He survived the Holocaust by being hopeful about the future, and graciously accepted all experiences and people that fate brought his way. Today, the Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl is recognized – alongside Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler – as a key figure of psychotherapy.
In the postscript to his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl writes: “[…] each of the moments of which life consists is dying, and that moment will never recur. And yet is not this transitoriness a reminder that challenges us to make the best possible use of each moment of our lives? It certainly is, and hence my imperative: Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.”
Born in Vienna in 1905, Frankl is now recognized – alongside Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler – as a key figure of psychotherapy: he created the third Viennese psychotherapeutic school, logotherapy. During World War II, he spent three years in concentration camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Kaufering III and Türkheim. In his books, Frankl described the experience of fighting for survival, which became a key element of his idea (later developed during the interwar period) of finding the meaning of life.
Frankl was well educated – in his work, he combined neurology, psychotherapy and philosophy; he is the author of over 30 books. On his first day in Auschwitz, his first manuscript – The Doctor and the Soul – was confiscated, along with his clothing and all personal belongings. “I am convinced that I owe my survival [in Auschwitz], among other things, to my decision to recreate this lost manuscript.” Frankl worked on the book when he fell ill with typhus and, fearing attacks of delirium, fought the urge to fall asleep. For his 40th birthday one of his fellow prisoners gifted Frankl a pencil and some papers stolen from the SS. Thanks to this present, Frankl – as he describes in Recollections: An Autobiography – was able to write.
Humour was extremely important in Frankl’s life and work: “I love jokes, and I love to make jokes. […] A favourite of mine is about the stranger who arrives in a Polish village with a large Jewish population. He is looking for a brothel. Embarrassed to ask directly, he stops an old Jew in a caftan on the street and asks him: ‘Where does the rabbi live?’ The answer is: ‘Over there, in that house painted green.’ ‘What?’ shouts the stranger, pretending to be shocked. ‘Such a famous rabbi, and he lives in a brothel?’ ‘How can you say such a thing?’ is the Jew’s reproach. ‘The brothel is that red house, over there.’” Frankl argued that doctors should employ a similar approach: “Such an indirect approach is often used by physicians with their patients. […] the doctor must never ask a man: ‘Did you ever have syphilis?’ Rather: ‘How many Salvarsan treatments have you had?’” (‘Salvarsan treatment’ refers to a bactericide used in the early 1900s in the treatment of venereal diseases.)
With a similar sense of humour, Frankl responded to requests to explain the premise of logotherapy in simple terms. He emphasized that “in comparison with psychoanalysis, [it] is a method less retrospective and less introspective. [...] Logotherapy focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future.”
According to Frankl, the most important motivating force in a person’s life is the will to make sense of things and events, rather than the Freudian pleasure principle. Existential angst is a key part of growing up, rather than a mere symptom of mental illness, and the doctor should not try to drown it out with sedatives. Remembering his experience in Nazi concentration camps, Frankl notes that those who believed that they would face specific tasks in the future (after liberation) had the best chances of survival. This way of thinking helped mobilize the body’s vitality and fight exhaustion.
Frankl argued that mental health depends on the tension or the dynamics between what we have achieved and what we want to achieve. Humans become themselves through action, especially in three fields: creative work, interacting with nature and other people (love), and enduring suffering. Importantly, by this Frankl means unavoidable suffering. If there is a way to avoid suffering, it should be avoided, because enduring unnecessary suffering doesn’t constitute the meaning of life, but rather masochism. I am really fond of the architectural metaphor that Frankl uses when arguing that neurotic people should also be asked about the meaning of life: “If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together. So if therapists wish to foster their patients’ mental health, they should not be afraid to create a sound amount of tension through a reorientation toward the meaning of one’s life.”
One characteristic of Frankl’s approach that may be attractive to readers is his candour. Writing about a patient – an American diplomat frustrated by his work – he notes that the previous therapist had urged the patient to improve his relationship with his father (the US government was supposed to be the symbolic image of the father). For five years, the patient “was unable to see the forest of reality for the trees of symbols and images.” When he started seeing Frankl, the doctor instructed him to change his career: “As there was no reason for not giving up his profession and embarking on a different one, he did so, with most gratifying results.” Frankl would ask his depressed patients: “Why do you not commit suicide?” The answer given by the patient (citing children/parents/work, etc.) shed light on their life and thus revealed its meaning. One of the shortest therapies administered by Frankl was for an elderly gentleman mourning the death of his beloved wife. When asked what it would be like if it was him who had died first, the man admitted that widowhood would be terrible for his wife, she would surely suffer. In this way, Frankl noted, the patient saw the meaning of his own suffering, and although his situation did not change, the man’s attitude towards life was radically altered.
As a boy, Frankl wanted to write a short story in which the protagonist searched frantically for his lost notebook. When the notebook was found, the finder asked the owner why it was so valuable and what was the meaning of entries such as ‘secret holidays’, ‘Railroad station’ and ‘Brünn’. At Brünn station, a two-year-old Viktor – taking advantage of a moment of distraction – slipped away from his parents and stood on the tracks, right in front of a train. At the last moment, once the driver signalled its imminent departure, Frankl’s father took notice and removed the boy off the tracks. The notebook, so precious to its owner – the protagonist of an autobiography – was a collection of such moments. Reading it strengthened feelings of gratitude.
Frankl remembered his childhood as happy, safe, and joyous. He dearly loved his parents, Elsa and Gabriel. From his mother – the daughter of a respected patrician family in Prague – Frankl inherited deep emotionality; from his father – religious and dutiful – he inherited perfectionism, respect for rules, Spartan ideals and stoicism.
