In the middle of Viktor Frankl’s tour de force chronicle of his survival of the Holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, there is a particular moment when existence at Dachau goes from dark to pitch black. It is the winter of 1944, several months after the D-Day invasions and thus the point in which Hitler’s Third Reich, sensing the writing on the wall, ratchets up the noxious gears of its Final Solution. The markers of this period are evoked by arresting phrases like Robert Jay Lifton’s “wild euthanasia” and Nicholson Baker’s “human smoke,” and can be seen crystalized in Schindler’s List, when an initially puzzled Liam Neeson sees ash fall from a clear sky as he wanders amidst children playing in a bourgeoisie town square.
For Frankl and his work group, these portents are worsened by the fact that they are being incrementally starved after refusing to identify a fellow prisoner suspected of stealing potatoes from a camp store house. Several days into this deprivation, the men have gone from emaciated to skeletal, as have their hopes for survival. As they lie on their dark bunks one evening, Frankl, only thirty-nine years old and one of the most respected men in the group, is asked by the barracks leader to give a speech.
The following is Frankl’s recollection of his words. It is one of the most beautiful and life-affirming speeches I’ve read, and one of several scenes I would have most wanted and hated to witness in the entire human drama of World War Two. Without fantasy or sentimentality, Frankl testifies to the force of life amidst terror and reaffirms the innate dignity of each human being in the face of whatever degradations he has suffered. I highly recommend a few moments of reading and reflection. The passage starts just as Frankl is called from his bunk:
“God knows, I was not in the mood to give psychological explanations or to preach any sermons — to offer my comrades a kind of medical care of their souls. I was cold and hungry, irritable and tired, but I had to make the effort and use this unique opportunity. Encouragement was now more necessary than ever.
So I began by mentioning the most trivial of comforts first. I said that even in this Europe in the sixth winter of the Second World War, our situation was not the most terrible we could think of. I said that each of us had to ask himself what irreplaceable losses he had suffered up to then. I speculated that for most of them these losses had really been few. Whoever was still alive had reason for hope. Health, family, happiness, professional abilities, fortune, position in society — all these were things that could be achieved again or restored. After all, we still had all our bones intact. Whatever we had gone through could still be an asset to us in the future…
Then I spoke about the future. I said that to the impartial the future must seem hopeless. I agreed that each of us could guess for himself how small were his chances of survival. I told them that although there was still no typhus epidemic in the camp, I estimated my own chances at about one in twenty. But I also told them that, in spite of this, I had no intention of losing hope and giving up. For no man knew what the future would bring, much less the next hour. Even if we could not expect any sensational military events in the next few days, who knew better than we, with our experience of camps, how great chances sometimes opened up, quite suddenly, at least for the individual. For instance, one might be attached unexpectedly to a special group with exceptionally good working conditions—for this was the kind of thing which constituted the ‘luck’ of the prisoner.
But I did not only talk of the future and the veil which was drawn over it. I also mentioned the past; all its joys, and how its light shone even in the present darkness. Again I quoted a poet — to avoid sounding like a preacher myself — who had written, ‘Was Du erlebst, kann keine Macht der Welt Dir rauben.’ (What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.) Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.
Then I spoke of the many opportunities of giving life a meaning. I told my comrades (who lay motionless, although occasionally a sigh could be heard) that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death. I asked the poor creatures who listened to me attentively in the darkness of the hut to face up to the seriousness of our position. They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning. I said that someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours — a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or God — and he would not expect us to disappoint him. He would hope to find us suffering proudly — not miserably — knowing how to die.
And finally I spoke of our sacrifice, which had meaning in every case. It was in the nature of this sacrifice that it should appear to be pointless in the normal world, the world of material success. But in reality our sacrifice did have a meaning. Those of us who had any religious faith, I said frankly, could understand without difficulty. I told them of a comrade who on his arrival in camp had tried to make a pact with Heaven that his suffering and death should save the human being he loved from a painful end. For this man, suffering and death were meaningful; his was a sacrifice of the deepest significance. He did not want to die for nothing. None of us wanted that.
The purpose of my words was to find a full meaning in our life, then and there, in that hut and in that practically hopeless situation. I saw that my efforts had been successful. When the electric bulb flared up again, I saw the miserable figures of my friends limping toward me to thank me with tears in their eyes. But I have to confess here that only too rarely had I the inner strength to make contact with my companions in suffering and that I must have missed many opportunities for doing so.”
From Viktor Frankl’s psychological chronicle of the Holocasust Man’s Search for Meaning.
- Cornel West’s testimony: “… Every person has a sanctity. Not just a dignity the way the Stoics talked about, but a sanctity: a value that has no price…”
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s moving “Who Am I?” letter from a German prison
- A section from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel speech, “A World Split Apart”