Viktor E. Frankl On Human Suffering In Concentration Camps: Man’s Search For Meaning

Earlier this year I picked up this book I have had for about a year now. The title, Man’s Search For Meaning, written by Viktor E Frankl. I had no idea about what is in this book.


I was having a low time in my life and maybe thought that this book might give me some motivation or a nudge towards the right direction. 2020 has been a weird year for me. I was looking for some guidance somewhere, anywhere I could find it.

To my surprise the book was about what real suffering is, and it put everything in it’s rightful place for me. This small book changed who I am.


Let’s get to what Frankl had to say about concentration camps and finding meaning in one’s life.

Frankl saw three possible source for meaning: in work(doing something significant), in love(caring for another person, as Frankl held on to the image of his wife through the darkest days in Auschwitz), and in courage in difficult times.

This sentence alone helped figure out quite a bit about life, career choices and choices in general. Work is what takes the most amount of time in our lives.

And through our work we are able to recognize ourselves, figure out who we really are. So being able to choose what we work upon, how we work upon those things is definitely a big plus.


Love is something that motivates and pushes us. I would say that it is also what is responsible for the courage in difficult times.

People who matter to us the most can push us through hard times even if they are not with us.

Like a drowning man clutching saw a straw, my inborn optimism(which has often controlled my feelings even in the most desperate situations) clung to his thought: These prisoners look quite well, they seem to be in good spirits and even laugh. Who knows? I might manage to share their favorable position.


So, Frankl talks about his optimism right as he is about the enter the camp for the first time. Even though in his heart he know what happens to people at these camps, there is a spark of optimism inside him. And sometimes this spark of optimism is what can keep us going through everything that is troubling us.


This inborn optimism as Frankl points out is what can be that one straw, the only straw you need to save yourself from drowning.

In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as “delusion of reprieve”. The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.

We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.

There might be a delusion of reprieve thing going on in our minds, but at least it helps us go through the really bad stuff sometimes.

Fifteen hundred captives were cooped up in a shed built to accommodate probably two hundred at the most. We were cold and hungry and there was not enough room for everyone to squat on the bare ground, let alone to lie down. Once five-ounce piece of bread was our only food in four days.

The conditions that these guys had to live in, just reading those made me a better human being. We sometimes forget to appreciate the small things, the tiny pieces of goodness around us. This put it all into perspective for me.

So, this is when the lockdown had started around April 2020, I was feeling weird that I cannot order a pizza, or get a McDonalds burger.

Upon reading that these guys had a loaf of bread as food for 4 days and they had to do tons of manual labor just put me in a space where a pizza would have been nice but I will not allow “no pizza” to ruin my mood or how I am feeling about life.


My family was safe and healthy, my wife, and me were safe and healthy and that is all that was important.

Suffering is relative. We believe we have it worse off than someone else until we get to really hear what they are going through. And sometimes our suffering just becomes irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.


Once again just getting to know someone else’s story is enough to make us feel the importance of everything we have instead of crying over spilt milk.

The significance of the finger game was explained to us in the evening. It was the first selection, the first verdict made on our existence or non-existence. For the great majority of our transport, about 90%, it meant death.

Their sentence was carried out within the next few hours.

Those who were sent to the left were marched from the station straight to the crematorium.

“Was he sent to the left side?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Then you can see him there,” I was told.

“Where?”

A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.

“That’s where your friend is, floating up to the Heaven,” was the answer.

Notice the bodies piled up in the truck….


This one was a heavy one.


I have thought about this sentence and tried to think about how they might have felt about the fact that a simple finger pointing to left or right can be the difference in them living or being burnt alive.

No matter how hard I try I cannot un hear or un imagine what went through my mind when I first read this paragraph.

I am making sure to include it here just so that we know that sometimes finding meaning means just being happy at the smallest of wins and not let the biggest of losses weigh us down.

Sometimes the other men invented amusing dreams about the future, such as forecasting that during a future dinner they might forget themselves when the soup was served and beg the hostess to ladle it “from the bottom”.

Our soul finds a way to live, we learn to let things and events pass as time passes. We realize that the only thing that will stay is how we react towards things that happened in the past.


Human imagination and our abilities to think of an optimistic future is sometimes all that can keep us going through the really bad ones.

The train says Hitler is finished.


I learnt a very important lesson from this “from the bottom” joke. Sometimes a small chuckle is enough to pull us out of a pattern of self inflicted or even externally inflicted misery.

One literally became a number: dead or alive –  that was unimportant; the life of a “number” was completely irrelevant. What stood behind that number and that life mattered even less: the fate, the history, the name of the man.

For instance, I heard one prisoner talk to another about a Capo, saying, “Imagine!” I knew that man when he was only the president of a large bank. Isn’t it fortunate that he has risen so far in the world?”

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.


‘I will throw you into prison.’ ‘Correction – it is my body you will throw there.’ ― Epictetus

No matter what we go through in life. Remember we always will have a control over our minds.

And it is our mind that can get us to come out of the most ridiculous of a pickle.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances , to choose one’s own way.


Be good to yourself, be good to humanity, don’t take everything too seriously, live for the good times and push through the bad times.

29 May 1453: The Bloody Fall Of Constantinople

Constantinople

It was a Tuesday like none other. All you could see was destruction, the two armies shooting at each other, huge cannons were being used to blow up enemy soldiers and walls. The water in the gutters had turned insidiously red. Dead bodies upon dead bodies of Ottomans and Byzantines were floating in the sea.

