This Day in Jewish History

1997: A Psychiatrist Who Searched for Meaning Dies

Viktor Frankl, whose World War II memoir became a seminal text of Holocaust literature, saw suffering as the way to find meaning.

Franz Vesely

On September 2, 1997, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who had the opportunity to have his theories regarding the way to find meaning in life tested in the crucible of Auschwitz, died, at the age of 92. The father of a school of psychological thought he called logotherapy, also called existential analysis, Frankl is probably best known for his 1946 memoir “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which at the time of his death had sold some 10 million copies worldwide.

Viktor Frankl was born on March 26, 1905, in Vienna. His father, Gabriel Frankl, was a government stenographer who had worked his way up to become the director of the Austro-Hungarian Ministry of Social Service; his mother, the former Elsa Lion, was a Prague-born descendant, according to her son, of both Rabbi Judah Loew (nicknamed the Maharal) and the biblical commentator Rashi.

Even as a high-school student, Frankl was interested in psychology: For his graduation, in 1923, he wrote an essay about the psychoanalytic aspects of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. He also carried on a serious correspondence with Sigmund Freud while still in the gymnasium.

Frankl attended medical school at the University of Vienna, specializing in neurology and psychiatry, and earning his degree in 1930. During his studies, he organized a program that offered psychological counseling to high-school students, free of charge, in Vienna and in another six cities, at the time of their final exams. He was especially interested in depression and suicide among adolescents. In 1931, thanks to the counseling, not a single high-school student in the capital committed suicide.

After receiving his medical degree, Frankl was put in charge of a Vienna hospital ward for women who had attempted suicide, while he continued his specialization in neurology.

In 1937, a year before the Nazi occupation of Austria, Frankl opened his own clinic in the capital city. After Jewish physicians were prohibited from treating Aryans, he found himself appointed head of the neurology department at the Rothschild Hospital, the only facility that still accepted Jewish patients. Several times, he falsified diagnoses of psychiatric patients so as to save them from the German-instituted policy of euthanizing mentally ill individuals. It was at this time that he began writing a book called “The Doctor and the Soul.”

In 1941, Frankl was married to Tilly Grosser. The couple, together with Frankl’s parents and his brother, Walter, were arrested in September 1942, and deported to Theresienstadt. (Viktor’s sister, Stella, had emigrated earlier to Australia; aside from him, she was the only family member to survive the war.) In this camp, not far from Prague, he set up a mental health program, and instituted a suicide watch for other inmates.

It was at Theresienstadt, the camp where Jewish prisoners had some autonomy and were able to organize a wide array of educational and cultural programs, that Frankl ran a professional scientific seminar in July 1943.In it, he lectured on such topics as sleep disorders, “Body and Soul,” the “Psychology of Mountaineering” and “Existential Problems in Psychotherapy.”

Frankl’s father did not survive Theresienstadt. The rest of the family were all transferred to Auschwitz, where Elsa and Walter died. Viktor ended up in a satellite camp of Dachau, while his 24-year-old wife Tilly was murdered at Bergen-Belsen.

Along the way, the manuscript of “The Doctor and the Soul” was discovered by a guard at Auschwitz. As he described in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl pleaded with him not to confiscate it:

”’Look, this is the manuscript of a scientific book. . . . 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 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.”

However, Frankl’s epiphany that we are alone and life is absurd, at best, did not lead him to existential despair. Instead, it propelled him further along a course that he clearly had set out upon even before the war – to find the justification for living, and significance, in life itself. The meaning derives from the very fact that the decision of whether to search for that meaning is ours. As he put it in his book “The Unconscious God,” “... [B]eing human is being responsible - existentially responsible, responsible for one's own existence."

Frankl placed great importance on the value of suffering as a way to find meaning. Not for the sake of penance or punishment, but because suffering offers the opportunity to focus on the things that really matter. For him, this is first and foremost love, which he claimed offered the “salvation of man,” as he wrote in “Man’s Search for Meaning”: “In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”

In April of 1945, Frankl, who had almost died of typhoid fever at his last concentration camp, was liberated. He returned to Vienna, where he learned of the deaths of nearly all his family members, and where he became, the following year, the director of the Vienna Neurological Polyclinic. It was over the course of nine days, in 1946, that he wrote, through dictation, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

He was remarried in 1947, to Eleonore Schwindt, an observant Catholic, who remained Frankl’s wife and partner in his work until the end of his life, half a century later. He went on to write another 31 books, both professional and for general audiences. Although based in Vienna, he traveled and lectured widely, and accepted many honors. Writer Matthew Scully, who interviewed Frankl in 1995, found him sharp and lucid, but also surprisingly defensive about his work and legacy. Frankl told him that people had rejected his ideas because he had refused to see the Holocaust as a unique manifestation of evil, and because he had always emphasized the individual nature of guilt, rather than seeing it as a collective blot on a nation or even an individual family. Others, he acknowledged, seemed to resent him for introducing the idea of “soul” into his psychological approach.

Though Frankl did not want to say whether he believed in God, he told his interviewer the following:

"If you call ‘religious’ a man who believes in what I call a Supermeaning, a meaning so comprehensive that you can no longer grasp it, get hold of it in rational intellectual terminology, then one should feel free to call me religious, really…. The positing of a supermeaning that evades mere rational grasp is one of the main tenets of logotherapy, after all. And a religious person may identify Supermeaning as something paralleling a Superbeing, and this Superbeing we would call God.”

Frankl died in Vienna, 16 years ago today. He was survived by his wife and a daughter, also a psychologist, as well as two granddaughters and a great-granddaughter.