By Toby Moore
For Capital Region Independent Media
A life that exemplified triumph over the deepest abysses of despair is that of Dr. Viktor Frankl. During World War II, Dr. Frankl was stripped of everything amidst the unimaginable horrors of Nazi concentration camps.
Frankl was born in 1905 in Vienna, Austria, into a Jewish family. By the time he was a young man, the Nazis rose to power, and their grip tightened on Europe; they enacted anti-Jewish laws in Austria, imposing severe restrictions on the Jewish community. These laws affected every facet of Jewish life.
Frankl, a practicing psychiatrist and neurologist, was barred from treating non-Jewish patients due to these oppressive policies. However, instead of being entirely sidelined, he took on a crucial role at the Rothschild Hospital in Vienna. This establishment became the sole haven in the city that continued to admit and treat Jewish patients amid the growing anti-Semitic environment.
In 1942, he could have escaped to the United States and avoided the Holocaust’s encroaching menace. However, unwilling to leave his beloved wife Tilly and his parents, he chose to stay with his family.
That year, the Nazis arrested Frankl, his wife and his parents, uprooting them from their regular lives and forcing them into the Jewish Ghetto.
The Nazis deceitfully paraded the Ghetto as a “model” Jewish settlement. Of course, that was just a facade. It was overcrowded, with scarce food and clean water. Diseases ran rampant; fear and death were a constant companion.
The ghetto primarily served as a transit camp, directing Jews to imminent killing centers and concentration camps.
The Frankl family faced their darkest hour when authorities ordered them to the notorious concentration camp, Auschwitz.
Upon arrival, authorities forced them to relinquish all possessions, shed their clothing, shave every strand of hair, and don the crudest rags.
“We really had nothing now except our bare bodies — even minus hair; all we possessed, literally, was our naked existence,” Frankl later remarked.
After the devastating loss of Frankl’s mother to the Nazis’ brutality, he and the love of his wife, Tilly, found fleeting solace in their shared embrace.
Tragically, the Nazis separated them, sending Tilly to meet her death in a distant camp.
Despite his grief, Frankl noticed those who held onto a sense of purpose managed to endure their days with a hint of strength. In contrast, those who lost touch with meaning quickly fell apart, their spirits shattered, and they died faster.
He noticed that even a simple dream, a memory, or the hope of seeing a loved one again could fuel an individual’s drive to endure another day.
Despite losing his family and possessions, Frankl realized that one thing remained untouched: his power to choose his attitude, the truest possession anyone holds.
Miraculously, in 1945, allied soldiers freed Frankl from the concentration camps.
His experience inspired him to write “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a seminal work in existential literature that resonated with readers worldwide.
Despite facing immense suffering, he found purpose in it all. He argues that life has meaning even in the most dehumanizing and pitiless conditions. He argued that the primary motivational force in humans is the pursuit of that meaning.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom,” he famously reflected.
After returning to Vienna, Frankl created a new psychiatric therapy named logotherapy, rooted in the belief that humanity’s primary drive is the search for meaning.
Logotherapy posits that individuals find purpose and fulfillment not in avoiding suffering but in how they respond to it. Through this lens, even the gravest challenges can be met purposefully, underscoring the innate human capacity to extract meaning from any situation.
Frankl’s journey forces us to confront our existence and the situations that bind us. Perhaps your chains aren’t as visible or as oppressive as those of a concentration camp, but they are chains nonetheless.
Can we, like Frankl, find that space between stimulus and response? For in that space, we too can decide.
The world, at times, seems devoid of meaning.
The life of Victor Frankl can be a guide to finding meaning in your life, helping to fuel your purpose with strength.
Toby Moore is a columnist, the star of Emmy-nominated “A Separate Peace,” and the CEO of Cubestream Inc.