Most books progress, with many chapters, each chapter tell different events, or different people, or different phases of life, usually progressing in some manner. But the story in Viktor Frankl’s account of life in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II is one long dreary struggle for survival, unrelieved misery, each day running into the next, no weekends, for a precious few a monotonous few years until the war ended, for some many, many months of misery, for most, for nine out of ten Jews, they had left only days before they stripped for showers not of streams of life-giving water but showers spewing noxious fumes into gas chambers.
Viktor Frankl was one of the few of the ten percent whose first shower in Auschwitz sprayed life giving water over their naked bodies, one of the few who survived years of what was the most brutal slave society the world had ever seen, where formerly free men and women were torn away from their families, whose luggage and their jewelry and clothes were taken, even their hair shorn from them. The Nazis even strove to steal from them their humanity, taking away their names, tattooing on their wrists the numbers they would be their new identity.
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Viktor’s monotonous prisoner existence began in coach cars,
“Traveling by train for several days and nights,”
“Eighty people in each coach,” “lying on top of their luggage,”
Which was “the few remnants of all their personal possessions,”
Luggage was stacked so high it blocked most of “the grey of dawn.”
Anxious passengers cried out, “There is a sign, Auschwitz!”
“Outlines of an immense camp, long stretches of barbed wire,”
“Watch towers, searchlights, long columns of trekking ragged human figures,”
Auschwitz the horrible, “gas chambers, crematoriums, massacres.”
For those slaves who were not among the slain, random beatings started,
Only one five-ounce piece of bread for these first four days,
Their well-fitting shoes were turned in for ill-fitting shoes,
“But when the showers started to run,” “We all tried to make fun,”
“Both about ourselves and about each other.”
“After all, real water did flow from the sprays!”
For each camp, below the camp commandant were the German guards, mostly SS men, most selected for their sadistic cruelty. Then there were the capos, also selected for their cruelty, who were well-fed Jewish prisoners who assisted the guards, and who often exceeded the guards in their cruelties. But men are always a mix of good and evil, and some guards and some capos were only as cruel as they needed to be. Viktor remembered there were some “guard who took pity on the prisoners.” The camp doctor made it known that the camp commandant “paid no small sum to purchase medicines from his own pocket to purchase medicines for his prisoners.” In gratitude, after the camp was liberated, some prisoners hid him in the woods until the Allied commanders promised they would show him some mercy.
Viktor remembered that in the barracks of the work camp,
On each tier of the bunks slept nine men,” “directly on the boards,”
Shoulder to shoulder, two blankets for nine men,
“Lying on their sides,” huddled together against the bitter cold,
Turning in unison, arms or mud-caked shoes for pillows.
These prisoners learned how much desperate men could endure,
“Wearing the same shirts for half a year, losing all appearance of shirts,”
“For days unable to wash because of frozen water pipes,”
“Unable to clean their teeth,” “sores and abrasions on dirty hands.”
“Nearly everyone thought of suicide, if only for a brief time.”
“On my first evening I promised myself, I would not run into the wire,”
The electrically-charged barb wire for immediate rather than looming death.
“There was little point in committing suicide,” most “did not fear death.”
After a few weeks a colleague of Viktor snuck into his barracks with advice. “Shave daily, with glass if you have to.” “If you want to stay alive, there is only one way: look fit for work. If you even limp, because of a blister on hour heel, and an SS man spots this, he will wave you aside to be gassed. Do you know what we mean by a ‘Moslem’? This is a man who looks miserable, down and out, sick and emaciated, and who cannot manage hard physical labor any longer. Sooner or later, usually sooner, every ‘Moslem’ goes to the gas chambers. Therefore, remember: shave, stand and walk smartly; then you need not be afraid of the gas.” And the most important advice: “Do not be conspicuous.”
At first prisoners “were consumed with boundless longing for home and family,”
But cruel time would soon make him immune to meaningless beatings,
And screaming from beatings of other prisoners and meaningless cruelties,
Like the twelve year-old boy forced to stand for hours, barefoot in the snow,
For whom the doctor “picked off these black gangrenous stumps.”
These stumps that were toes, “he picked them off with tweezers, one by one.”
Most prisoners were marched out to work details in the snow,
Their ill-fitting shoes filling with snow, avoiding beatings from the cruel guards,
Beatings that could mean the end of the prisoner who slipped in the snow.
