Frankl and the Concentration Camps
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"Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz;however, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright,with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips" (Frankl, 2004, p. 136).
In September 1942, a young doctor, his father, mother, brother and new bride were seized in Vienna and deported to Theresienstadt near Prague (Boeree, 2006). The subsequent events that occurred there, and at three other camps (Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, and finally, at Turkheim), would provide awareness for its detainees, illuminating the significance of life, while encouraging man to question the meaning that life possesses (Frankl, 2004).
From a period of great darkness and sorrow emerged a growth and understanding of the meaning of life. While in the camps, Viktor Frankl acknowledged that man can be stripped of his clothing, his material possessions, his identity but still remains free to choose his “attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose [his] own way”(Frankl, 1963, p.104).
With little food, absence of basic hygiene and constant mental and physical torture life in a concentration camp depicted the unrelenting struggle for survival, amidst a period of great confusion and turmoil (Aroneanu, 1996). Each individual was haunted by the constant thought of death and strived for self-preservation (Frankl, 2004).
Frankl began to recognize that those prisoners who envisaged the future- whether focusing on a significant task they had to complete, or a reunion with those they held in high esteem (friends, family etc.)- were more inclined to survive and overcome the suffering of camp life (Frankl, 2004). Subsequent to this realization, Frankl devised three stages which incorporated a prisoner’s reactions to life in a concentration camp:


Stage 1: Admission to the Camps
Stage 1: Admission to the Camps

Characterized by disbelief, yearning for loved ones and loathing of all the aggression, hatred and despair they had to endure on a daily basis.

Stage 2: Period of Complete Submersion in Camp Routinue
Stage 2: Period of Complete Submersion in Camp Routinue

Characterized by, a state of indifference, and lack of interest in the suffering of others. This occurs as a result of self- preservation and the desire to protect oneself from the ruthless and horrible scenes one was subjected to at the concentration camp.
Stage 3: Liberation from the Concentration Camp
Stage 3: Liberation from the Concentration Camp


Characterized by, a period of depersonalization emerging as a result of subconscious disbelief that they had been liberated. Moral deformity and disillusionment with the outside world may have also arisen following their release from the concentration camp (Frankl, 2004).
Life in a concentration camp encapsulated the essence of Zimbardo’s Prison Experimentin that it illuminated the power, that a uniform can behold and how a state of dress can dehumanize a person, allowing a person to alter their behaviour, to play a role, rather than live in reality (Zimbardo, Haney, Banks, & Jaffe, 1973). The prisoners became the subjects of torture, as the guards and supervisors believed they were entitled to do what they wanted with their captives, thus displaying a superiority complex (Eysenck, 2004).
Continuing to observe who survived the atrocities of camp life, Frankl concluded that the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche was correct when he stated that: “he who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how”(Nietzsche,1963;as cited in Boeree, 2006, p.3)..Frankl witnessed that people who:
  • Envisaged comforting images of the past
  • Appreciated the beauty of nature
  • Used humour to try to overcome difficult situations
were more equipped to self-preserve than those who wallowed in self-pity (Frankl, 2004).
During Frankls transfer to Auschwitz, his manuscript containing his life’s work was confiscated. It was this significant moment and his desire to reconstruct his work that encouraged Frankl not to give up hope in an otherwise hopeless situation (Frankl, 2004).Following his fourth entry into a different camp he succumbed to typhoid fever. Frankl’s determination to complete his disregarded manuscript ensured that he remained awake during his fever, reconstructing his work on stolen slips of paper (Frankl, 2004).
In April 1945 Frankl’s camp was liberated. Upon returning to Vienna, Frankl discovered that his family members were not as fortunate. Alienated, distraught and overwhelmed Frankl began to ponder the meaning of life and acknowledged that “without suffering and death life cannot be complete” (Boeree, 2006, p.1).Frankl’s experiences and observations in the death camps reinforced the principles of the meaning of life he had developed during his youth.
Frankl’s awareness that “life holds a potential meaning under any conditions whatsoever, even the most miserable ones” ignited the premise that would form his theory and therapy (Frankl, 2004, p. 119). The focus was no longer on what one expects from life. A new question had emerged. What is it that life expects from one?

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