“This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.”
The life of the average concentration camp prisoner was a daily struggle for existence. They had their belongings stolen. They were stripped and tattooed.
Their identities were ripped away as they were reduced to a number among other numbers. For them to live, if only barely, if only briefly, was to know of death.
Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another “number,” to take his place in the transport. (Frankl 19)
Viktor Frankl was number 119, 104. His job in camp was digging and laying tracks for railway lines. Eventually, he was allowed to tend to prisoners who were sick, injured, and dying.
The capos, unlike most of the other prisoners, earned cigarettes as well as other privileges. For ordinary prisoners, cigarettes were luxury items, sometimes traded for soup, which was crucial for survival. But there were cigarettes left for those who had lost themselves to despair as well:
The only exceptions to this were those who had lost the will to live and wanted to enjoy their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned. (Frankl 21–22)
When prisoners first entered the camp, they were shocked. Unable to grasp the brutal reality of their conditions. They saw barbed wire and spotlights. They heard shrill commands in German. Ragged humans slumped together in a gray dawn. As the days passed from the train ride to the camp, the prisoners dulled into a nightmarish world:
In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as “delusion of reprieve.” The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad. (Frankl 23–24)
Prisoners who arrived at camp were cooped together in the cold. They were starved. Guards would walk over and inspect each of them, deciding on whether they should be sent off to work or die. With one finger pointing to the right or left, there was existence or non-existence, life or execution:
“Was he sent to the left side?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Then you can see him there,” I was told.
A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.
“That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,” was the answer. But I still did not understand until the truth was explained to me in plain words. (Frankl 26)
Prisoners had their most precious items stolen, which included wedding rings, writings, jewelry, and photographs; anything that resembled their former lives.
They were stripped until they were trembling and naked. Then they were whipped, beaten, washed of lice, and shaven.
In Auschwitz, prisoners had to adapt to the most horrendous conditions imaginable. They were cold and unclean and wore weathered clothes. Their feet were cracked in the mud. They slept huddled together after hours of exhaustive labor.
Suicide loomed in every prisoner’s mind , from the ever present danger around them to the utter hopelessness for the future. While some prisoners killed themselves, usually by electrocution from touching a barbed wire fence, others, despite the smallest chance of survival, continued through grueling days. Even then, they were aware they would likely be sent off to the gas chamber.
As prisoners grinded on under brutal circumstances, they were desensitized to emotions such as disgust and pity and compassion. After so much trauma, many had become apathetic, detached from their feelings, having only an instinct to survive.
To many, physical punishment didn’t matter nearly as much as the agony of injustice. They felt a complete helplessness to do anything about the terrible conditions that had spread through the camp.
Guards regularly punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. If somebody stepped out of line, talked back, or helped someone who was struggling, they would be beaten or murdered. They were treated with the same respect as livestock.
Prisoners, who had once lived as husbands and wives and students and doctors and professors and musicians and teachers and shopkeepers, were barely afforded the dignity of their humanity.
After being reduced to such a low state, prisoners became primitive in their need to live each day for one more day. They wanted to make it for just a little longer.
They often daydreamed more than they lived. They imagined they had their simplest desires fulfilled from cake to cookies, from warm baths to deep sleep. They craved an illusion of peace while bearing a terrible reality:
When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain. “He won’t last long,” or, “This is the next one,” we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh… of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless. (Frankl 42)
Once they were woken out of their longing and dreams, the prisoners cramped together to work. They moved to the shrill whine of sirens. They barely fit their swollen feet into their wet shoes before another day of labor began. If their feet could not fit inside their shoes, they would have to trudge through the snow, barefoot and frostbitten. After days of weakness, undernourishment, and starvation, they generally lost the ability to care about anything except a fulfillment of their needs. Even their feelings of compassion for other prisoners had numbed after so much trauma:
There were fifty of us in the prison car, which had two small, barred peepholes. There was only enough room for one group to squat on the floor, while the others, who had to stand up for hours, crowded round the peepholes. Standing on tiptoe and looking past the others’ heads through the bars of the window, I caught an eerie glimpse of my native town. We all felt more dead than alive, since we thought that our transport was heading for the camp at Mauthausen and that we had only one or two weeks to live. I had a distinct feeling that I saw the streets, the squares and the houses of my childhood with the eyes of a dead man who had come back from another world and was looking down on a ghostly city. After hours of delay the train left the station. And there was the street — my street! The young lads who had a number of years of camp life behind them and for whom such a journey was a great event stared attentively through the peephole. I began to beg them, to entreat them, to let me stand in front for one moment only. I tried to explain how much a look through that window meant to me just then. My request was refused with rudeness and cynicism: “You lived here all those years? Well, then you have seen quite enough already!” (Frankl 45)
As the prisoners struggled, sometimes their only salvation came through reflection, religious rituals, debate, or the recollection of a loved one. Frankl imagined his wife while marching on sore feet, touching her with his memories, imagining where she was and how deeply he loved her.
“This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past” (Frankl 50).
By creating such a rich inner life for themselves, prisoners developed an intense appreciation for nature and art. In contrast with their suffering, they found glory in the simplest miracles of existence:
Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!” (Frankl 51)
Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet” — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me. (Frankl 51–52)
Most of camp life, however, wore on the very existence of the prisoners. They had to suffer from an endless injustice, which threatened their most cherished values, beliefs, and higher purpose.
The brutality of their world ground their dignity down to its barest form, where they sensed that at the end of all their struggle was death. They were used up until their bodies failed them, until their will to go on, to persevere, eventually faded.
After so many nights of relentless abuse, their spirits were like the thin lights of candles, dwindling into an enveloping darkness.
Camp inmates often were tormented when they had to make choices or take an initiative for themselves, believing that their lives were subject to fate. Small decisions could lead to life or death, whether in the moment or in the future.
On Frankl’s final days before being rescued, he had a chance to escape with some of the other prisoners but he refused. Afterward he wondered whether he should have left with them. Only later on he wrote:
We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death. I was confronted with photographs which had been taken in a small camp not far from ours. Our friends who had thought they were traveling to freedom that night had been taken in the trucks to this camp, and there they were locked in the huts and burned to death. Their partially charred bodies were recognizable on the photograph. (Frankl 71)
Trusting in fate, at times of almost certain death, was an acceptance of what was to come. In other ways, it was one defense against the evil of the camp.
Apathy was another way of psychological defense, of survival. After having to deal with malnutrition, poor hygiene, starvation, and routine slaughter, prisoners looked for every opportunity to endure.
Despite their apathy, exhaustion, and irritability, inmates were never completely lost, never completely forsaken to the hell of their imprisonment.
They still had a choice, a chance within every moment, to act humanely. There were some individuals who, under extreme duress, acted heroically:
Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. 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 (Frankl 74–75).
Everything was stolen from these inmates except for their inner freedom. Some prisoners, despite experiencing so many horrors, maintained their dignity.
Even though these individuals were surrounded by the most extreme external restrictions, they still had a choice to reflect on the unique meaning of their lives. They could still hold onto a higher purpose. Their attitude of spiritual freedom was a crucial element in their ongoing struggle for existence:
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. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not. (Frankl 76)
While so many prisoners fell into despair because of the brutal injustice perpetrated against them, there were some who remained compassionate, courageous and loving, giving of themselves when they had no obligation to give, accepting their fate when others denied it, selflessly helping when everything was taken from them, up until the time of their execution. They died with no names, no families and friends, but they never gave up their humanity.
To give away their last bite of bread, to stand up to a guard, to offer a kind word before walking into the gas chamber, despite never receiving any praise or recognition, was to act with freedom.
While inside the camp, there was no time, no sense of a future. Once survivors were freed, they began to feel an unreality, an alien world to their own.
They had to grasp the meaning of their lives again and to not lose themselves to a dreadful past, to apathy, giving up any future possibilities. Some individuals strengthened their inner lives, maturing after the horror of their experiences. Others resigned themselves to a life that was no more:
Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: “Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.” Varying this, we could say that 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. (Frankl 76)
Prisoners who could imagine a reason to survive, who could find a “why” for their existence, could withstand the most unbearable circumstances:
We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand. 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 him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden. (Frankl 85)
Inside the camp, there were those who could undergo the daily atrocities and those who could not. Even among those who could, they survived not only from hope, not only from having a genuine purpose in a world that was against them, but from chance.
For the guards themselves, there were those who took a sadistic pleasure in making the prisoners suffer and die. Then there were those who were sympathetic but remained silent to the abuse, to the tortures, hardening themselves after many years. Finally, there were those who secretly helped and cared for the prisoners, despite a chance of severe consequences from their superior officers.
Some prisoners, who had been promoted to the most marginal powers in the camp, became as sadistic as the worst guards. Other guards, moved by compassion, could bring a prisoner to tears from the smallest act of kindness. No one in either group was entirely good or entirely bad. Life asked each of them a question, in every circumstance, which was this: “What kind of humans would they be?”
From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race” — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.
Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp. (Frankl 94)
When the prisoners were finally released after so many years of unrelenting evil, returning to the world was an ordeal for them. They drifted as if lost in a dream, unable to feel like human beings for a long time. It was so difficult for the prisoners to recover from their time at the camp, where death was their companion.
They often ate an enormous amount once they were liberated, compensating for years of watery soup and stale bread.
Pressure had been building inside every one of them for so long because they had to repress so much trauma. Eventually, this pressure erupted into talk, into a discussion of what had once been too taboo to speak about in camp, into screams and nightmares and long cries about all those who were murdered, into a readjustment back into the unfamiliar world of the living:
One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky — and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world — I had but one sentence in mind — always the same: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.” How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being. (Frankl 96)
Some of the prisoners who were freed returned to where they once lived. Many of them could not find their families anymore. Others traveled back to their hometowns, but their community could not empathize with them or realize the magnitude of their suffering.
Some of the survivors still held onto hope. They hoped for their husbands and wives and kids, for a place to live, for a future that shimmered beyond all those barbed wire fences and towers.
Some may even have found a purpose after all their suffering, but not because of what the Nazis desired. They looked for what would transcend them, what had meaning for them, until slowly, day by day, they could reclaim their humanity again.