Viktor, “like nearly all camp inmates, was suffering from edema,”
“With swollen legs and skin so tightly stretched he could barely bend his knees,”
Walking in frost-bitten shoes in icy shoes, “every step was real torture,”
Every slip and tumble answered with the butt of a rifle, Get Up! Get Up!
Small acts of kindness helped Viktor Frankl survive many monotonous cruelties.
One capo took a liking to him because Viktor, during those long marches,
Attentively “listened to his love stories and matrimonial troubles.”
This kind capo placed Viktor in the front lines to avoid the worst work parties,
And made sure that at lunch the cook, when Viktor time came in line,
“Dipped the ladle to the bottom of the vat to fish out a few peas.”
Freud, whose theories only minimally influence current psychological practice, thought that repressed sexual drives propelled our subconscious desires, but Viktor Frankl disagrees, his theory posits that Man’s Search For Meaning is what drives him. Rabbi Kushner in the Foreword to the book said that “Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning, in work, doing something significant; in love, caring for another person; and in courage during difficult times.” Frankl saw that this search for meaning is what kept people alive in the death camps. Was sex the innermost drive for prisoners?
Viktor Frankl asks,
“What did the prisoner dream about most frequently?”
He dreamed of “bread, cake, cigarettes, and warm baths.”
“The lack of these simple desires led to their wish-fulfillment in dreams.”
The workers at Auschwitz were “skeletons with skin and rags,”
Never fed enough, only thin soup, small bread ration,
With scraps of sausage or cheese or a spoonful of jam.
When their bodies consumed their fat,
their “bodies devoured themselves,”
Protein and muscles disappeared,
the “body had no powers of resistance left.”
Those prisoners with a rich inner spiritual life were more likely to survive. Viktor Frankl remembers, “In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may suffer more pain, but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than those who were more robust.”
Viktor tells us, “The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. Apathy can be overcome; irritability can be suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.” No matter how dire your circumstances, you can always be kind to those around you.
The Germans loaded Viktor and other prisoners into a transport,
The prisoners dreaded that the transport would take them to Mauthausen,
To their deaths, but the transport instead stopped at Dachau,
Dachau, a work camp of only a few thousand, “no over, no crematorium, no gas!”
This means anyone who becomes a ‘Moslem’ was safer,
Nobody could be “sent straight away to a gas chamber,”
They would have to wait for a “sick convoy to Auschwitz,”
Which to the Germans would be an administrative inconvenience.
Life at Dachau was slightly better, they had time to delouse at night,
The camp had a “cook who did not look at the men whose bowls he was filling,”
“The only cook who would deal out the soup equally, regardless of recipient.”
When he was in sick quarters, the “chief doctor rushed in,”
Asking Frankl to “volunteer for medical duties at a nearby camp.” He accepted,
And it was ordered that the doctor volunteers would “be taken care of,”
So they would turn into corpses before they could be transferred.
Snap decisions and pure chance often determined whether you would live or die.
Was this a forever rest camp? The chief doctor “who had taken a liking to Viktor,”
“Told him furtively that he could have his name crossed off the list.”
But “it was not a ruse, they were not heading for the death camp,”
“They actually did go to a rest camp.” Famine raged worse in the camp they left,
“A camp policeman confiscated from a cooking pot some missing human flesh.”
The day before their camp was liberated by the Allied armies,
There was another transport to another camp,
Viktor hid so he was not transported, this was also a fortunate decision,
These transported prisoners were locked in huts, then the camp was burned.
Viktor remembers, “One day, a few days after liberation, I walked and walked,
Miles and miles through flowering meadows, larks rising to the skies.
There was no one seen for miles around, nothing but the wide earth and sky,
Noting but the lark’s jubilation and the freedom of space.”
Viktor remembered the prayer, “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison,
The Lord answered me in the freedom of space.”
Viktor Frankl’s reflections on Auschwitz end thus:
“For every one of the liberated prisoners, the day comes when, looking back on his camp experiences, he can no longer understand how he endured it all. As the day of his liberation eventually came, when everything seemed to him like a beautiful dream, so also the day comes when all his camp experiences seem to him nothing but a nightmare.”
“The crowing experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more, except for his God.”
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 Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, 1959), Chapter 1, Experiences in Concentration Camp, pp. 3-96.