“As we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.’
In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him. The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner’s existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return, and I answered…
A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing — which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance…
Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. ‘Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.'”
From Viktor Frankl’s psychological chronicle of the Holocaust Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl was a successful 37-year-old neurologist and therapist on the day he was deported from his home in Vienna to the Nazi ghetto Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Two years later, in October 1944, Frankl and his wife Tilly were transported to Auschwitz, then processed as slave laborers, split up, and sent off — Victor to a worksite bordering Dachau and Tilly to Bergen Belsen in Germany, where she soon died. Frankl would not come to know of her fate until after American soldiers liberated his camp in April, 1945, nor was he aware then that his mother Elsa, father Gabriel, and only brother, Walter, had also met the same fate at Aushwitz and Theresienstadt.
Last week I began flipping through Martin Gilbert’s much acclaimed historical survey The Holocaust. I like to think I have some of what Orwell called “a power of facing” unpleasant facts, and that my stomach is tough enough to digest even gruesome or taboo truths about the world. I’ve never walked out of a movie or play, or had to shelf a book, for the sole reason that it was just too horrifying to handle. Gilbert’s text, however, broke this streak; by the time I had reached about the two-hundredth page – less than a third of the way into this oppressive text – I felt so enervated that I had to put it down. I don’t think I’ll ever read it again.
It is, nevertheless, an excellent book – rigorously sourced, clearly organized – and in my brief reading of it (I didn’t even get to the really bad stuff) I alighted on two discrete lessons about the Holocaust. Number one: the Holocaust is something we cannot discuss without euphemism. To say someone “lived” in a ghetto or “died” in a concentration camp is to wash over essentially every splinter of truth which made up those experiences. If the scenes in Gilbert’s Holocaust are rated NC-17, then Schindler’s List, in all its terror, looks naïvely PG.
Part of the reason for this discrepancy between the reality of the Holocaust and its representation stems from the fact that, by definition, those that got it the worst are not the ones who survived to tell us their stories. Moreover, as the above excerpt from Frankl attests, the lucky few who made it past the Spring of 1945 are a minority who, through some combination of fortune and resilience, came out the other side. This is a highly unrepresentative sample, given that the traits which often carried you through to that fateful spring – cunning, adaptability, inconspicuousness – also would color your witness to the events themselves. Moreover, the luminaries that possessed the fortitude to then write about this trauma are an especially tenacious and incandescently perceptive minority of that minority – a tiny sliver who defended not only their lives, but also their humanity. Just as Solzhenitsyn and Yevgenia Ginzburg are not emblematic of the faceless millions churned through the charnel pit of the Gulag, Victor Frankl (and Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, etc. etc.) are not “average” human beings in any sense of the term. They are the most exceptionally principled and shrewd of an already-exceptional group of survivors.
In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn gives this graphite-hard instruction for surviving in a prison camp:
So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared? What do you need to do to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap?
From the moment you go into prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At its very threshold you must say to yourself, ‘My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die — now or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.’ Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble.
Only the man who had renounced everything can win that victory. But how can one turn one’s body to stone?
It’s a brutal reflection from a man who somehow managed to eventually pull his spirit of humanity back through this cold, purposely-mangled interior-of-ice. Frankl took the opposite approach – he accentuated his warmest impulses, though crucially this was only an interior process – yet he speaks about how many survivors took the Solzhenitsyn route. His prescription for surviving a concentration camp: turn to fire or ice inside. Those who went lukewarm were gone in hours.
“What is to give light must endure burning.” – Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychologist, father of existential psychology, holocaust survivor. Frankl, who survived until 1997, was born this week in 1905 in Vienna, Austria.