The Source of Meaning Comes from Above
In 1941, Viktor Frankl, 36, a Jewish neurologist, psychiatrist, and philosopher in Vienna, Austria, faced a dilemma. Austria was occupied by the Nazis, but the United States had not yet entered World War II. Offered a visa by the American Consulate to escape to America, Frankl hesitated out of concern for his aged parents, who would likely end up in a concentration camp. He wished for "a hint from Heaven" about what he should do.
It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home. When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He had taken the piece home because it was a part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece; my father explained that this letter stood for one of the commandments. Eagerly I asked, "Which one is it?" He answered, "Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land." At that moment I decided to stay with my father and my mother upon the land, and to let the American visa lapse.
So Frankl remained, and as he feared, in 1942 the Jews of Vienna were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. He spent three years in four camps, including a stint in Auschwitz. He survived, but his parents, his wife, and his brother all died in Nazi camps.
After the war and his return to Vienna, Frankl wrote about life and death in the camps in Man's Search for Meaning. Many other prisoners, lacking hope, had been crushed by the brutal conditions of the camps, despaired, and died. Prisoners who found a sense of meaning in their lives were much better able to cope and survive. Survivors often thought about a future reunion with their wives and children, or their return to meaningful work. Frankl dreamed of his wife and scribbled notes for the book that he wanted to write about the lessons he was learning through his suffering.
He had lost his original notes on entering a camp, where he was stripped of the coat in which they were hidden. He was given the worn-out rags of an executed prisoner, in which he found in a pocket a "single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael, 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.'"
In the camps, Frankl noted:
The religious interest of the prisoners, as far and as soon as it developed, was the most sincere imaginable. The depth and vigor of religious belief often surprised and moved a new arrival. Most impressive in this connection were improvised prayers or services in the corner of a hut, or in the darkness of the locked cattle truck in which we were brought back from a distant work site, tired, hungry and frozen in our ragged clothing.
In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain . . . but the damage to their inner selves was less.
Frankl had submitted to the Ten Commandments, which begin, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of bondage." The Jews cherish freedom because they have known servitude. Meaning is not found through comfort but often through struggle or suffering.
Freedom is found in choosing the right path, following "hints from Heaven." Frankl rejected the atheist/materialist claim, "Man is nothing but the result of biological, psychological and sociological conditions, or the product of heredity and environment," a view "which denies man is free." Man's nature comes from above. He observes:
[M]an 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.
In this we see man at his worst and at his best. The choice is ours.James M. Kushiner
is the executive editor of Salvo and Touchstone magazines.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #57, Summer 2021 Copyright © 2022 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo57/a-hint-from-heaven