Later, shortly before the United States joined World War II, Frankl received an entry visa, which he was meant to collect at the American Consulate in Vienna. He asked himself whether he could go to work there and develop logotherapy at the expense of leaving behind his parents, who were at risk of being sent to a concentration camp. That day, his father brought home a piece of marble from a synagogue burned down by the Nazis – it featured a fragment of the Ten Commandments, and more precisely the fourth commandment: “Honour thy father and thy mother.” For Frankl, this was a clear sign to stay with his parents and surrender the visa. Later, in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, he stayed with his father. When his father fell ill with pneumonia, Frankl was able to help by administering morphine (which, incredibly, he had smuggled into the camp). Giving his father a painless death was one of the things that made his life meaningful.
As a young doctor practising in psychiatric hospitals, Frankl was forced to stay at work overnight. He missed his parents’ house. He tried to spend as much time as possible and did not want to leave it, just as he did not want to leave Vienna – the beloved city where he remained after the war. Symbolically, the house where Frankl was born is very close to where Johann Strauss composed Austria’s informal anthem, “The Blue Danube” (“An der schönen, blauen Donau”). Another Viennese icon, Café Siller, is also nearby. Frankl’s mother felt her first labour pains in that very café, and it was there that Alfred Adler (Frankl’s teacher until the two fell out over a difference of views) had his own table. Coffee was one of Frankl’s great passions and the smell of freshly ground beans was one of his greatest pleasures. At the risk of sounding pretentious (by his own admission), Frankl recalled the mornings when as a young man he would sit in bed, drink coffee, and think about the meaning of his life. Later, as a famous author and doctor travelling the world with his lectures, he always carried caffeine tablets – just in case he was served a weak cappuccino.
Frankl enjoyed a brilliant academic career, and as a young practitioner and thinker he lectured in large auditoriums. He took advantage of this in order to meet young women. He’d ask them out to “the famous Frankl’s lecture”; they would sit down in the front row aisle and when the lecture was about to begin, Frankl would get up and walk over to the lectern. It was rather impressive.
Tilly Grosser, Frankl’s first wife, was a nurse with the looks of a Spanish dancer. She had begun dating Frankl because she planned to teach him a lesson after he dumped her best friend. The plan failed because they fell in love. Frankl emphasized that he was captivated by Tilly’s kindness and empathy. One day, while Tilly was preparing dinner at his parents’ house, a call came from the hospital where Frankl worked. A patient was brought in following a suicide attempt; a quick intervention and Frankl’s skills were required. Frankl rushed out of the house in a hurry and when he returned Tilly was there, waiting for him. She did not complain but, concerned, asked about the patient. “In this moment I decided that I wanted her as my wife,” Frankl wrote. Tilly and Viktor were one of the last two Viennese Jewish couples allowed to get married.
Tilly fell pregnant, but was forced to terminate the pregnancy – pregnant Jews were immediately transported to concentration camps. Thanks to a series of lucky coincidences, Frankl was able to delay his family’s fate. Sadly, he was unable to prevent it. In Theresienstadt he was with Tilly; they were separated after being transported to Auschwitz. “Tilly, stay alive at any price. Do you hear? At any price!” he said as they parted. Tilly died of exhaustion shortly after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen; Frankl only found out about her death when he returned to Vienna in August 1945. Thoughts of Tilly accompanied him in the camp, allowed him to feel happiness and a sense of connection with his beloved. One of the more touching fragments of Man’s Search for Meaning is the recollection of a particular day of murderous labour, when he managed to create space in his head to think of his wife. At one point, Frankl saw a bird, perched nearby and watching him (a bird perched on barbed wire is on the covers of most editions of this book). He dictated Man’s Search for Meaning over the course of nine days, shortly after his return to Vienna, and initially wanted to publish it anonymously.
In Recollections, Frankl writes that shortly after the liberation, in Bavaria, he met another former prisoner. The man was holding a pendant. “A tiny golden globe, the oceans painted in blue enamel, with a gold band for the equator. On it this inscription: ‘The whole world turns on love.’” Frankl gifted such a pendant to Tilly on her first birthday that they celebrated as a couple. Perhaps it was the same pendant – the warehouse where the SS kept jewellery confiscated from extermination camps was nearby. Frankl bought the pendant back. “It was dented slightly, but the whole world still turned on love.”
In 1947, Eleanor Katharina Schwindt – a nurse with mesmerizing eyes – became Frankl’s second wife. Frankl writes about her as a wonderful life companion, who shared his passions (including the most important one: hiking in the mountains), gave him space to work, and was – as the couple’s friends said – “the warmth that accompanies the glow.”
When Viktor Frankl was transported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, the manuscript of The Doctor and the Soul was hidden in the lining of his coat. The coat was in good condition, so he had to give it up – in exchange, he got a ragged coat that used to belong to someone killed in a gas chamber. In its pocket, Frankl found a piece of paper torn from a prayer book with the text of Shema Yisrael (“Hear, O Israel”) – one of the most important prayers in Judaism, re-affirming one’s personal relationship with God. Frankl managed to hold on to this piece of paper.
When asked about his faith, Frankl would say that the answer depended on whether he was speaking as a psychiatrist, philosopher, doctor, or simply a human being. His family home was religious, and as a child, Frankl was also religious. During adolescence, Frankl went through an atheist phase and later emphasized that the answer to the question about faith depends on the audience to which one is talking. “I would not dream of confessing my personal faith when speaking about logotherapeutic methods and techniques to psychiatrists. This would not serve the spreading of logotherapeutic ideas, which, after all is my responsibility.” Still, it would be hard not to notice how often he brings up the subject of coincidence and the question of whether something that happens to us is mere chance or a manifestation of a higher order. One such coincidence was the prayer found in the pocket of a randomly allocated coat...
Frankl concludes the theoretical part of Man’s Search for Meaning with the following words: “Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel
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