Nine months after he had married his wife in 1942, the Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl and his family were captured by the Nazis and transported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto – a waystation en route to the extermination camps. They were forced to abort their unborn child, and Frankl’s father died only months later of starvation and pneumonia.
In 1944, together with his wife and 1,500 other inmates, Frankl was placed on a train. They assumed they’d be transported to one of the Nazi armament factories to be used as forced labour. After days cooped up in the windowless wagon, one of the inmates glanced at a signpost outside. What he read out made the desperate passengers shiver with fear. “Auschwitz!,” he screamed in disbelief.
Separated from his wife upon arrival, Frankl was a man without any connection to his former life.
He later described the 3 stages concentration camp prisoners go through as:
(1) admission-shock, followed by,
(2) a period of apathy and entrenchment in the camp routine and,
(3) the phase of disillusionment after liberation.
Stripped of any possessions, what remained was only a prisoner number and naked existence. No more loved ones. No more hope. Instead, there loomed the daily fear of death, given the hard labour and inhumanly small portions of food. He knew that not being able to work meant certain transfer to the “gas.”
In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl described what kept him and other inmates alive in these brutal circumstances. He phrased it as “fleeing inwards.”
This was especially needed in the cruel morning time, when after a short night of sleep with 9 inmates cramped together across 2 x 2.5 metres, they were awakened abruptly and pushed out into the cold darkness to face another day of hard labour, dangers, and risks.
In such moments, a comrade would occasionally whisper, “What if our wives could see us now?”
Upon hearing that question, the image of his beautiful wife appeared immediately in Frankl’s mind… a picture so vivid and clear that he described it as follows: “I’m having conversations with my wife. I hear her answer. I see her smile. I glimpse her longing and encouraging looks. Her gaze shines stronger than the low sun of this bitterly cold winter morning.”
Sometimes he would go on with his daydream for hours, fleeing inwards to the incredibly strong presence of his beautiful wife, the images functioning as his anchors in many terrible moments.
Frankl said that inmates who were able to “flee inwards” were the ones with higher chances of survival. The anchors kept them going and alive. Others, who had no anchors or had lost them would often say, “There is nothing else to expect from life,” a phrase, which Frankl powerfully turned around:
“It never ever depends on what we expect from life. It only depends on: what life expects from us.”
Frankl was transferred to two other labour camps, eventually coming down with typhoid fever. To avoid fatal vascular collapse, he kept himself awake at night by reconstructing the manuscript of his thesis.
On 27th of April 1945, his camp was liberated by U.S. troops.
Sadly, within a short span of time, Frankl learned of the death of his wife, his mother and his brother… all murdered by the Nazi’s.
He had to create new meaning. He had to create new anchors. It was very difficult!
Full of despair over his losses, he found support in his friends and the determination to write his book. He became a recognised author worldwide and a professor of neurology and psychiatry. In 1947, he married his new love, Elly, and soon their daughter Gabriele was born. Life went on. Somehow.
Why am I sharing this difficult story?
Fortunately, we are living when the horrors of World War Two are behind us. We’ve been spared the trauma and cruelty suffered by Victor Frankl and millions of others. And yet, we all have our own struggles, which might overwhelm us and make us lose hope occasionally during difficult times that might leave us feeling helpless.
In such trying times, could we not “flee inwards” as Frankl and the other survivors did? Could we not define / visualize anchors that keep us going? Could we not also ask ourselves, “What does life expect from me in this difficult time?”
Of course we could.
Maybe life expects us to stand up for our own opinions… to draw clearer boundaries… to take better care of ourselves… to let go of what others expect from us… to love more freely without so much judgment. Who knows? I strongly believe there is something life is expecting from us, right here, right now.
What is it for you?