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Viktor Frankl’s Forgiveness

First published on, republished with permission.

Austrian Jewish author and psychiatrist Professor Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was a Holocaust survivor. He founded a revolutionary new theory in psychiatry: Logotherapy, which identifies the search for a meaning in life as the primary motivational force in human beings. Logotherapy is the Third Viennese School of psychotherapy after Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s individualist psychology. It rests on Freud and Adler’s theories but disagrees on several of their basic premises, adding a new dimension to them. It relates to several humanist psychology premises, on which it expands, adding a new and unique style.

The focus of Frenkl’s Logotherapy is on the meaning of the human experience and man’s search for its meaning. “The will to compromise” (unlike Freud’s “will to pleasure” and Adler’s “will to power”) means that the human being has the power to live for his values and for meaning.

Frankl was mainly interested in people who were trapped in what he called an “existential vacuum”. This is not a mental illness, but a spiritual malady in which existence seems to be totally devoid of meaning. Nothing attracts the person and eventually, a kind of paralyzing cynicism reigns. In this state, a person does not attribute any value to anything he has done and no longer nourishes any hope of doing anything of value to himself in the future. Frankl believed that the existential void he described was a unique modern phenomenon.

His Tragic Jewishness

In 1959, Frankl published his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, which sold millions of copies worldwide. In his book, Frankl describes the main principles of Logotherapy, which he had developed before the war – and its application in his own personal experiences as a concentration camp prisoner.

Frankl tells that when he was brought to Auschwitz, he was taken to the showers after being selected to live. His manuscript of all of his scientific work, his life’s work, was taken from him and thrown onto a fire. At that moment he felt that his personality was being erased… totally disintegrating and smashed to smithereens. This sensation redoubled when he left the “showers”, having had his hair shaved and being deloused. Everyone appeared shaven and broken, as though they had undergone a total metamorphosis of personality.

After receiving his clothes – and the Germans made sure that short, thin people received long, wide clothes and that tall, broad people received short, narrow clothes as part of the attempt to grind down the personality and turn the individual into a ridiculous automaton – Frankl put his hand in the pocket of his jacket and found a piece of paper. It was a legacy from the former owner of the garment, who had been separated from his clothes before separating from the world in the gas chambers. This piece of paper was the page of a siddur (prayer book) which bore the verse ùîò éùøàì ä’ àìå÷éðå ä’ àçã – “Here O Israel The Lord Our God The Lord Is One”. In that second, his perception of his personality came back to him…

Frankl tells how shaving a prisoner’s hair in Auschwitz symbolized that he had been utterly robbed of everything. But, he was left with something – his tragic Jewishness.

The following quotation teaches us about Frankl’s optimistic view of life and the search for the meaning of existence that he propounds: “A pessimist is someone who looks with foreboding and sadness at the wall calendar, whose page he tears off every day, and notices it is getting thinner every day. Conversely, someone who actively tackles life’s problems is like someone who tears each day off the calendar and keeps it with the preceding days because he has written diary notes on the back. With pride and joy, he considers about the wealth captured in those notes and the life he has lived to the full. Should he care about aging? Should he envy the young people he sees or feel nostalgic about the passing of youth? (from Man’s Search for Meaning).

Frankl summarizes his book in his conclusions on the Holocaust and Logotherapy in the chapter titled “The Humanization of Psychiatry”. This is what Frankl says:

“For too long – in fact for fifty years – psychiatry has tried to view the human spirit solely as a mechanism and has therefore regarded the therapy of mental illness as just a technique. I believe that this dream has gone. On the horizon what will stand out is not a theory of medicine mixed with psychology, but of psychiatry with a humanistic aura”.

“But a doctor who still regards his role as mainly technical must admit to seeing the patient just as a machine and failing to see the person behind the illness!”

“A person is not an object among other objects. Objects determine each other’s path. a human being, on the other hand, is graced with the power of self-definition. His path and his destiny – of course within the framework of his abilities and environment – he decides himself. In the concentration camps, in that living laboratory, we saw some of our comrades behaving like pigs and others behaving like saints. Both alternatives are hidden in a person; and which will be realized depends on decisions and not on conditions”.

“Our generation is a realistic generation because we have learned what a human being really is. When all is said and done, man is that same creature who invented the gas-chambers of Auschwitz; but he is also that being who walked upright into those chambers with the prayer “Shema Yisrael” on his lips”.

An Existential Challenge

At the time of the Second World War, Frankl already had a reputation in his field. In 1937, he opened his own neurology and psychiatric clinic and three years later, was appointed director of a department at the Rothschild Hospital – the only hospital in Vienna allowed to treat Jews. He made many false diagnoses of his patients in order to circumvent Nazi policies requiring euthanasia of the mentally ill.

In 1942, a few months after his marriage, Frankl, his wife, and his parents were deported to a concentration camp. Despite a timely opportunity to immigrate to the United States and save his life, Frankl decided to stay with his aged parents. Fully aware of the implications of his decision, he bound his fate to theirs. In the camp, he lost all his family, who were murdered by the Germans after being separated on arrival. He himself survived the war and when the allied forces liberated the camp, he was freed.

Frankl explains that no one enjoys suffering but when suffering does occur it can present an existential challenge to the individual and those around him. He developed this theory which he recognized it as a therapeutic tool based on the belief that the meaning of existence is learned through crisis and suffering. Even in the deep darkness of the concentration camps, where many ended their own live, at the peak of existential humiliation – some responded to life in all its dreadfulness as a supreme and sacred value and through that understanding rebuilt themselves out of the hell.

Frankl developed the basic concepts of his theory in the period before the war; he sought to lead man to a state of conscious that allows him to rise above his daily difficulties and find deep existential meaning in life as a mortal being. According to Frankl, realizing the meaning in life provides spiritual strength and at the moment of truth helps man to face and cope with suffering – even the bitterest suffering.

Frankl’s Forgiveness

It may be no surprise that the psychiatrist who developed a new approach to therapy, and was forced to apply it in a concentration camp, helped strengthen Austria’s devastated academia after the war.

One example of this was his support for Konrad Lorenz, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine (1973), and author of the best-selling book Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins. When Lorenz returned from the war after his capture by the Russians he was ostracized by the Austrian academia for writing which had supported some Nazi ideas. During the Anschluss, his Austrian co-recipient of the Nobel Prize, Karl von Frisch, had insisted on giving the traditional “Gross Gott” greeting instead of “Heil Hitler”. The third co-recipient of the Nobel prize Dutchman Nikolaas Tinbergen had joined the anti-Nazi resistance, been imprisoned and was almost executed. When Lorenz a member of the Nazi party offered to intervene on his behalf, Tinbergen flatly refused. As Dr Avshalom Elizur wrote in “Keshet Hahadasha” (issue 47), it was ironic that Frankl the Jew treated him kindly. During his lectures, after coordination with the ostracized zoologist, Frankl would say “I now wish to present Dr Lorenz who will speak to you in my stead on the subject of …”

There was also an SS officer, Hoffman; Frankl testified at his trial. Two Jewish women Holocaust survivors hid the officer after their camp was liberated and agreed to hand him to the Americans on condition he would not be harmed. Tormented by his part in the Holocaust, Hoffman corresponded with Frankl after the war and Frankl tried to comfort him.


Uri Paz

Professor Uri Paz was born in Rishon Him Tzion, Israel. At 14 years of age, he already spoke four languages and studied in Israel and Europe. At the age of 45 years, Professor Paz spoke 9  languages, had knowledge of Arameo, Greek (Old and modern), Latin, Serbian, Siríaco, Swedish and Russian.  He died in Nicaragua the… MORE >

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