of their past. Yet those who survived still held onto hope for a wife, husband and child, for a future, for a meaning that lingered beyond those barbed wire fences and spotlighted towers. They found purpose in their suffering, but not through what the Nazis desired. They endured in utter depravity, for years and years, only to seek that which could transcend them.