The Shoah: Suffering, Meaning and Life
This is a time of collective reflection as we ponder the terrible pains of the Shoah (or Holocaust). I recently reread one of the best books I’ve ever come across, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
A survivor of concentration camps, he shares his experiences and reflections as an individual and as a psychotherapist: what he and his fellow inmates went through internally, what they experienced, and how some of them survived.
Frankl developed his own approach to psychotherapy in contrast to the dominant versions offered by Sigmund Freud (who believed that humans are motivated by a need to gratify one’s physical needs, or pleasure) and Alfred Adler (who argued that humans are motivated by their feelings of worth, or self-perceived inferiority). Many of his philosophical colleagues embraced an existentialism marked by pessimism and anti-religious sentiment; Frankl ‘s approach embraced a positive look toward the future. He saw humans motivated by a will to find meaning, and the key to survival in the greatest of suffering like he lived through during the Shoah was finding meaning in suffering. His psychotherapeutic philosophy embraced Nietzsche's aphorism, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In order to survive, we must have a future goal toward which we look; without faith in one’s own future, we are doomed.
Gradually these prisoners lost everything, connections to their families and professions, their freedom, their belongings, and the things they thought they needed to survive. Yet he says, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.”
The full name of this commemorative day is “The Shoah and Heroism Remembrance Day.” The heroes we remember are not just the resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or the Jewish partisan guerrilla units but also all the women, men, and children who resisted dehumanization in the death camps by making moral decisions every day without submitting their own inner freedom and dignity.
The end of the Shoah and liberation from camps was not the end of suffering. Instead, Frankl said that“just as the physical health of the caisson worker would be endangered if he left his diver’s chamber suddenly (where he is under enormous atmospheric pressure), so the man who has suddenly been liberated from mental pressure can suffer damage to his moral and spiritual health.” Once freed, sometimes the best of the former prisoners fell subject to “moral deformity resulting from the sudden release of mental pressure...They justified their behavior by their own terrible experiences...Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them. We had to strive to lead them back to this truth.”
Today, as I reflect on the millions of Jews who were enslaved and murdered during the Shoah (as well as all of the other victims of the Nazi oppressors -- Roma, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, and all political dissidents), I look to those who, like Frankl, lived through it to see how they processed their experience. I wonder how those who experienced dehumanization could choose not to oppress, and particularly those like Frankl, who found meaning in the midst of a situation many would consider irredeemable. Finally, I marvel at Frankl’s words: “Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”