While rereading Dr. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I wondered why nobody had thought to make his birthday an official holiday. Certainly there are commemorations that honor the memory of the Holocaust and the millions of victims. But a Victor Frankl holiday would highlight the courage and strength of the people who survived the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi camps. It would be a statement that the millions did not suffer in vain.
Viktor Frankl was born on March 26, 1905 in Vienna, Austria to a family of Jewish civil servants. As a youth, Frankl became president of the Social Democratic youth movement for Austrian high school students.
“What is to give light must endure burning.”–Viktor Frankl
He studied medicine at the University of Vienna and specialized in neurology and psychiatry. His specialists were depression and suicide. During his student days Frankl organized and offered a free program for high schoolers. It centered on the report card time when students were at highest risk for depression and suicide. There were no reports of suicide among participants in Vienna. This accomplishment brought the attention of major psychologists and scholars of the day in Berlin.
“What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.”
Frankl completed his residency at the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna. He treated over 30,000 suicidal women. He then established his independent practice in neurology and psychiatry in Vienna in 1937. After the takeover of Austria by the Nazi regime in 1938, he was no longer allowed to treat “Aryans” because of his Jewish ancestry. However, he was able to treat Jewish patients at the Rothschild Hospital’s neurological wing. He was able to save many patients from the Nazi euthanasia program by his opinions.
Frankl’s wife and parents were sent to the Theresienstadt Ghetto in late September of 1942. He began work at a mental health care unit that helped new Ghetto arrivals to overcome shock and grief. He also, later, organized a suicide watch team. During Dr. Frankl’s time in the Ghetto, he headed a series of lectures around psychological and Existential topics.
“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing 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.”
Frankl and his wife, Tilly, were sent to Auschwitz Concentration Camp on October 19, 1944. He was assigned to the Kaufering unit near Dachau. His wife was assigned to Bergen-Belsen, where she died. Frankl’s mother was gassed at Auschwitz. Frankl’s brother, Walter, died at hard labor in a mining operation affiliated with Auschwitz. Meantime, Frankl worked at a Dachau affiliated camp as a physician until that concentration camp was liberated by the Allies on April 27, 1945.
Frankl returned to Vienna after regaining his liberty, at this time he wrote his book Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe Erlebt das Konzentrationslager (in English, “Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp”). When published in English, the title was shortened to Man’s Search for Meaning.
The thesis of his book is that deep meaning to life can be found in the midst of extreme suffering. This conclusion was validated by concentration camp inmates’ and his own painful, dehumanized treatment by the camp overseers.
“Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in its spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”
As a result of his studies and first-hand experiences, Frankl pioneered the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy”. His approach included logotherapy and existential analysis. He noticed the common anxiety of average people that they are aware of a sort of emptiness and discontent with their lives after the work week has ended for the weekend. Some people feel cynical, apathetic, bored, and anxious. The lack of organized direction feels uncomfortable to them.
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather 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.”
Frankl went on to write 32 books on existential analysis and logotherapy that have been translated into some 26 languages. He held five professorships in the U.S. They were at Harvard, Stanford, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and San Diego. He was awarded the Oskar Pfister Prize and held 29 honorary doctorates from major international universities.
Viktor E. Frankl died of heart failure at the age of 92, on September 2, 1997. He was survived by his second wife Elenore, his daughter, grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this Frankl saying: “I do not forget any good deed done to me, and I do not carry a grudge for a bad one.”