Ten years ago
this month, with the world’s attention focused upon the deaths of Mother
Teresa and Princess Diana, a third great figure died in Europe, his death largely unnoticed and his life’s work seemingly forgotten.
was a Viennese psychiatrist who once worked with Freud. A survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau,
he drew heavily from his concentration camp experiences in his classic book “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
Unlike many Holocaust writers, who have catalogued the cruelty and inhumanity of which people are capable, Frankyl took the
long view, using his Holocaust experiences as an existential laboratory to analyze how some people held themselves together
under the most dehumanizing conditions imaginable. Having experienced that, he would write, “They can take away everything
except the last of the human freedoms: Man’s ability to change his own attitude in any given circumstance.” Frankyl’s
message to the world was that human freedom is indeed possible even under the most wretched conditions. It is notable that
Frankyl died of natural causes at the age of 92, while a number of lesser known Holocaust writers have taken their own lives.
Frankyl’s observations of the concentration camp system are an interesting take on human nature.
For example those prisoners whose job it was to run the crematoriums and gas chambers were granted one special privilege normally
reserved only for the highest levels of the Gestapo: they were allowed as much alcohol as they wanted.
While it is
widely believed that the camp experiences had a uniformly degrading effect upon all prisoners, Frankyl writes that it wasn’t
that way at all. Some of the prisoners ingratiated themselves into favorable positions as cooks, storekeepers, capos, and
camp security. The capos in particular were selected by the Gestapo for their brutish nature and low level of consciousness.
These favored elite prisoners “did not feel degraded at all- like the majority of prisoners, but on the contrary- promoted.
Some even developed miniature delusions of grandeur.” Having advanced in status, something they had not previously been
able to do, many of these men actually felt fulfilled and self-important for the first time. They were often harder on their
fellow prisoners than even the Gestapo, a phenomenon which was a source of bitterness and cynical humor to the other prisoners.
The camps were
rife with betrayals, theft, subterfuge and ruthless competition, but saintly and heroic people were present as well. Frankyl
tells of a noble class of men who gave away their last meager rations of bread to the sick or took dangerous risks for the
sake of others. Of survival he writes, “We who have come back, we know- the best of us did not return.”
Search for Meaning has been called the first and the best self-help book. While most current approaches to mental health delve
into the psychology of the unconscious, Frankyl’s is a no-nonsense approach to growing up and viewing the world as an
emotionally and spiritually mature being. Frankyl would say that we cannot escape suffering. We will all suffer the loss of
loved ones, feel the world’s cruelty and prejudices, be sick or lonesome, we must all in time grow old and feeble, and
we must all die. But the greatest tragedy is to lose one’s sense of meaning in life.
Lest we lose
faith in our fellow man, Frankyl wrote, “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz,
however, he is also that being who entered them upright with the Lord’s Prayer or the Schema Israel on his lips.”
an outspoken and opinionated man. He hated mass media spectacles; especially the public’s insatiable demand for scandals,
titillation and celebrity gossip. He deplored the movement of mass culture toward vicarious living, a phenomenon he would
see as evidence of a growing spiritual void, not only in America, but increasingly
in Europe. Eulogizing Frankyl in the Wall Street Journal, Matthew Scully wrote, “Frankyl
was perhaps the most acute analyst of secular culture, that modern way of swearing devotion to faraway people, causes, and
ideals while letting one’s own life unravel.”
popular on the lecture circuit in the 1950’s and 60’s. He visited the United States for the last time in 1990 where -to his dismay- no major network
was interested in interviewing him, an indicator of the skewed, dumbed-down priorities of network television. Nevertheless,
Man’s Search for Meaning has sold five million copies, been translated into 32 languages, and continuously in print
since 1946, so people are indeed still interested.
wrote, “It’s a safe bet we won’t be seeing Viktor Frankyl on the cover of Time or People. But his passing
reminds us why we should prize wisdom at least as much as beauty: We need it more and it lasts a lot longer.”