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Book Summary: Man’s Search for Meaning

From 1942 to 1945, Viktor Frankl survived four Nazi Concentration Camps by finding meaning in each moment. By discovering a steady source of meaning, Frankl transcended suffering and sustained his will to live. After WWII, Frankl returned to his psychiatric practice and helped individuals fill their ‘inner emptiness’ with meaning to eliminate despair and activate a sustainable source of productive energy.

“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure or a quest for power, but a quest for meaning…The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.” – Viktor Frankl

It is simply impossible for anyone other than survivors to know what life was like for a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. We can only imagine how people got through each day, and how they managed to stay sane when surrounded by atrocities.

Book Summary: Man's Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, himself a survivor of the camps, helps explain how prisoners of the Nazi regime struggled through. These experiences also provided Frankl with evidence for his psychological theory, logotherapy, which explains how, in order to thrive – and, in more dire circumstances, survive – we need to discover our personal meaning of life.

This book summary explains both Frankl’s findings from the camps and his development of logotherapy.

In this summary of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl,n i this book summary you’ll discover

  • how to find meaning in your life;
  • how the concentration camps sucked the hope out of prisoners; and
  • how some people can find humor in even the worst situations.


Viktor E. Frankl’s extraordinary, moving memoir of three years in Nazi death and labor camps is a literary classic and an inspiration to millions. This 2006 edition features a 57-page added section offering Frankl’s explication of “logotherapy,” the psychoanalytic method he developed after the war. Frankl wrote this memoir in nine days in 1946, after returning to his former home in Vienna, Austria, to learn that the Nazis had murdered his pregnant wife, his parents, his brother and his community of friends. His unsentimental account sets out to help readers avoid what he regarded as a misleading, conceptual trap: thinking of the camps with “sentiment and pity.” As of 2006, Frankl’s book had sold more than 12 million copies in 22 languages. A 1991 Library of Congress survey placed it among the “10 most influential books in America.” In non-English editions, its title is Say Yes In Spite Of Everything; that exuberance captures Frankl’s belief that what happens to you – including suffering – is secondary to your response to it. His book teaches that everyone must find his or her unique meaning and purpose in life, and fulfill it. After the intense horror of his camp saga, Viktor E. Frankl’s report on his psychoanalytic approach is less gripping, but quite meaningful. We recommend his brilliant, stirring, unforgettable memoir to students of history, all therapists and, really, to everyone.


  • Viktor E. Frankl, a Viennese doctor and psychiatrist, survived four Nazi death and labor camps during World War II and developed a deep sense of the meaning of life.
  • In the camps, human life had no worth. Many prisoners lost all scruples as they fought to endure.
  • Without knowing how or why, people can grow accustomed to and cope with anything.
  • Even the worst living conditions reveal the “potential” for meaning.
  • After years of imprisonment, Frankl stopped making choices; he “let fate take its course.”
  • Postwar, he created a “third school” of Viennese psychology, “logotherapy,” to help people find the purpose and meaning in their lives.
  • Seeking meaning in life is humankind’s primary drive.
  • Your attitude toward life determines the meaning of your life.
  • You must take responsibility for finding the answers to the problems your life presents and doing the tasks life sets for you.
  • “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

During Frankl’s time in concentration camps and time as a psychiatrist, he discovered three rich sources of meaning; three ‘wells of meaning’ you can turn to when you lose hope and require motivation to get through a difficult period in your life.

The Three Wells of Meaning

Pursue a Life Task

When Frankl entered the Auschwitz concentration camp, Nazi guards stripped Frankl of his possessions and confiscated a manuscript he’d been working on his entire adult life. After a period of shock and disbelief, Frankl vowed to survive his time at Auschwitz to rewrite and publish the manuscript.

While suffering from typhus and on the brink of death, Frankl wrote notes for his manuscript on scrap paper he’d collected around camp. Frankl felt the manuscript was a valuable piece of work only he could do because he had the unique collection of experience, knowledge, and skills to do it. If he died, the world would miss his contribution.

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” – Viktor Frankl

“In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.” – Viktor Frankl

What task awaits you? If you don’t know, seek out new experiences, acquire new knowledge, and develop a rare combination of valuable skills. Then look for opportunities to leverage your unique collection of experience, knowledge, and skill. When you feel like your life is one long apprenticeship preparing you for a task you believe you were born to do, life feels meaningful.


To Frankl, “love” is the act of seeing potential in others and helping them actualize that potential. Love is creating opportunities for your child; love is mentoring a junior member of your team; love is introducing your friend to someone who can get them a more rewarding job; love is comforting a sick parent, so they can find the strength to live another day. When you lack meaning, find someone you can elevate; aim to make someone else’s life a little bit better. Get so busy helping others you forget yourself in the process.

“The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” – Viktor Frankl

Suffer Bravely

Frankl endured unimaginable amounts of suffering inside Nazi concentration camps, but he found a way to transcend his suffering by imagining himself standing in front of a group of students in a well‐lit, warm lecture room.

“I imagined myself giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past.” – Viktor Frankl

Whenever an unexpected, uncontrollable setback happens in your life, find a use for it. Look at the suffering objectively and ask yourself, “How might this be valuable?”

Often the primary value of suffering is the chance to strengthen your beliefs and values. Think of your favorite movie character. At some point, that character suffered, and while watching him/her suffer, you discovered who they were and what they stood for. Now, imagine you’re a character in a movie. When you encounter suffering, use it as an opportunity to display and strengthen your beliefs, values, and ideals, and inspire others in the process.

“(By) accepting the challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.” – Viktor Frankl

Prisoners’ first reaction to the concentration camps was shock – first in the form of hope, then despair.

Today, everyone has at least some awareness of the horrible, inhumane acts that were carried out in the concentration camps across Germany and Eastern Europe under the Nazi regime.

Likewise, the targets of Nazi violence during the Holocaust had at least some inkling of the terrible fate that awaited them. Because of this, you’d think that the initial reaction upon entering the camps would have been fear. Reactions, however, were split into three distinct phases.

The first phase began upon arrival at the camp – or even as inmates were being transported.

Prisoners were so shocked at what was happening that they desperately tried to convince themselves that, somehow, everything would be alright. Most prisoners had heard horrific stories about what happened at the camps, yet when they themselves were sent there, they told themselves that things would be different for them.

Those who arrived at the death camp Auschwitz, for example, were sent to the left or right as they exited the train – one group for hard labor and one for immediate execution. However, none of them knew what these groups meant.

Due to the shock of arriving at the camp, the prisoners succumbed to the delusion of reprieve, falsely believing that the line they were in would somehow mean an escape from certain doom.

During this first phase, the prisoners who hadn’t yet become accustomed to the horrors of the camp were terribly frightened by everything that went on. Newly arrived prisoners couldn’t manage the intensely emotional experience of watching other prisoners being punished in the most brutal ways for the most trivial offenses.

Confronted with grotesque brutality, they soon lost their hope and began to see death as some kind of relief. Most, in fact, considered suicide as a way out – perhaps by grabbing the electrical fence around the camp.

After a few days in the camp, prisoners fell into a state of apathy, which allowed them to concentrate on survival.

Following their initial shock, prisoners soon became “used to” the horror and death that surrounded them, thus becoming emotionally dull.

Instead, all their thoughts and emotions were focused on survival. Rather than muse about feelings like love or desire, for example, prisoners mostly talked and even dreamed about food or any other kind of vital, life-sustaining satisfactions that we normally take for granted, but which were severely limited in the camps.

While prisoners hid from the horror in the first phase, the dull emotions of the second phase acted as a shield, giving them the constitution to both live through the everyday cruelties of the camps and grab any opportunity to improve their own chance of survival.

For example, after several people died during a typhus outbreak in one of the camps, prisoners in the second phase no longer felt disgust or pity as they gazed at the corpses. Instead, they saw an opportunity to grab leftover food, shoes or other clothing items from the now deceased prisoner.

