AUTHOR- Viktor E. Frankl
PUBLISHED IN- 1946
It is a first in non-fiction for me after so long. I seldom read anything other than fiction but the sheer fact that this book was based on Holocaust simply made me pick it up. After all, there is some genuine power in suffering that binds people together.
This book is merely an account of how staying positive had helped many prisoners to stay alive in the concentration camps. The author was imprisoned along with hundreds of thousands of others and moved to several Nazi concentration camps where survival was the end game for them. Stripping a human being of everything that he owns- how does he survive then? What makes the person want to fight for his life? And if survival is an instinct, how come people give up?
Victor E. Frankl, a psychiatrist accounts the different mental dilemmas of the different prisoners during the toughest times of their lives. The author goes on to create Logotherapy which is essentially a form of existential analysis.
“To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
I don’t know why but the above analogy sounds comforting to me. Often I find myself in some dilemma and then when I wonder about people who are in a worse off state than me, I feel guilty. I feel ashamed of my suffering, wondering to myself if my suffering is worth it? There is also a quote mentioned in the book, Dostoevski once said, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” Truly, it is a pain, not to be able to be at peace with your own suffering. Baruch Spinoza, a philosopher mentions in Ethics, “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.” So, is the answer to all these suffering is to understand the root of the suffering and accept it? Doesn’t seem fake to me.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The above quote was in accordance when they witnessed prisoners offering words of comfort or last pieces of their bread to other prisoners. It does answer my question of how a man survives when everything has been stripped from him. Through remaining true to himself. Through choosing a path that only he knows he can walk on.
An incident that is mentioned in the book which I found really interesting. A friend of the author, also a prisoner, mentions to the author about his dream wherein an entity had asked him for a wish. The man wishes to know when the war would end and when they would all be free to go. The entity answers as thirteenth of March. When the man mentions this dream to the author, it was already the beginning of March. As days gradually go by, it becomes clearer that the war wasn’t going to be over within a fortnight. Thirteenth of March comes and goes and nothing happens except for the loss of hope for the man. He dies on the thirty-first of the same month due to typhus. As the author explains, the man died inwardly due to the loss of hope which in turn made him weak to the attack of typhus. Also noted by the author, the death rate between Christmas 1944 and New year’s 1995 had increased. It wasn’t due to the extremities that they had to face in the cold but because majority of prisoners had thought that they would be home by Christmas. Another hope was destroyed. This just shows how extremely powerful hope can be for survival. To be able to look forward to something in the future; this keeps people going.
I liked the fact that Frankl said that sometimes it was important to weep. There was no shame in weeping from great suffering. When you weep, you are kicking it all out of your system and that is so important to move forward.
In a section, he also mentioned about how he would remember his wife whenever he was in great misery. The simple things like the shape of her face or the look of her face when she would smile, thinking of all these kept him going. He didn’t know whether or not she was alive but such images of her comforted him. As they say, love transcends all.
Similar to this, the prisoners often remembered trivial activities that they used to do. Common things such as unlocking the door to get inside the house or the way they felt when they sat on their dinning chairs at home, each of such incident brought about a sense of nostalgia and hope. They were all even envious of the people inside prisons, who went there for committing a crime or not for being a Jew. At least those prisoners had rooms of their own, clothes of their own, were able to fill their stomach and were alive in a true sense.
Finally, when he talks about liberation, it is confusing for a prisoner. Having being jailed for years and then treated worse than a vermin, they had all developed a dream of how liberation would feel like. But when they were all freed for real, they realized that no matter what, they would never feel happiness in the way they used to. They had been so accustomed to the suffering that even happiness felt an alien emotion, something that they didn’t know how to handle with.
There is this one quote that he kept on repeating throughout the book:
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”