On this date in 1945, Auschwitz was finally liberated.
At least 1.1 million of its inmates were murdered as part of the Nazi Final Solution.
I hope this image of evil, the banality of evil, is never erased; it is important to remember what we can become, whether guard or inmate.
That’s why I pull out my thumb-worn copy of MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING every Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a short read and it is life-changing.
To his surprise, he found that even in the brutality and squalor, sickness and death that surrounded him every single day for years, he was able to still find hope, see beauty, and transcend the horrors imposed upon him.
“I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.”
Frankl wrote of love, love that helped him survive, even when his beloved had already died.
“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.”
“Occasionally, I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of morning was beginning to spread behind a bank of dark clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with 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.”
“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 hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong; she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.”
“For the first time in my life, I was able to understand the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.’ “
“Suddenly there was a silence and into the night a violin sang a desperately sad tango, an unusual tune not spoiled by frequent playing. The violin wept and a part of me wept with it, for on that same day someone had a twenty-fourth birthday. That someone lay in another part of the Auschwitz camp, possibly only a few hundred or a thousand yards away and yet completely out of reach. That someone was my wife.”
The hope he discovered and clung to under the worst possible circumstances?
“…in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”
“Dostoevsky said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
Frankl was a physician and he often tried to help when others inevitably fell ill and needed succor:
“Some details of a particular man’s inner greatness may have come to one’s mind, like the story of the young woman whose death I witnessed in a concentration camp. It is a simple story. There is little to tell and it may sound as if I had invented it; but to me it seems like a poem.”
“This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. ‘I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,’ she told me. ‘In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.’”
“Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. I was startled and didn’t know quite how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations?”
“Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied.
What did it say to her?
She answered, ‘It said to me, “I am here – I am here – I am life, eternal life.”
Frankl’s insights are remarkable:
“We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”
“What man actually needs is the…striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”
“What matters…is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.”
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life, he can only respond by being responsible.”
“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when feeling a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
“What (a man) becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment – he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints.”
“Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”
“…man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright with The Lord’s Prayer…on his lips.”
“…there are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or by doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love. Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing, change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”
“To achieve personal meaning, one must transcend subjective pleasures by doing something that points, and is directed, to something, or someone other than oneself.”
Less than 6 months ago, we witnessed the images of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, and at the University of Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” In Portland, Oregon, two men who came to the defense of two young Muslim girls being attacked by a white supremacist, were stabbed and killed.
It can happen here. It already has happened here.
We live in times of rancor and naked greed yet, at the same time, of incredible prosperity and abundance, pummeled daily, hourly, by the hyperbole and hatred in each political camp, each distrusting and demonizing the other.
Every good thing in our lives can be taken away in an instant, literally, with a diagnosis or a middle-of-the-night phone call or a boy with a gun in our kids’ school.
Maybe this year, 2018, we can focus less on us, and more on those who desperately need us.
Maybe we can spend more time listening and less time shouting.
Maybe we can disconnect our phones and our Facebook alerts long enough to think about what would give our lives meaning, acknowledging the sickness of our politics, of our world, and still making a conscious choice to ignore our own narrow, selfish interests and spend more energy on all those literally hanging by a thread.