This was day 53 of a bloody siege laid on this beautiful, one of the riches cities in Europe, by 80,000-200,000 Ottoman men. On 29th May 1453 the siege laid over Constantinople by the 21 year old Sultan, Mehmed II came to an end giving power over Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire.

Roman emperor, Constantine the Great had made Constantinople the imperial capital in 330. The history of Constantinople is very interesting spanning over 11 centuries before being handed over to the Ottomans on this fateful day of 29th May.

During those 1100 odd years, it was captured only once during what they call as Fourth Crusade in 1204, only to be recaptured from the Latins in 1261. The 29th Day of May of 1453 came as the final blow which took away Constantinople for good.

Constantinople(modern day Istanbul), post the siege was made the new capital of the Ottoman Empire signifying the importance that the siege had. Capturing this city was in no way a small feat. Only once had it been previously captured in the 1100 year history to be taken back just 57 years later.

Constantinople even had withstood the black plague that lasted from 1346 to 1349 although it had sadly lost more than half of it’s population to this plague. Even though the empire was left to just a few kilometres around Constantinople by 1450, the city itself enjoyed a great name and fame being the largest and the wealthiest pf cities of Europe.

This siege might have lasted for 53 days, but Mehmed II had been planning this hostile takeover all along since 1451, when he had succeeded his father at the age of 19. He had strategically cut of the supplies and made an elaborate plan to take over the city as a crown jewel for himself.

Once the initial assault was successful, the Ottoman army spread throughout the city with only a few citizens managing to escape their bloody fate.

Lost Letters From 1679 – Travels To Spain

I have learnt, since this little Adventure, that ’tis the Custom in Spain, when any thing is presented to one, if he likes it, and kisses your Hand, he may take it with him.

Madame d’Aulnoy

A guy took her expensive mechanical watch to have a look(Tompion’s) and then took her hand in his and kissed it. As soon as he did it, he put the watch in his pocket, which she describes would have been bigger than someone’s travel sack, and walked away.

One such Tompion’s mechanical hand watch from 1708, sold for GBP 25,000 at an auction. One of Tompion’s table clocks sold for GBP 2M in 1999.

We arriv’d in good time at St. John de Luz: nothing can be pleasanter than this Borough, which is the greatest in France, and the best built; there are several smaller Cities : its Port lies between two Mountains, which Nature seems to have expressly placed to defend it from Storms ; the River Nivelle disgorges it self therein ; the Sea comes up very high in it, and the greatest Barks come up commodiously to the Key. The Seamen here are very skillful at catching Whales, and other large Fish.

Madame d’Aulnoy

I felt this was very interesting. The fact that in 1600s, there were fishermen skillful and crafty enough to catch whales.

Makes me wonder what did they exactly do with a whale they caught. Not all parts are going to be edible.

What did they use the whale teeth for?

Born to Nicolas – Claude Le Jumel, who was said to have served in the armies of Louis XIV for a long time. Her father Nicolas, was related to a few of the best families in Normandy, and her mother worked to provide special services to the Spanish Court.

Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness of Aulnoy, was a french fairy tale writer who became famous to the family for her works done in the late 17th century among other female fairy tale writers.

Her notable works included La Chatte Blanche, La Grenouttle Bien-complaisante, Le Prince Lutin, L’Oiseau Bleue

Baroness of Aulnoy
Baroness of Aulnoy

She got married at the age of 16 to Francois de La Motte who was 52 at the time. This fact really tells something about marriages and society of those times.

If the Contes des Fees of Madame Aulnoy have had a remarkable vogue, not so fortunate has been the lot of some of the historical endeavors of this lady. Her Memoires de la Cour d’Espagne (1679-1681) and Memoires de la Cour d’Angleterre (1695) have been quietly laid aside, together with the Histoire d’Hippolyte, Comte de Douglas (1690), and the Histoire de Jean de Bourbon (1692), for, though always interesting, the qualities of imagination which combine to the writing of a fairy tale are not quite those needed for the making of history, and unfortunately for the clever lady, it is in the field of “delicate frivolity that she has been placed.”

Most Faithful Servant

She traveled with little mules, her banker, and servants. She tells various stories in her letters out of which a couple I have highlighted.

Gateway Of Fuenterrabia
Gateway Of Fuenterrabia

Some who came to feed me, brought little little Sucking Pigs under their Arms, as we do little Dogs: it’s true they were very spruce, and several of ’em had Collars of Ribbons, of various Colours: However, this Custom looks very odd, and 1 cannot but think that several among themselves are disgusted at it: When they danced, they must set them down, and let these grunting Animals run about the Chamber, where they make a very pleasant Harmony.

Madame d’Aulnoy

She wrote this in her first letter, written to her cousin. She had to travel through France into Spain, her journey included riding with the litter through multiple mountains, then to cross the sea to finally come to a junction where you had to pay toll to enter Spain.

Both Spain and France had decided that at this toll, the two countries would split the collection irrespective of the political situation. To come to a conclusion like that feels a big deal to me, as it would be but natural for one country to want all the money collected during 1600s.

Medina Del Campo
Medina Del Campo

She explains in great detail the events that took place throughout her journey through Spain in 1679 through these long letters she wrote.

Her words resonate very well, seems like she is writing a fairy tale to take you through the towns, castles, and people she encountered on her long journey.

Definitely a great but lesser known storyteller.

She traveled a lot, wrote a great deal about her experience and died in her house in the Rue Saint-Benoit in January, 1705.