Meaning in suffering: Frankl on Auschwitz


I promised to ruminate on Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning.

First, for those of you who have not read the book, a quick overview:

The book is short and easy to read. It has two parts:

  1. In Part I, Frankl talks about his own survival in Auschwitz and several other concentration camps, and his psychological observations about himself and others during that time.
  2. In Part II, Frankl gives an overview of his psychiatric theory, which is called logotherapy, and which his observations about camp life were meant to prove/affirm.

As for Part I, I recommend it for everybody. I believe it is a timeless piece of writing, all the more so for its brevity and simplicity. In a compassionate, measured and compelling writer’s voice, Frankl gives us a view of what it was like. His tone is the opposite of shrill or sensationalist. He makes especially the “ordinary” details of this extraordinary experience unforgettably vivid.

And he gives order to his account. In particular, he describes the mental stages that inmates like himself went through.


First there was shock. Frankl particularly emphasizes how he found it hard to part with a manuscript that he was carrying with him when he was being admitted to Auschwitz. It already contained his complete logotherapy theory–and thus a large part of what he considered to be the meaning of his life–and having to surrender it was his first big shock.


Then there was apathy. Apathy is usually a bad word nowadays, but Frankl shows us how it was a necessary reaction for survival. Consider this passage (Kindle locations 388-93), in which he is looking out of a window in his cottage at a dead man:

The corpse which had just been removed stared in at me with glazed eyes. Two hours before I had spoken to that man. Now I continued sipping my soup. If my lack of emotion had not surprised me from the standpoint of professional interest, I would not remember this incident now, because there was so little feeling involved in it. Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings.


And then there was the issue of meaning. Inmates had one of two reactions:

  1. Some inmates saw no meaning in their suffering and in their lives anymore. Those inmates eventually gave up. They might one day be seen smoking the cigarette butt they had been hoarding while lying in their feces on the bunk, not intending to get up again, consuming their last pleasure while resigned to dying.
  2. Other inmates, including Frankl, saw or found meaning in their suffering and had a chance at survival. Frankl found meaning, for instance, in the ideas that had been contained in the manuscript that was now lost, and that he now had a duty to resurrect by surviving the camps. And he found meaning in the idea that his wife, also in the camps and perhaps dead, might still be alive and need him.

In Frankl’s words (locations 1168-70):

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Here he talks about one moment when he felt his wife’s presence (locations 632-41):

I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet”—and the light shineth in the darkness. 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.

Captivity in liberation

And then, for the lucky ones like himself, there was the challenge–yes, challenge–of liberation. Most inmates found it very hard to be set free at last. Many had lost their moral fiber, their personality, their optimism, their humanity in the camps and were now at a loss, unable to enjoy freedom.

Here are just a few insights worth pondering:

Humor: It’s necessary.

From locations 670-73 and 681-85:

Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humor.

The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of 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.

Humanity: Not guards versus inmates but decent men versus indecent

This is surprising, perhaps, but Frankl did not observe the camp as Nazis versus Jews, or guards versus inmates, but as decent versus indecent.

Among the guards he saw some decent men along with the indecent. And among the prisoners, he saw some of the most indecent, in particular the ones they called the “capos”–inmates who had made themselves complicit with the guards for personal favor and who were often the most sadistic men in the whole camp.

The primacy of attitude

What made some prisoners resilient and others not? In a word, attitude.

Loc. 973-74 and 981-82

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.

The sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

With the wrong attitude, a prisoner saw life as pointless, meaningless:

Loc. 1056-61

It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist. Regarding our “provisional existence” as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.

But with the right attitude, prisoners saw a positive opportunity even in a concentration camp:

Loc. 1065-67

Most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.

Obviously, there is a lot more to say about Frankl and logotherapy, but let’s pick that up in another post.

6 thoughts on “Meaning in suffering: Frankl on Auschwitz

  1. I hope for your sake that you also have a paper copy of “Man’s Search for Meaning”, given that some Kindle owners recently had certain downloaded books zapped from their Kindles. It makes one realise how easily and effectively governments will be able to detroy books, when everyone reads only from electronic readers not too long from now.

    Governments won’t even need to send book-police into people’s houses to burn their books, as happened in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”. They’ll just zap them, as happened to the above-mentioned Kindle owners.

    Wouldn’t it be funny if current owners of Kindles had all their down-loaded copies of “Fahrenheit 451” zapped?

  2. I don’t have a paper copy. Digitized “book burning” is an angle I have not thought about, but quite a scary possibility in a future dystopia.

    In this case, however, I must say that reading the Kindle version was practical: I underlined as I read, then plugged the USB cable in and, voila, had all my notes on my laptop. Then I copied and pasted into the post, deleted what I did not need, and in a few minutes I had a blog post.

    Tech, in other words, allows me to do more thinking and enjoying and sharing with less fiddling.

  3. Off topic – here’s an interesting view of pros/cons of the Kindle for readers and writers

    “my new favorite thing in the whole world is my Kindle.”
    “For 86 cents I was able to acquire all of the novels of Jane Austen.”
    “The next generation will likely find our attachment to paper quaint. Remember rotary phones and audiocassettes? ”
    “While I am devoted to my Kindle, I understand that with e-publishing, there’s a whole lot more to think about than enjoying a good novel in your sleeping bag. We—authors and publishers—need to ask the right questions and then work together to figure it all out.”

  4. Just wanted to say thanks for this post. It has been years since I read MSFM and was writing a brief article in which I wanted to use some of Frankl’s observations. You lead me straight to them and it was like revisiting and old friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s