There was no foreseeable end to their time in the camp other than at the hands of the guards, which left prisoners unable to imagine that life still had any meaning.

Usually, we live for the future: we make big plans and get excited about seeing our life unfold. Prisoners in the camps, however, had a completely different view. For them, there was no excitement for the future. There wasn’t even a future – nobody knew when (or if) their prison term would come to an end.

Most prisoners thought their lives were already over. They merely “existed” in the camp – they gave up “living” as there were no goals to reach.

Life after liberation from the camps was often characterized first by a feeling of disbelief, and then by bitterness.

The prisoners who were lucky enough to survive the concentration camps had to face a new challenge upon their release. Most had spent such a long time in the camps that living a normal life became very difficult.

Immediately after their release, the prisoners were unable to grasp their freedom. Accustomed to a state of emotional apathy, they couldn’t immediately change their perspective. At first, prisoners couldn’t experience pleasure or joy.

Having dreamed so often of liberation, they found it unreal when it finally came.

After being liberated many prisoners felt as though, after all of the brutality that had been inflicted upon them, it was their turn to inflict harm on others. Having been made to suffer such inhumanity, it made complete sense to them to look for some sort of compensation, for instance, by taking vengeance against the guards in the camps.

What’s more, liberated prisoners didn’t always receive the warm welcome they imagined they would when they returned home. Unfortunately, many prisoners came home only to find that their family had been killed and their towns turned to rubble.

But their bitterness wasn’t just about lost family and friends. They hoped for compassion, expecting that their suffering would be understood. All too often, however, the people they talked to after release – those who had never seen a concentration camp – would only shrug and tell that they too had suffered, for example, from rationing and bombing.

While returning to a normal life certainly wasn’t easy for the liberated prisoners, after a while most of them managed to enjoy their lives once more and be happy that they’d survived the Holocaust.

Prisoners concentrated on their “inner” lives to distract themselves from what was happening in the real world.

So far, we’ve seen how prisoners suffered inside the camp. But how was it possible to protect their sanity and survive the horrors? In essence, it all came down to where they placed their focus.

For some, imagining their loved ones and reminiscing about the past made it possible to mentally escape the terror and brutality of their environment. In fact, those who were able to find at least a bit of happiness in their memories were often better able to survive than others.

In the brutal reality of the camps they had no relief, as they were forced to do hard labor in the cold with little more than rags on their backs. Love, however, could bring them fulfillment. A nice conversation with their loved ones – even if only in their imagination – was something the camp guards couldn’t take away from them.

Even the smallest slivers of memory were able to bring relief – mundane things like switching on the lights in their own bedrooms back home.

A few of the prisoners found solace by immersing themselves in nature and humor. An idyllic sunset or a cute bird could offer the inmates a fragment of happiness, even if it was only fleeting.

Prisoners managed small gatherings during their half-hour lunchbreak, during which they tried to distract themselves from their reality, for example, by songs or other small performances.

There were even rare moments when prisoners found their sense of humor.

This humor often involved imagining the future – after being released – and joking about how their camp routines might affect later situations. For example, sitting at the family dinner table, they might forget where they were and ask for soup from the bottom of the bowl, where the few nutritious peas would be found in the camp cook pots.

Most prisoners accepted their fate, but some tried to make decisions whenever they could.

The freedom to choose, whether it’s picking out our outfits, our lunches or the charities to which we donate, is something we all take for granted. Of course, in the camps, nothing could be taken for granted. The ability to decide for oneself took on a completely new meaning.

Most decisions were a matter of life or death, and many prisoners were afraid to make them.

Sometimes, for example, prisoners were ordered to go to another camp. However, the prisoners were kept in the dark about the true destination and the meaning of the transfer. The guards sometimes referred to these as “rest camps,” but no one could be certain that they weren’t being led to the gas chambers.

So, once prisoners realized that they would be sent elsewhere, some would become desperate to change that decision. This was sometimes possible if they worked harder for their captors, e.g., by volunteering for extra shifts.

Yet there was also the possibility that their new camp would actually bring them relief. There was simply no way for them to know what decision would be best, and thus many prisoners decided that they should not intervene in their fate.

There were other prisoners, however, who were determined to maintain even the tiniest freedoms, and therefore grabbed any opportunity to make decisions.

Despite their miserable conditions, these prisoners tried – as far as was possible – to live in accordance with their own values.

Their spiritual life, for example, was something that couldn’t be taken away from them. Although they might have to abandon their rituals, they could still decide to live up to high moral standards.

For instance, some prisoners would give bread to those who were in greater need, even though they were hungry too.

According to logotherapy, our motivation to act stems from our life’s meaning.

The author witnessed many terrible scenes in the camps. During that time, he realized again and again that people need meaning in their lives in order to have something to look forward to.

Indeed, the prisoners who could maintain this meaning were stronger and more resilient than those who had lost it.

This observation helped confirm many ideas from his own theory of psychotherapy, logotherapy, which posits that our search for meaning is the greatest motivation in our lives.

There is plenty of research that supports this idea. For example, in a study from Johns Hopkins University, students were asked what they considered to be central in their lives. The vast majority – 78 percent – reported that finding a purpose and meaning in life was most important to them.

When we’re unable to find meaning in our lives, we’re left with what is referred to as an existential vacuum. People who are unable to live according to their values, or feel like their lives have no meaning, will find a kind of emptiness inside themselves.

You don’t have to undergo serious trauma to experience the existential vacuum. Just take the widespread “Sunday neurosis,” for example, which occurs when people start to relax after a structured week of hard work, only to realize that their lives are totally devoid of substance.

Logotherapy aims to help people find meaning, and thus prevent the negative consequences that could result from a persisting existential vacuum.

There is no general meaning of life; everyone’s life has it’s own specific meaning in a given moment.

Knowing how important it is to find a purpose in life, we’re left asking ourselves how we go about finding our own. Indeed, many people believe that, in order to make the right choices in life, they must first discover their life’s purpose.

Logotherapy, however, suggests that the opposite is true: it’s how we act, and it’s the responsibility we feel toward our choices that determines our meaning.

For example, the prisoners in the concentration camps who were able to maintain a purpose in life did so based on the choices that they made. The decision to look for beauty in nature or help others in greater need gave them a purpose, a realization that they were not beaten and could keep going.

One consequence of this is that our meanings don’t have to be the same. In fact, everyone has his own meaning of life.

If you ask a chess grandmaster the best move, she’ll tell you that there is no best move in general. There is, however, a best move depending on the varying situations during the game.

The same applies to life’s meaning: there is no general meaning of life, and life’s meaning depends on each individual’s unique set of circumstances and decisions.

Logotherapy aims to help people understand the possibility that their lives can have meaning and that everybody has to figure out his life’s purpose according to his own decisions.

The meaning of life has no restrictions. For example, you might discover that your new job at a recycling start-up offers you personal meaning (e.g., feeling like you’re part of a positive contribution to the world) or it could go beyond the personal, and involve society and social conscience (e.g., seeing the improvement in other people’s lives).

You can manage your fears by actively pursuing them.

Although the ultimate goal of logotherapy is to help patients find the meaning of life, that isn’t its sole application. Logotherapy has also developed a number techniques that are helpful for people who’ve developed mental disorders, e.g., after experiencing an existential vacuum.

Logotherapy is able to accomplish this by focusing on the internal rather than external factors that affect patients.

In normal psychotherapy, the patient is analyzed and his neurotic fears explained by his environment and other external events and circumstances. In contrast, logotherapy assumes that people are able to make decisions and define their life’s purpose independently of their environment.

This basic understanding is necessary to help people realize that they are actually in control of their fears and anxieties in order to achieve long-term results. But how?

Logotherapy makes use of this strange phenomenon: when we fear something will happen, it often does, yet when we try and force something to happen, it never happens!

Imagine you have a nervous friend who is deathly afraid of blushing in front of other people. Since he’s always thinking about it, he immediately starts blushing whenever he’s in a crowd.

