On Friday night I said kaddish (the Jewish mourner’s prayer) for Viktor Frankl, a man I never knew. Just privately without announcing his name, because that would raise too many questions.
Two years ago Facebook asked us to post “ten books that have affected me.” Usually I have at least heard of the books people mention, if not read them myself. My friend MM said her list included Man’s Search for Meaning. How is it that I had never heard of this book? Perhaps because part of its focus is Frankl’s psychology theory, and I didn’t study psychology.
Finally, this summer, I got around to reading it. Light summer reading it is not!
The first part of the book describes his experience in Nazi concentration camps and examines the psychology of what happens to prisoners in those conditions. It’s a short book, 154 pages, but because of the subject matter, it’s not an easy book to get through.
Frankl describes the horrors that he went through in a way that analyzes what is happening to him and the other prisoners. The prisoner’s psyche descends, as he enters into that prison system of humiliation and death, from shock to apathy, an “emotional death” of sorts. The struggle to maintain a sense of self-respect became necessary for life itself.
Frankl’s theory of psychology, “logotherapy,” is derived from the Greek word logos, “a Greek word which denotes ‘meaning,’” according to Frankl. He contends that the primary driver of human motivation is the search for meaning, rather than the search for pleasure or power.
I remember two cases of would-be suicide… Both used the typical argument – they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. …. . A man who… knows the “why” for his existence will be able to bear almost any “how.” (p. 88)
I am unqualified to judge Frankl’s theory of psychology. But I can point out that in the 1920s and 1930s, before the age of 30, Frankl was already working at helping to prevent suicide.
1930 He organizes a special counseling program at the end of the school term, whereupon, for the first time in years, no student suicide occurs in Vienna. www.viktorfrankl.org
With the invasion of the Nazis into Austria in 1938, Jews were forbidden to treat non-Jewish patients.
1940 – 1942 He becomes director of the Neurological Department of the Rothschild Hospital, a clinic for Jewish patients. In spite of the danger to his own life he sabotages Nazi procedures by making false diagnoses to prevent the euthanasia of mentally ill patients. www.viktorfrankl.org
In 1941, with full understanding of the fate that he faced, he turned down an immigration visa to the US so that he could stay with his aging parents. In 1942 he and his whole family were arrested and taken to the camps. His wife, unborn child, parents, brother and brother’s wife were murdered in the Nazi camps. The only other member of his family to survive was his sister, who had escaped to Australia.
I was amazed to learn that after World War II, Viktor Frankl chose to return to Vienna. He became the head of the Vienna Polyclinic of Neurology. His second marriage was to a practicing Catholic, so it was an interfaith marriage. He spent many years as a professor of neurology and psychiatry, and was guest professor at a number of US universities. He died in 1997 at the age of 92.
So I, a Christian woman, said the Jewish mourner’s prayer for him because he was a person who cared for and about others, in spite of everything that happened to him. The original title of his book was:
Nevertheless, Say "Yes" to Life:
A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp