Viktor E. Frankl is a renowned psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, as well as a neuroscientist, who developed a form of therapy called “logotherapy”, or therapy of meaning. This type of therapy is meant to reconcile individuals with the meaning of their lives.
But this book isn’t read so much for its description of logotherapy as it is for the Frankl’s personal account of life in concentration camps during WWII.
It’s not the first time I have read such accounts. They are all touching, tragic but also infinitely hopeful. Someone survived to tell us the story. Enough of them survived to tell us many stories.
Frankl uses his psychological training to analyze the mental state of prisoners through three stages: moving in the camp, living in the camp and life after the camp. The organization of the book is thus not chronological: it is thematic.
Through his narrative, Frankl displays the strength of the human heart, the power of love and the importance of meaning in one’s life. Indeed, only those who held on to meaning–a family to love, a project to finish, people to change–were able to survive the camps.
It’s difficult to review this book in a traditional way because it’s not a traditional story. It was also read millions of times and translated in dozens of languages. The detached, clinical approach to Holocaust survival is different from other Holocaust memoirs I’ve read, and yet speaks to the same experiences. And, as every Holocaust story that’s ever been published, it highlights the worst of human cruelty and the best of human fortitude.
It was a touching story, and yet intellectual at the same time. As you try to grapple with the indescribable human consequences of this darkest of times, Frankl calls on your intellect so you, the reader who didn’t live in a camp, can at least rationally grasp the meaning of such an experience.
Here’s my favourite passage; I’ll leave you on this, I think, as it encapsulates the essence of human life:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of man is through love and in love.