In this situation, logotherapy uses something called paradoxical intention, in which the patient is asked to do exactly the thing that she is afraid of.

Your nervous friend, for example, could start trying to blush as much as possible whenever he is around other people. Soon he’ll notice that when he tries to force it, nothing happens, and he’ll thus lose his fear of blushing.


Viktor E. Frankl

As a teen, Viktor E. Frankl studied philosophy and psychiatry. He initiated a correspondence with Sigmund Freud, who submitted an article of Frankl’s to a leading journal, which published it when Frankl was only 16. By age 34, in 1939, he was head of neurology at Rothschild Hospital, Vienna’s only Jewish hospital. When the Nazis closed it, Frankl feared for his and his family’s lives. In 1942, the US consulate offered him a visa. This rare invitation, a stroke of luck, was a tribute to his reputation. Few Jews got out of Austria that late; fewer still got to America.

“It is a question of the attitude one takes toward life’s challenges and opportunities, both large and small.”

Frankl wanted to flee; he knew he could finish his pending book in America. But he saw a fragment of marble his father had saved after the Nazis destroyed Vienna’s largest synagogue. It came from an engraving of the Ten Commandments and bore only a Hebrew letter. When Frankl asked about it, his father said the letter stood for “Honor thy father and mother.” Unable to abandon his family, Frankl let his US visa lapse. The Nazis deported him and his family in September 1942. From then until March 1945, the Nazis shuttled Frankl among four death and labor camps: “Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kaufering and Türkheim,” part of Dachau.


Frankl worked in small, less-well-known camps where “the real extermination took place” and uncounted people perished in horror and obscurity. The Nazis pushed their captives off cattle cars at the entry to Auschwitz, confiscating their documents and few remaining belongings. They tattooed numbers on the arms of those they did not send straight to the gas chamber. This – with being stripped naked, completely shaved and given the clothes of dead prisoners – destroyed prisoners’ identities. With the loss of identity came the loss of principles. Few inmates could care about morality or ethics. To live amid great suffering, each person grew a “very necessary protective shell.” Some of those who shed their compunctions survived. Camp life killed many others, and wiped out those who clung to a higher purpose. “The best of us did not return.”


Frankl worked as a doctor in a typhus ward during his last few weeks of captivity only. He spent most of three years doing crushing manual labor, laying train tracks in cold, wet weather, wearing rags and rotting shoes. Jews were slave workers for German industrial concerns. At times, they earned “bonus” coupons for cigarettes, the camp’s currency. Only the Capos – Jewish prisoners chosen as guards – actually smoked their cigarettes. Everyone else traded them for food or tidbits, like a scrap of wire to use as a shoelace. If a prisoner smoked his own cigarettes, everyone knew he’d lost the will to live and would die shortly. The SS soldiers who ran the camps gave liquor to prisoners working in the gas chambers and crematoria. These workers knew they soon would end up in the ovens like most prisoners. The Nazis kept them drunk to keep them working.


Frankl quickly recognized the reality of the camps. He divorced himself from his previous life and vowed to live within this new reality. All he had was “his existence.” He learned he did not need any of the things he once thought he couldn’t live without. He had to sleep on rough boards in unheated huts, sharing two ragged blankets with eight other men, and yet he still slept. He ate almost nothing, but lived. He accepted Dostoevsky’s truth: “A man can get used to anything.” Prisoners seeking suicide would hurl themselves onto the electrified barbed-wire fence. Frankl vowed never to “run into the wire.” He would die soon anyway; he wanted each day he could get.


Prisoners hardened to their circumstances did not look away from humiliating punishments that fellow inmates endured. They raced to strip new corpses of clothes, shoes or hidden food. Many lost all empathy as they starved, though Frankl clung to some caring for his friends as a path to his own survival. The men grew almost used to constant beatings, finding that “the most painful part of the beatings is the insult they imply.” To the Capos and the SS, no prisoner had humanity. They were nothing. All that mattered was survival. Fed only “watery soup” and a tiny bread ration daily, the prisoners watched their bodies “devour themselves.” They forgot anything that wouldn’t help keep them alive. Few had the energy to help others. As the guards and Capos ruled life and death, the prisoners became mere toys of fate, further reducing their sense of humanity.


Prisoners retreated into interior lives. Many Jews became more religious. The more sensitive and artistic tended to survive as their hardier, less-aware compatriots died. The most sensitive were physically weak, but their richer, deeper interior lives fueled survival. By embracing their inner lives, the men became more, not less, appreciative of natural beauty, sunsets, or brief respites, like an hour by a hot stove. Frankl learned that the tiniest moments could evoke profound joy. Longing for his wife, speaking to her in his mind, the full power of love transfixed him. Amid squalor and death, he saw in his soul that “the salvation of man is through love and in love.”


Over time, prisoners became more passive. Any active decision might further death, so they avoided making choices. As liberation neared, Frankl turned down an SS offer to join other prisoners on a truck to Switzerland. He let “fate take its course.” He didn’t try to alter his destiny. Like many, he felt fate controlled him and that trying to shift it meant disaster. The Nazis crammed the men from the truck into a hut, set it on fire and watched the Jews in it burn alive.


Camp life showed Frankl that men have options for how they act. He maintained and saw others maintain “spiritual freedom” and individuality no matter what the Nazis forced them to endure. He found that attitude provides meaning. How you cope with your fate adds or subtracts meaning from your existence. Amid privation, you can keep your “inner liberty.” Men who could hold onto even a small sense of a future found that it helped them survive. Those who ceased to believe in tomorrow did not. In February 1945, a friend of Frankl’s dreamed that the camp would be liberated on March 30. On March 29, amid reports that Allied advances had slowed and would not reach the camp when he had dreamed, the man fell into a deep fever. He died the next day. Typhus appeared to be the cause, but Frankl knew his friend’s loss of belief in his future killed him. Life becomes meaningless when people have nothing to strive for, lose their sense of direction and stop searching for meaning. That is why you must seek answers to the questions your unique life raises. The singularity of your existence gives it meaning. Yet a meaningful life includes death and suffering. Frankl found that life at the bottom of existence revealed good and evil clearly.


When the Allies liberated the camps and freed Frankl, he and his fellow inmates felt no joy. They had lost “the ability to feel pleased.” They had to relearn it. Their experiences depersonalized them. Their new life seemed to be a dream. They could not connect to it. Frankl learned his body could recover as he ate every bit of food that came his way and grew stronger, but his mind and emotions would not heal quickly. He leaned on his faith and slowly found his humanity. Many inmates felt that after what they had suffered, they could behave any way they liked and that their suffering justified evil conduct. Many could not cope with people who hadn’t been in the camps. As the men regained a measure of humanity, they lost their understanding of how they’d survived. The camps came to seem like a bad dream, disconnected from their new lives. The best feeling for those who were able to feel again at all was the exquisite absence of fear.


After the war, Frankl created a new therapeutic approach he called logotherapy, which leads a patient to understand – even if the understanding might hurt – the purpose and meaning of his or her life. He told a colleague that in psychoanalysis a patient lies on a couch and says things that are “disagreeable” to say. Using logotherapy, a patient sits in a chair and “hears things…disagreeable to hear.” Where Freud wrote of a “will to pleasure” and Alfred Adler of “a will to power,” logotherapy concerns “the will to meaning.” Finding life’s meaning is a human’s primary drive. Each person’s meaning is exclusive, particular to his or her life. For a gratifying life, each person must discover and fulfill his or her own meaning. If you cannot find or fulfill your life’s meaning, you will suffer “existential frustration.” Logotherapy helps patients find their lives’ meaning. Unlike psychoanalysis, it doesn’t limit its inquiry to forces in the unconscious. Logotherapy includes the impact of “existential realities” – how patients live, work and love, their health, and the like. Logotherapy tries to help patients identify what their souls need most and fulfill it to give their lives meaning.


