Viktor Frankl was faced with the most consequential decision of his life. He was in a classic double-bind: any option he selected would produce human death, perhaps his own.
It was 1942 in Vienna, Austria. What could have been peak years in Frankl’s career as a psychiatrist and neurologist had been thwarted when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938.
Prior to the arrival of the German War Machine, Frankl had an illustrious career: he was awarded a medical degree when he was 25 and almost overnight, became highly regarded in psychoanalytic circles, even by its founder, Sigmund Freud.
In the 1920’s and 30’s, Vienna was ground zero for a new science that enthralled Frankl. Under the Nazis, erudition and opportunity were demolished by danger — especially for Jews like the Frankl family.
Joining millions across Europe, he attempted to flee. After a long delay, Frankl was informed that his visa application had been approved. He could escape to America, where private practice or a position in academia lay in the offing. There, Frankl would have the opportunity to finish what he envisioned to be a ground-breaking manuscript about psychiatry.
When learning of his ticket to freedom, Frankl suddenly hesitated. He began ruminating about the situation in which he was leaving his family — could he abandon his parents to face extermination camps? If he stayed, could the situation be reversed? Didn’t he have a duty, a responsibility to try to protect his family?
Frankl was struggling with these issues when the following episode occurred: “It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home,” Frankl said. “When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He had taken the piece home because it was part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece; my father explained that this letter stood for one of the Commandments. Eagerly, I asked, ‘Which one is it?’ He answered, ‘Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land.’ At that moment, I decided to stay with my father and my mother upon the land, and to let the American visa lapse.”
Repercussions for remaining in Vienna were soon realized. The family was arrested; Frankl’s wife, mother, father and brother all died in the barbarous camps. For three years, Frankl was shuttled between four camps, including Auschwitz.
Regarding these experiences, Frankl observed, “It is very difficult for an outsider to grasp how very little value was placed on human life… existence descended to the level of animal life.”
Frankl survived the camps and went on to write about these ghastly years in Man’s Search for Meaning, a treasure which has sold in excess of 16 million copies. In it, Frankl gives a gripping testimony about how he lost everything, but managed to persevere because he found meaning in his suffering and that gave him hope.
Frankl wrote that those who have a purpose, even in the direst circumstances, will endure, while those without purpose, will not survive. In his own case, Frankl’s purpose was to reunite with his loved ones — which unfortunately did not happen – and finish the manuscript he had been writing before his arrest.
Man’s Search also traced the development of logotherapy, a psychiatric theory he created: it was based on what he termed “the will to meaning.”
Frankl firmly postulated that man has a fundamental drive to find meaning or meanings in life; it is as strong as man’s other drives, such as hunger, thirst, sex and survival. No one can tell another what that meaning is — it’s each person’s responsibility to identify and cultivate it.
Work, love, and suffering all offer potential life enhancing meanings. Of the latter, he often quoted Nietzsche’s words that a person, who has a “why” to live, can bear with any “how.” Put simply, purpose in any situation can produce well-being.
Unlike others who survived the Nazis, Frankl returned to his homeland of Vienna. He taught, lectured around the world and continued to see patients. He received a Ph.D. in Philosophy, became an accomplished mountain climber, and even earned his pilot’s license. Frankl was 92 when he passed away in 1997.
His work continues to inspire: Say Yes to Life, a collection of three lectures he delivered in 1946 was published in English for the first time last year. It received splendid reviews – Frankl’s life affirming message is especially welcome in these difficult times of the world pandemic.