When we hurt, we look for people who have traveled a road of similar pain before us. We look for stories of hope and survival to help us on our journey.
Over the past couple of years, I have read five books about the holocaust. The survivors give me hope—their stories provide a pathway for me to follow—encouragement to stay the course.
Our lives have purpose even when they stray from our planned course.
I have searched through Viktor E. Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning to find quotes to share with you. Frankl was a psychiatrist and survivor of the holocaust. I hope you glean some wisdom from his experiences to endure your own trying times.
Note: The numbers before the quotes represent their corresponding page numbers in the book.
Man’s Search for Meaning
44 “The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.”
62 “The majority of prisoners suffered from a kind of inferiority complex. We all had once been or had fancied ourselves to be “somebody.” Now we were being treated like complete nonentities.”
65 “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
66 “…the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”
67 “…the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom-which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
67 “…if there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.“
68 “…man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate. Such men are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere men are confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.”
70 “…the most depressing influence of all was that a prisoner could not know how long his term of imprisonment would be. He had been given no date for his release…It was impossible to foresee whether, or when, if at all, this form of existence would end.”
70 “A man who could not see the end of his “provisional existence” was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future, in contrast to a man in normal life. Therefore, the whole structure of his inner life changed; signs of decay set in which we know from other areas of life.”
70 “A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts. In a different connection, we have already spoke of the tendency there was to look into the past, to help make the present, with all its horror, less real. But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.”
72 “… often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless. Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even thought their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved.”
72 “…most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”
74 One day as Frankl was enduring the pain of foot sores he thought of the dreadful things in his day to come: would there be enough food tonight, how to get a piece of wire to serve as a shoelace, would there be a brutal foreman at the work site, etc. He then turned his thoughts to the future and saw himself standing on a platform lecturing to an audience about the psychology of the concentration camp. These thoughts helped him rise above his current circumstance as he became the subject “… of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by himself.”
74 “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”
75 “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.“
76 “Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim— for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.”
77 “We had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”
77 “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve his of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
79 “I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide. Both used the typical argument—they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was his child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child’s affections.”
79 “…a man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
104 “…my deep desire to write this manuscript anew helped me to survive the rigors of the camps I was in.”
134 “Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. 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.”
After the holocaust, Frankl was once asked to express in one sentence the meaning of his own life. He wrote the response on paper and asked his students to guess what he had handwritten. After some moments of quiet reflection, a student surprised Frankl by saying, “The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.” “That was it, exactly,” Frankl said. “Those are the very words I had written.”
Let me know if one quote in particular stands out to you. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Darci