A healthy psyche exists in a state of tension between what you’ve accomplished and what you have yet to do. Mental health stems not from an absence of tension – or an excess of leisure – but from trying to reach a goal with profound meaning. This is a goal you choose, not one that life thrusts upon you – like, for example, the goal of staying alive in a death camp. The two poles of existence are, first, a meaning you must explore and, second, the person who must explore it – you. When an arch needs repair, those fixing it put a larger load on top of the arch. The load pushes the pieces of the arch together and strengthens it. Your quest for meaning is like the increased load atop an arch.

“The Existential Vacuum”

A sense of emptiness, the existential vacuum is a malaise from the late 20th century and beyond, manifesting as boredom. It springs from a disconnection between you and your goals. It occurs when you cannot find or connect to your necessary purpose. People without a goal fall prey to “conformism,” doing what everybody else does, or “totalitarianism,” doing what other people say. The vacuum might become apparent during times of enforced leisure, like a quiet Sunday.


Life’s meaning changes with each person, each day and each hour. Don’t seek a grand, overall meaning to your life. What matters is your life’s unique meaning in the present moment. This is not an abstraction: It’s a concrete task or series of tasks you must identify and perform. To find this meaning, determine what your life asks of you. Only you can answer the demands of your existence. No matter how life shifts, its meaning endures. You can take three paths to finding the meaning in your life: producing work that is yours alone, connecting with another person – that path is love – or transcending hardship or tragedy. If you cannot change your fate, “rise above it.”


Only love enables you to understand the essence of another person. Love reveals your beloved’s foundational characteristics. Love lets you see your loved one’s true potential. Your love inspires and enables your beloved to achieve his or her true potential as his or her love does the same for you. Love may be manifest in sex and, ideally, sex expresses love. But love exists in a place beyond sex or rationality.


Suffering, like love, can reveal your life’s meaning. Suffering can stop feeling like suffering when you understand its deeper meaning. But, contrary to what most people think, you do not have to suffer to find meaning in your life. Your heart can “change at any instant.” What seems oppressive today can be revelatory tomorrow. Despite your suffering, strive to embrace “tragic optimism.” Welcome life no matter what course it takes; believe in a future even amid a bereft present. When you find what you must do, and do it, you will gain strength to deal with suffering.


The key message in this book:

Our success, and sometimes our very survival, is dependent upon our ability to find our life’s meaning. This doesn’t have to be something grand or existential – your own personal meaning depending on your immediate circumstances will do just fine.

About the author

World-renowned writer and psychotherapist Viktor E. Frankl wrote more than 30 books on theoretical and clinical psychology.

Viktor E. Frankl was professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School until his death in 1997. His twenty-nine books have been translated into twenty-one languages. During World War II, he spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau, and other concentration camps.

Viktor E. Frankl developed the revolutionary approach to psychotherapy known as logotherapy, founded on the belief that humanity’s primary motivational force is the search for meaning. One of the great psychotherapists of this century, he was head of the neurological department of the Vienna Polyclinic Hospital for twenty-five years and is the author of thirty-one works on philosophy, psychotherapy, and neurology, including the classic Man’s Search For Meaning, which has sold over nine million copies around the world.

Harold S. Kushner is rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, and the author of bestselling books including When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Living a Life That Matters, and When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough.

William J. Winslade is a philosopher, lawyer, and psychoanalyst who teaches psychiatry, medical ethics, and medical jurisprudence at the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston.

Viktor E. Frankl


World History, Popular Psychology Psychoanalysis, Popular Psychology Psychotherapy, Jewish Holocaust History, Health, Fitness and Dieting, Psychology Education and Training, TA and NLP Psychotherapy, Existential Psychology, Philosophy, Self Help, Memoir, Biography, Classics, Spirituality, Holocaust

Table of Contents

Foreword / Harold S. Kushner
Preface / Gordon W. Allport
Preface to the 1992 edition / by Viktor E. Frankl
Experiences in a Concentration Camp
Logotherapy in a Nutshell
Postscript 1984: The Case for a Tragic Optimism.
Afterword / William J. Winslade.


Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory-known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (“meaning”)-holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.

At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, Man’s Search for Meaning had sold more than 10 million copies in twenty-four languages. A 1991 reader survey for the Library of Congress that asked readers to name a “book that made a difference in your life” found Man’s Search for Meaning among the ten most influential books in America.

Internationally renowned psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl endured years of unspeakable horror in Nazi death camps. During, and partly because of, his suffering, Dr. Frankl developed a revolutionary approach to psychotherapy known as logotherapy. At the core of his theory is the belief that man’s primary motivational force is his search for meaning.

Cited in Dr. Frankl’s New York Times obituary in 1997 as “an enduring work of survival literature,” Man’s Search for Meaning is more than the story of Viktor E. Frankl’s triumph: it is a remarkable blend of science and humanism and “an introduction to the most significant psychological movement of our day” (Gordon W. Allport).

Gr 8 Up—Holocaust survivor and psychologist Frankl’s classic work was originally published in 1959 and is divided into two main sections: “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” and “Logotherapy in a Nutshell.” Frankl is forthright about the camps, describing the ever-present threat of death, terrible living conditions, starvation, thoughts of suicide, and so on, but he does not dwell on the horrifying details. As a psychologist, he was interested in how people responded to the situation more than the situation itself, and his writing reflects that viewpoint. Frankl’s theory of logotherapy “focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as man’s search for such a meaning…. This striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.” This new YA edition keeps the concentration camp piece intact but simplifies the logotherapy segment. Even so, the vocabulary and concepts will be challenging to many readers and will require investigation and explanation for students to understand. VERDICT Frankl’s first-person account is compelling and offers a unique perspective to teenagers interested in reading further after exposure to Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl or other World War II narratives.—Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, St. Christopher’s School, Richmond, VA


One of the great books of our time. —Harold S. Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People

“One of the outstanding contributions to psychological thought in the last fifty years.”—Carl R. Rogers (1959)

“An enduring work of survival literature.” —New York Times

“An accessible edition of the enduring classic. The spiritual account of the Holocaust and the description of logotherapy meets generations’ need for hope.”—Donna O. Dziedzic (PLA) AAUP Best of the Best Program

”If you read but one book this year, Dr Frankl’s book should be that one.” –Los Angeles Times

”His works are essential reading for those who seek to understand the human condition.” –UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

”A poignant testimony…a hymn to the phoenix rising in each of us who choose life before flight.” –Brian Keenan, author of An Evil Cradling

”One of the most remarkable books I have ever read. It changed my life.” –Susan Jeffers, author of Feel the Fear And Do It Anyway and Embracing Uncertainty

”Perhaps the most significant thinking since Freud and Adler.” –American Journal of Psychiatry

”Much like a first aid kit, this recording has the potential to save lives . . . This classic, carefully read by Simon Vance, is a vital aid to the troubled of all ages.” –Library Journal

”A fascinating, sophisticated, and very human book . . . Frankl’s personal and professional discourses merge into a style of tremendous power.” –, editorial review –This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

One of the great books of our time. —Harold S. Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People

“One of the outstanding contributions to psychological thought in the last fifty years.”—Carl R. Rogers (1959)

“An enduring work of survival literature.” —New York Times

“An accessible edition of the enduring classic. The spiritual account of the Holocaust and the description of logotherapy meets generations’ need for hope.”—Donna O. Dziedzic (PLA) AAUP Best of the Best Program –This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
One of the ten most influential books in America. —Library of Congress/Book-of-the-Month Club “Survey of Lifetime Readers”

“An enduring work of survival literature.” —The New York Times

“[Man’s Search for Meaning] might well be prescribed for everyone who would understand our time.” —Journal of Individual Psychology

“An inspiring document of an amazing man who was able to garner some good from an experience so abysmally bad… Highly recommended.” —Library Journal

“This is a book I try to read every couple of years. It’s one of the most inspirational books ever written. What is the meaning of life? What do you have when you think you have nothing? Amazing and heartbreaking stories. This is a book that should be in everyone’s library.”
—Jimmy Fallon

