Skip to main content.

Back to: >> Resources

Surviving Auschwitz on Spirit Alone.
Viktor E. Frankl
Book Review

In addition to spirit, Frankl also had his share of luck, first when he was selected for slave labor. Then again when unable to move, he lay down to die, a health crises requiring his medical skills rescued him with food and yet more time. His last brush came as the Americans approached. There was no room left in the trucks evacuating internees. Those finding seats were cremated alive--to destroy eye witnesses to genocide! He and a colleague were the only camp survivors. But Frankl doesn't dwell on his luck. He tells a brutal story of hardship in the extreme, a combo of Greek tragedy and horror movie in real life, such was the genocide Hitler visited on the Jews.

All belongings were immediately confiscated. Including clothing. They were given uniforms of rags, worn-out shoes not likely to even fit. Beatings were common and whimsical. Ironically, the Nazi guards were often less brutal than their fellow Jews, the capos selected from their own ranks to 'supervise' the work details and camp life. Only in the sleeping huts was there significant protection from the elements. Frostbite was common in winter and could spell doom for the sufferer. Assigned to labor gangs mostly repairing railroads, the work was back-breaking. Food rations came once per day, barely at the subsistence level--usually diluted pea soup with a bit of bread. This does not begin to describe the horror.

The most remarkable part of this book is the will to live some prisoners exhibited. A few of Frankl's comments follow:

  • If you want to stay alive, there is only one way: look fit for work. If you even limp, because, let us say, you have a small blister on you heel, and an SS man spots this, he will wave you aside and the next day are sure to be gassed. ...Therefor remember: shave, stand and walk smartly; then you need not be afraid of the gas.
  • Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care anymore, ...eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings.
  • The most painful part of the beatings is the insult they imply. ...Apathy, the main symptom of the second phase after the shock of internment, was a necessary mechanism of self-defense.

This went on for years. Days seemed like weeks. Soon prisoners shamelessly betrayed one another, robbed the dying and dead--all with a numbness beyond relief.

It may surprise the reader that intellectual life could flourish under these conditions. But it did. First one had to survive. Those who could hang onto their inner selves, who they were, were the ones to survive the camp's degenerating influences. Life for the others lost all meaning. Frankl speaks of those strong of heart: "Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it."

Frankl went on: "The prisoner who had lost his faith in the future--his future-- was doomed. ...he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and become subject to mental and physical decay. Usually this happened quite suddenly... We all feared this moment--not for ourselves, which would have been pointless, but for our friends."

It was not all black and white. There were SS guards who would not abuse prisoners, and one celebrated camp commander was literally saved by his prisoners after liberation. He had been kind to them at critical moments and they returned the kindness. In counterpoint, a chief warden, a Jew and prisoner himself, could be vicious in the violence he visited upon his fellow prisoners. Goodness and badness know no bounds it seems.

Liberation, as freeing as it was, was not always what had been dreamed. Many became bitter when upon returning home they were met by apathy, or even ignored. And many disillusioned upon returning home--no one awaited them. Their suffering lost all meaning for some.

Along with the volumes on genocide and works on authoritarianism, this book is a must read for its insights into how the oppressed can survive very rough times, and still be of good spirit.

Frankl was certainly exceptional. While a prisoner, he did nothing less than create a new and revolutionary school of psychotherapy--Logotherapy. It is practiced to this day.

Frankl's timeless message to us:

"Unconditional faith in
an unconditional meaning."


In his context the meaning is accepted as unconditional. To him, life has meaning and that is unconditional.

Posted by RoadToPeace on Friday, July 11, 2008 at 23:26:25

To be able to post comments, please register on the site.