“This is a book I reread a lot . . . it gives me hope . . . it gives me a sense of strength.”
—Anderson Cooper, Anderson Cooper 360/CNN
“Viktor Frankl’s timeless formula for survival. One of the classic psychiatric texts of our time, Man’s Search for Meaning is a meditation on the irreducible gift of one’s own counsel in the face of great suffering, as well as a reminder of the responsibility each of us owes in valuing the community of our humanity. There are few wiser, kinder, or more comforting challenges than Frankl’s.” —Patricia J. Williams, author of Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race

“Dr. Frankl’s words have a profoundly honest ring, for they rest on experiences too deep for deception… A gem of a dramatic narrative, focused upon the deepest of human problems.” —Gordon W. Allport, from the Preface

“One of the great books of our time.” —Harold S. Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People

“One of the outstanding contributions to psychological thought in the last fifty years.” —Carl R. Rogers (1959)

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl is among the most influential works of psychiatric literature since Freud. The book begins with a lengthy, austere, and deeply moving personal essay about Frankl’s imprisonment in Auschwitz and other concentration camps for five years, and his struggle during this time to find reasons to live. The second part of the book, called “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” describes the psychotherapeutic method that Frankl pioneered as a result of his experiences in the concentration camps. Freud believed that sexual instincts and urges were the driving force of humanity’s life; Frankl, by contrast, believes that man’s deepest desire is to search for meaning and purpose. Frankl’s logotherapy, therefore, is much more compatible with Western religions than Freudian psychotherapy. This is a fascinating, sophisticated, and very human book. At times, Frankl’s personal and professional discourses merge into a style of tremendous power. “Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is,” Frankl writes. “After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

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Chapter 1

Experiences in a Concentration Camp

This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?

Most of the events described here did not take place in the large and famous camps, but in the small ones where most of the real extermination took place. This story is not about the suffering and death of great heroes and martyrs, nor is it about the prominent Capos — prisoners who acted as trustees, having special privileges — or well-known prisoners. Thus it is not so much concerned with the sufferings of the mighty, but with the sacrifices, the crucifixion and the deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims. It was these common prisoners, who bore no distinguishing marks on their sleeves, whom the Capos really despised. While these ordinary prisoners had little or nothing to eat, the Capos were never hungry; in fact many of the Capos fared better in the camp than they had in their entire lives. Often they were harder on the prisoners than were the guards, and beat them more cruelly than the SS men did. These Capos, of course, were chosen only from those prisoners whose characters promised to make them suitable for such procedures, and if they did not comply with what was expected of them, they were immediately demoted. They soon became much like the SS men and the camp wardens and may be judged on a similar psychological basis.

It is easy for the outsider to get the wrong conception of camp life, a conception mingled with sentiment and pity. Little does he know of the hard fight for existence which raged among the prisoners. This was an unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself, for one’s own sake or for that of a good friend.

Let us take the case of a transport which was officially announced to transfer a certain number of prisoners to another camp; but it was a fairly safe guess that its final destination would be the gas chambers. A selection of sick or feeble prisoners incapable of work would be sent to one of the big central camps which were fitted with gas chambers and crematoriums. The selection process was the signal for a free fight among all the prisoners, or of group against group. All that mattered was that one’s own name and that of one’s friend were crossed off the list of victims, though everyone knew that for each man saved another victim had to be found.

A definite number of prisoners had to go with each transport. It did not really matter which, since each of them was nothing but a number. On their admission to the camp (at least this was the method in Auschwitz) all their documents had been taken from them, together with their other possessions. Each prisoner, therefore, had had an opportunity to claim a fictitious name or profession; and for various reasons many did this. The authorities were interested only in the captives’ numbers. These numbers were often tattooed on their skin, and also had to be sewn to a certain spot on the trousers, jacket, or coat. Any guard who wanted to make a charge against a prisoner just glanced at his number (and how we dreaded such glances!); he never asked for his name.

To return to the convoy about to depart. There was neither time nor desire to consider moral or ethical issues. Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another “number,” to take his place in the transport.

As I have already mentioned, the process of selecting Capos was a negative one; only the most brutal of the prisoners were chosen for this job (although there were some happy exceptions). But apart from the selection of Capos which was undertaken by the SS, there was a sort of self-selecting process going on the whole time among all of the prisoners. On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles — whatever one may choose to call them — we know: the best of us did not return.

Many factual accounts about concentration camps are already on record. Here, facts will be significant only as far as they are part of a man’s experiences. It is the exact nature of these experiences that the following essay will attempt to describe. For those who have been inmates in a camp, it will attempt to explain their experiences in the light of present-day knowledge. And for those who have never been inside, it may help them to comprehend, and above all to understand, the experiences of that only too small percentage of prisoners who survived and who now find life very difficult. These former prisoners often say, “We dislike talking about our experiences. No explanations are needed for those who have been inside, and the others will understand neither how we felt then nor how we feel now.”

To attempt a methodical presentation of the subject is very difficult, as psychology requires a certain scientific detachment. But does a man who makes his observations while he himself is a prisoner possess the necessary detachment? Such detachment is granted to the outsider, but he is too far removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows. His judgments may not be objective; his evaluations may be out of proportion. This is inevitable. An attempt must be made to avoid any personal bias, and that is the real difficulty of a book of this kind. At times it will be necessary to have the courage to tell of very intimate experiences. I had intended to write this book anonymously, using my prison number only. But when the manuscript was completed, I saw that as an anonymous publication it would lose half its value, and that I must have the courage to state my convictions openly. I therefore refrained from deleting any of the passages, in spite of an intense dislike of exhibitionism.

I shall leave it to others to distill the contents of this book into dry theories. These might become a contribution to the psychology of prison life, which was investigated after the First World War, and which acquainted us with the syndrome of “barbed wire sickness.” We are indebted to the Second World War for enriching our knowledge of the “psychopathology of the masses,” (if I may quote a variation of the well-known phrase and title of a book by LeBon), for the war gave us the war of nerves and it gave us the concentration camp.

As this story is about my experiences as an ordinary prisoner, it is important that I mention, not without pride, that I was not employed as a psychiatrist in camp, or even as a doctor, except for the last few weeks. A few of my colleagues were lucky enough to be employed in poorly heated first-aid posts applying bandages made of scraps of waste paper. But I was Number 119,104, and most of the time I was digging and laying tracks for railway lines. At one time, my job was to dig a tunnel, without help, for a water main under a road. This feat did not go unrewarded; just before Christmas 1944, I was presented with a gift of so-called “premium coupons.” These were issued by the construction firm to which we were practically sold as slaves: the firm paid the camp authorities a fixed price per day, per prisoner. The coupons cost the firm fifty pfennigs each and could be exchanged for six cigarettes, often weeks later, although they sometimes lost their validity. I became the proud owner of a token worth twelve cigarettes. But more important, the cigarettes could be exchanged for twelve soups, and twelve soups were often a very real respite from starvation.

The privilege of actually smoking cigarettes was reserved for the Capo, who had his assured quota of weekly coupons; or possibly for a prisoner who worked as a foreman in a warehouse or workshop and received a few cigarettes in exchange for doing dangerous jobs. The only exceptions to this were those who had lost the will to live and wanted to “enjoy” their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned.

When one examines the vast amount of material which has been amassed as the result of many prisoners’ observations and experiences, three phases of the inmate’s mental reactions to camp life become apparent: the period following his admission; the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; and the period following his release and liberation.

The symptom that characterizes the first phase is shock. Under certain conditions shock may even precede the prisoner’s formal admission to the camp. I shall give as an example the circumstances of my own admission.

Fifteen hundred persons had been traveling by train for several days and nights: there were eighty people in each coach. All had to lie on top of their luggage, the few remnants of their personal possessions. The carriages were so full that only the top parts of the windows were free to let in the grey of dawn. Everyone expected the train to head for some munitions factory, in which we would be employed as forced labor. We did not know whether we were still in Silesia or already in Poland. The engine’s whistle had an uncanny sound, like a cry for help sent out in commiseration for the unhappy load which it was destined to lead into perdition. Then the train shunted, obviously nearing a main station. Suddenly a cry broke from the ranks of the anxious passengers, “There is a sign, Auschwitz!” Everyone’s heart missed a beat at that moment. Auschwitz — the very name stood for all that was horrible: gas chambers, crematoriums, massacres. Slowly, almost hesitatingly, the train moved on as if it wanted to spare its passengers the dreadful realization as long as possible: Auschwitz!

With the progressive dawn, the outlines of an immense camp became visible: long stretches of several rows of barbed wire fences; watch towers; search lights; and long columns of ragged human figures, grey in the greyness of dawn, trekking along the straight desolate roads, to what destination we did not know. There were isolated shouts and whistles of command. We did not know their meaning. My imagination led me to see gallows with people dangling on them. I was horrified, but this was just as well, because step by step we had to become accustomed to a terrible and immense horror.

Eventually we moved into the station. The initial silence was interrupted by shouted commands. We were to hear those rough, shrill tones from then on, over and over again in all the camps. Their sound was almost like the last cry of a victim, and yet there was a difference. It had a rasping hoarseness, as if it came from the throat of a man who had to keep shouting like that, a man who was being murdered again and again. The carriage doors were flung open and a small detachment of prisoners stormed inside. They wore striped uniforms, their heads were shaved, but they looked well fed. They spoke in every possible European tongue, and all with a certain amount of humor, which sounded grotesque under the circumstances. Like a drowning man clutching a straw, my inborn optimism (which has often controlled my feelings even in the most desperate situations) clung to this 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.

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. Just the sight of the red cheeks and round faces of those prisoners was a great encouragement. Little did we know then that they formed a specially chosen elite, who for years had been the receiving squad for new transports as they rolled into the station day after day. They took charge of the new arrivals and their luggage, including scarce items and smuggled jewelry. Auschwitz must have been a strange spot in this Europe of the last years of the war. There must have been unique treasures of gold and silver, platinum and diamonds, not only in the huge storehouses but also in the hands of the SS.

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. One five-ounce piece of bread was our only food in four days. Yet I heard the senior prisoners in charge of the shed bargain with one member of the receiving party about a tie-pin made of platinum and diamonds. Most of the profits would eventually be traded for liquor — schnapps. I do not remember any more just how many thousands of marks were needed to purchase the quantity of schnapps required for a “gay evening,” but I do know that those long-term prisoners needed schnapps. Under such conditions, who could blame them for trying to dope themselves? There was another group of prisoners who got liquor supplied in almost unlimited quantities by the SS: these were the men who were employed in the gas chambers and crematoriums, and who knew very well that one day they would be relieved by a new shift of men, and that they would have to leave their enforced role of executioner and become victims themselves.

Nearly everyone in our transport lived under the illusion that he would be reprieved, that everything would yet be well. We did not realize the meaning behind the scene that was to follow presently. We were told to leave our luggage in the train and to fall into two lines — women on one side, men on the other — in order to file past a senior SS officer. Surprisingly enough, I had the courage to hide my haversack under my coat. My line filed past the officer, man by man. I realized that it would be dangerous if the officer spotted my bag. He would at least knock me down; I knew that from previous experience. Instinctively, I straightened on approaching the officer, so that he would not notice my heavy load. Then I was face to face with him. He was a tall man who looked slim and fit in his spotless uniform. What a contrast to us, who were untidy and grimy after our long journey! He had assumed an attitude of careless ease, supporting his right elbow with his left hand. His right hand was lifted, and with the forefinger of that hand he pointed very leisurely to the right or to the left. None of us had the slightest idea of the sinister meaning behind that little movement of a man’s finger, pointing now to the right and now to the left, but far more frequently to the left.

It was my turn. Somebody whispered to me that to be sent to the right side would mean work, the way to the left being for the sick and those incapable of work, who would be sent to a special camp. I just waited for things to take their course, the first of many such times to come. My haversack weighed me down a bit to the left, but I made an effort to walk upright. The SS man looked me over, appeared to hesitate, then put both his hands on my shoulders. I tried very hard to look smart, and he turned my shoulders very slowly until I faced right, and I moved over to that side.

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 go per cent, 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. This building, as I was told by someone who worked there, had the word “bath” written over its doors in several European languages. On entering, each prisoner was handed a piece of soap, and then — but mercifully I do not need to describe the events which followed. Many accounts have been written about this horror.

We who were saved, the minority of our transport, found out the truth in the evening. I inquired from prisoners who had been there for some time where my colleague and friend P — had been sent.

“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 Heaven,” was the answer. But I still did not understand until the truth was explained to me in plain words.

But I am telling things out of their turn. From a psychological point of view, we had a long, long way in front of us from the break of that dawn at the station until our first night’s rest at the camp.

Escorted by SS guards with loaded guns, we were made to run from the station, past electrically charged barbed wire, through the camp, to the cleansing station; for those of us who had passed the first selection, this was a real bath. Again our illusion of reprieve found confirmation. The SS men seemed almost charming. Soon we found out their reason. They were nice to us as long as they saw watches on our wrists and could persuade us in well-meaning tones to hand them over. Would we not have to hand over all our possessions anyway, and why should not that relatively nice person have the watch? Maybe one day he would do one a good turn.

We waited in a shed which seemed to be the anteroom to the disinfecting chamber. SS men appeared and spread out blankets into which we had to throw all our possessions, all our watches and jewelry. There were still naive prisoners among us who asked, to the amusement of the more seasoned ones who were there as helpers, if they could not keep a wedding ring, a medal or a good-luck piece. No one could yet grasp the fact that everything would be taken away.

I tried to take one of the old prisoners into my confidence. Approaching him furtively, I pointed to the roll of paper in the inner pocket of my coat and said, “Look, this is the manuscript of a scientific book. I know what you will say; that I should be grateful to escape with my life, that that should be all I can expect of fate. But I cannot help myself. I must keep this manuscript at all costs; it contains my life’s work. Do you understand that?”

Yes, he was beginning to understand. A grin spread slowly over his face, first piteous, then more amused, mocking, insulting, until he bellowed one word at me in answer to my question, a word that was ever present in the vocabulary of the camp inmates: “Shit!” At that moment I saw the plain truth and did what marked the culminating point of the first phase of my psychological reaction: I struck out my whole former life.

Suddenly there was a stir among my fellow travelers, who had been standing about with pale, frightened faces, helplessly debating. Again we heard the hoarsely shouted commands. We were driven with blows into the immediate anteroom of the bath. There we assembled around an SS man who waited until we had all arrived. Then he said, “I will give you two minutes, and I shall time you by my watch. In these two minutes you will get fully undressed and drop everything on the floor where you are standing. You will take nothing with you except your shoes, your belt or suspenders, and possibly a truss. I am starting to count — now!”

With unthinkable haste, people tore off their clothes. As the time grew shorter, they became increasingly nervous and pulled clumsily at their underwear, belts and shoelaces. Then we heard the first sounds of whipping; leather straps beating down on naked bodies.

Next we were herded into another room to be shaved: not only our heads were shorn, but not a hair was left on our entire bodies. Then on to the showers, where we lined up again. We hardly recognized each other; but with great relief some people noted that real water dripped from the sprays.

While we were waiting for the shower, our nakedness was brought home to us: we really had nothing now except our bare bodies — even minus hair; all we possessed, literally, was our naked existence. What else remained for us as a material link with our former lives? For me there were my glasses and my belt; the latter I had to exchange later on for a piece of bread. There was an extra bit of excitement in store for the owners of trusses. In the evening the senior prisoner in charge of our hut welcomed us with a speech in which he gave us his word of honor that he would hang, personally, “from that beam” — he pointed to it — any person who had sewn money or precious stones into his truss. Proudly he explained that as a senior inhabitant the camp laws entitled him to do so.

Where our shoes were concerned, matters were not so simple. Although we were supposed to keep them, those who had fairly decent pairs had to give them up after all and were given in exchange shoes that did not fit. In for real trouble were those prisoners who had followed the apparently well-meant advice (given in the anteroom) of the senior prisoners and had shortened their jackboots by cutting the tops off, then smearing soap on the cut edges to hide the sabotage. The SS men seemed to have waited for just that. All suspected of this crime had to go into a small adjoining room. After a time we again heard the lashings of the strap, and the screams of tortured men. This time it lasted for quite a while.

Thus the illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays!

Apart from that strange kind of humor, another sensation seized us: curiosity. I have experienced this kind of curiosity before, as a fundamental reaction toward certain strange circumstances. When my life was once endangered by a climbing accident, I felt only one sensation at the critical moment: curiosity, curiosity as to whether I should come out of it alive or with a fractured skull or some other injuries.

Cold curiosity predominated even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. At that time one cultivated this state of mind as a means of protection. We were anxious to know what would happen next; and what would be the consequence, for example, of our standing in the open air, in the chill of late autumn, stark naked, and still wet from the showers. In the next few days our curiosity evolved into surprise; surprise that we did not catch cold.

There were many similar surprises in store for new arrivals. The medical men among us learned first of all: “Textbooks tell lies!” Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours. Quite wrong! I had been convinced that there were certain things I just could not do: I could not sleep without this or I could not live with that or the other. The first night in Auschwitz we slept in beds which were constructed in tiers. On each tier (measuring about six-and-a-half to eight feet) slept nine men, directly on the boards. Two blankets were shared by each nine men. We could, of course, lie only on our sides, crowded and huddled against each other, which had some advantages because of the bitter cold. Though it was forbidden to take shoes up to the bunks, some people did use them secretly as pillows in spite of the fact that they were caked with mud. Otherwise one’s head had to rest on the crook of an almost dislocated arm. And yet sleep came and brought oblivion and relief from pain for a few hours.

I would like to mention a few similar surprises on how much we could endure: we were unable to clean our teeth, and yet, in spite of that and a severe vitamin deficiency, we had healthier gums than ever before. We had to wear the same shirts for half a year, until they had lost all appearance of being shirts. For days we were unable to wash, even partially, because of frozen water-pipes, and yet the sores and abrasions on hands which were dirty from work in the soil did not suppurate (that is, unless there was frostbite). Or for instance, a light sleeper, who used to be disturbed by the slightest noise in the next room, now found himself lying pressed against a comrade who snored loudly a few inches from his ear and yet slept quite soundly through the noise.

If someone now asked of us the truth of Dostoevski’s statement that flatly defines man as a being who can get used to anything, we would reply, “Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.” But our psychological investigations have not taken us that far yet; neither had we prisoners reached that point. We were still in the first phase of our psychological reactions.

The thought of suicide was entertained by nearly everyone, if only for a brief time. It was born of the hopelessness of the situation, the constant danger of death looming over us daily and hourly, and the closeness of the deaths suffered by many of the others. From personal convictions which will be mentioned later, I made myself a firm promise, on my first evening in camp, that I would not “run into the wire.” This was a phrase used in camp to describe the most popular method of suicide — touching the electrically charged barbed-wire fence. It was not entirely difficult for me to make this decision. There was little point in committing suicide, since, for the average inmate, life expectation, calculating objectively and counting all likely chances, was very poor. He could not with any assurance expect to be among the small percentage of men who survived all the selections. The prisoner of Auschwitz, in the first phase of shock, did not fear death. Even the gas chambers lost their horrors for him after the first few days — after all, they spared him the act of committing suicide.

Friends whom I have met later have told me that I was not one of those whom the shock of admission greatly depressed. I only smiled, and quite sincerely, when the following episode occurred the morning after our first night in Auschwitz. In spite of strict orders not to leave our “blocks,” a colleague of mine, who had arrived in Auschwitz several weeks previously, smuggled himself into our hut. He wanted to calm and comfort us and tell us a few things. He had become so thin that at first we did not recognize him. With a show of good humor and a Devil-may-care attitude he gave us a few hurried tips: “Don’t be afraid! Don’t fear the selections! Dr. M — (the SS medical chief) has a soft spot for doctors.” (This was wrong; my friend’s kindly words were misleading. One prisoner, the doctor of a block of huts and a man of some sixty years, told me how he had entreated Dr. M — to let off his son, who was destined for gas. Dr. M — coldly refused.)

“But one thing I beg of you”; he continued, “shave daily, if at all possible, even if you have to use a piece of glass to do it…even if you have to give your last piece of bread for it. You will look younger and the scraping will make your cheeks look ruddier. If you want to stay alive, there is only one way: look fit for work. If you even limp, because, let us say, you have a small blister on your heel, and an SS man spots this, he will wave you aside and the next day you are sure to be gassed. Do you know what we mean by a ‘Moslem’? A man who looks miserable, down and out, sick and emaciated, and who cannot manage hard physical labor any longer…that is a ‘Moslem.’ Sooner or later, usually sooner, every ‘Moslem’ goes to the gas chambers. Therefore, remember: shave, stand and walk smartly; then you need not be afraid of gas. All of you standing here, even if you have only been here twenty-four hours, you need not fear gas, except perhaps you.” And then he pointed to me and said, “I hope you don’t mind my telling you frankly.” To the others he repeated, “Of all of you he is the only one who must fear the next selection. So, don’t worry!”

And I smiled. I am now convinced that anyone in my place on that day would have done the same.

I think it was Lessing who once said, “There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.” An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior. Even we psychiatrists expect the reactions of a man to an abnormal situation, such as being committed to an asylum, to be abnormal in proportion to the degree of his normality. The reaction of a man to his admission to a concentration camp also represents an abnormal state of mind, but judged objectively it is a normal and, as will be shown later, typical reaction to the given circumstances. These reactions, as I have described them, began to change in a few days. The prisoner passed from the first to the second phase; the phase of relative apathy, in which he achieved a kind of emotional death.

Apart from the already described reactions, the newly arrived prisoner experienced the tortures of other most painful emotions, all of which he tried to deaden. First of all, there was his boundless longing for his home and his family. This often could become so acute that he felt himself consumed by longing. Then there was disgust; disgust with all the ugliness which surrounded him, even in its mere external forms.

Most of the prisoners were given a uniform of rags which would have made a scarecrow elegant by comparison. Between the huts in the camp lay pure filth, and the more one worked to clear it away, the more one had to come in contact with it. It was a favorite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage. If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished with a blow from a Capo. And thus the mortification of normal reactions was hastened.

At first the prisoner looked away if he saw the punishment parades of another group; he could not bear to see fellow prisoners march up and down for hours in the mire, their movements directed by blows. Days or weeks later things changed. Early in the morning, when it was still dark, the prisoner stood in front of the gate with his detachment, ready to march. He heard a scream and saw how a comrade was knocked down, pulled to his feet again, and knocked down once more — and why? He was feverish but had reported to sick-bay at an improper time. He was being punished for this irregular attempt to be relieved of his duties.

But the prisoner who had passed into the second stage of his psychological reactions did not avert his eyes any more. By then his feelings were blunted, and he watched unmoved. Another example: he found himself waiting at sickbay, hoping to be granted two days of light work inside the camp because of injuries or perhaps edema or fever. He stood unmoved while a twelve-year-old boy was carried in who had been forced to stand at attention for hours in the snow or to work outside with bare feet because there were no shoes for him in the camp. His toes had become frostbitten, and the doctor on duty picked off the black gangrenous stumps with tweezers, one by one. Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator could not really feel any more. The sufferers, the dying and the dead, became such commonplace sights to him after a few weeks of camp life that they could not move him any more.

I spent some time in a hut for typhus patients who ran very high temperatures and were often delirious, many of them moribund. After one of them had just died, I watched without any emotional upset the scene that followed, which was repeated over and over again with each death. One by one the prisoners approached the still warm body. One grabbed the remains of a messy meal of potatoes; another decided that the corpse’s wooden shoes were an improvement on his own, and exchanged them. A third man did the same with the dead man’s coat, and another was glad to be able to secure some — just imagine! — genuine string.

All this I watched with unconcern. Eventually I asked the “nurse” to remove the body. When he decided to do so, he took the corpse by its legs, allowing it to drop into the small corridor between the two rows of boards which were the beds for the fifty typhus patients, and dragged it across the bumpy earthen floor toward the door. The two steps which led up into the open air always constituted a problem for us, since we were exhausted from a chronic lack of food. After a few months’ stay in the camp we could not walk up those steps, which were each about six inches high, without putting our hands on the door jambs to pull ourselves up.

The man with the corpse approached the steps. Wearily he dragged himself up. Then the body: first the feet, then the trunk, and finally — with an uncanny rattling noise — the head of the corpse bumped up the two steps.

My place was on the opposite side of the hut, next to the small, sole window, which was built near the floor. While my cold hands clasped a bowl of hot soup from which I sipped greedily, I happened to look out the window. The corpse which had just been removed stared in at me with glazed eyes. Two hours before I had spoken to that man. Now I continued sipping my soup.

If my lack of emotion had not surprised me from the standpoint of professional interest, I would not remember this incident now, because there was so little feeling involved in it.

Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychologis on the door jambs to pull ourselves up.

The man with the corpse approached the steps. Wearily he dragged himself up. Then the body: first the feet, then the trunk, and finally — with an uncanny rattling noise — the head of the corpse bumped up the two steps.

My place was on the opposite side of the hut, next to the small, sole window, which was built near the floor. While my cold hands clasped a bowl of hot soup from which I sipped greedily, I happened to look out the window. The corpse which had just been removed stared in at me with glazed eyes. Two hours before I had spoken to that man. Now I continued sipping my soup.

If my lack of emotion had not surprised me from the standpoint of professional interest, I would not remember this incident now, because there was so little feeling involved in it.

Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings. By means of this insensibility the prisoner soon surrounded himself with a very necessary protective shell.

Beatings occurred on the slightest provocation, sometimes for no reason at all. For example, bread was rationed out at our work site and we had to line up for it. Once, the man behind me stood off a little to one side and that lack of symmetry displeased the SS guard. I did not know what was going on in the line behind me, nor in the mind of the SS guard, but suddenly I received two sharp blows on my head. Only then did I spot the guard at my side who was using his stick. At such a moment it is not the physical pain which hurts the most (and this applies to adults as much as to punished children); it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.

Strangely enough, a blow which does not even find its mark can, under certain circumstances, hurt more than one that finds its mark. Once I was standing on a railway track in a snowstorm. In spite of the weather our party had to keep on working. I worked quite hard at mending the track with gravel, since that was the only way to keep warm. For only one moment I paused to get my breath and to lean on my shovel. Unfortunately the guard turned around just then and thought I was loafing. The pain he caused me was not from any insults or any blows. That guard did not think it worth his while to say anything, not even a swear word, to the ragged, emaciated figure standing before him, which probably reminded him only vaguely of a human form. Instead, he playfully picked up a stone and threw it at me. That, to me, seemed the way to attract the attention of a beast, to call a domestic animal back to its job, a creature with which you have so little in common that you do not even punish it.

The most painful part of beatings is the insult which they imply. At one time we had to carry some long, heavy girders over icy tracks. If one man slipped, he endangered not only himself but all the others who carried the same girder. An old friend of mine had a congenitally dislocated hip. He was glad to be capable of working in spite of it, since the physically disabled were almost certainly sent to death when a selection took place. He limped over the track with an especially heavy girder, and seemed about to fall and drag the others with him. As yet, I was not carrying a girder so I jumped to his assistance without stopping to think. I was immediately hit on the back, rudely reprimanded and ordered to return to my place. A few minutes previously the same guard who struck me had told us deprecatingly that we “pigs” lacked the spirit of comradeship.

Another time, in a forest, with the temperature at 2???F, we began to dig up the topsoil, which was frozen hard, in order to lay water pipes. By then I had grown rather weak physically. Along came a foreman with chubby rosy cheeks. His face definitely reminded me of a pig’s head. I noticed that he wore lovely warm gloves in that bitter cold. For a time he watched me silently. I felt that trouble was brewing, for in front of me lay the mound of earth which showed exactly how much I had dug.

Then he began: “You pig, I have been watching you the whole time! I’ll teach you to work, yeti Wait till you dig dirt with your teeth — you’ll die like an animal! In two days I’ll finish you off! You’ve never done a stroke of work in your life. What were you, swine? A businessman?”

I was past caring. But I had to take his threat of killing me seriously, so I straightened up and looked him directly in the eye. “I was a doctor — a specialist.”

“What? A doctor? I bet you got a lot of money out of people.”

“As it happens, I did most of my work for no money at all, in clinics for the poor.” But, now, I had said too much. He threw himself on me and knocked me down, shouting like a madman. I can no longer remember what he shouted.

I want to show with this apparently trivial story that there are moments when indignation can rouse even a seemingly hardened prisoner — indignation not about cruelty or pain, but about the insult connected with it. That time blood rushed to my head because I had to listen to a man judge my life who had so little idea of it, a man (I must confess: the following remark, which I made to my fellow-prisoners after the scene, afforded me childish relief) “who looked so vulgar and brutal that the nurse in the out-patient ward in my hospital would not even have admitted him to the waiting room.”

Fortunately the Capo in my working party was obligated to me; he had taken a liking to me because I listened to his love stories and matrimonial troubles, which he poured out during the long marches to our work site. I had made an impression on him with my diagnosis of his character and with my psychotherapeutic advice. After that he was grateful, and this had already been of value to me. On several previous occasions he had reserved a place for me next to him in one of the first five rows of our detachment, which usually consisted of two hundred and eighty men. That favor was important. We had to line up early in the morning while it was still dark. Everybody was afraid of being late and of having to stand in the back rows. If men were required for an unpleasant and disliked job, the senior Capo appeared and usually collected the men he needed from the back rows. These men had to march away to another, especially dreaded kind of work under the command of strange guards. Occasionally the senior Capo chose men from the first five rows, just to catch those who tried to be clever. All protests and entreaties were silenced by a few well-aimed kicks, and the chosen victims were chased to the meeting place with shouts and blows.

However, as long as my Capo felt the need of pouring out his heart, this could not happen to me. I had a guaranteed place of honor next to him. But there was another advantage, too. Like nearly all the camp inmates I was suffering from edema. My legs were so swollen and the skin on them so tightly stretched that I could scarcely bend my knees. I had to leave my shoes unlaced in order to make them fit my swollen feet. There would not have been space for socks even if I had had any. So my partly bare feet were always wet and my shoes always full of snow. This, of course, caused frostbite and chilblains. Every single step became real torture. Clumps of ice formed on our shoes during our marches over snow-covered fields. Over and again men slipped and those following behind stumbled on top of them. Then the column would stop for a moment, but not for long. One of the guards soon took action and worked over the men with the butt of his rifle to make them get up quickly. The more to the front of the column you were, the less often you were disturbed by having to stop and then to make up for lost time by running on your painful feet. I was very happy to be the personally appointed physician to His Honor the Capo, and to march in the first row at an even pace.

As an additional payment for my services, I could be sure that as long as soup was being dealt out at lunchtime at our work site, he would, when my turn came, dip the ladle right to the bottom of the vat and fish out a few peas. This Capo, a former army officer, even had the courage to whisper to the foreman, whom I had quarreled with, that he knew me to be an unusually good worker. That didn’t help matters, but he nevertheless managed to save my life (one of the many times it was to be saved). The day after the episode with the foreman he smuggled me into another work party.

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