How does a foreign book – featuring an old-fashioned cover design, written almost eighty years ago in Austria – end up on the bestseller lists in Israel in 2023?
Viktor Frankl, who wrote the book in question (and many others after) would perhaps answer that people are always looking for meaning, no matter what century they are born in or the horrors they are required to face.
Viktor Emil Frankl was born in fashionable and enlightened Vienna in the early 20th century. Already at the age of three or four, he told his father that he wanted to be a doctor and treat people. Within a few years, he had decided that being a physician wasn’t enough for him. Viktor wanted to focus on mental health – psychiatry.
His surroundings couldn’t have been more perfect for such a choice: Vienna was the Mecca of psychiatry and psychotherapy at the time. The Viennese educational and research institutions were among the world’s most advanced, and the city was full of well-known practitioners, academics and scientists. Frankl studied with students of Sigmund Freud, and even shared correspondence with Freud himself, to such an extent that when they finally met in person, the father of psychoanalysis shook his hand and asked: “Viktor Frankl, Vienna, 6 Chernin Street, door 25, correct?”
But the city was only the setting; Frankl himself was talented, hardworking, and full of great ideas and an even greater faith in the human soul. He was also a gracious speaker, and at the age of 15 he delivered his first speech, entitled – pretentious as it was for a boy of his age – “On the Meaning of Life”.
Frankl was a resounding and speedy success. He wasn’t yet 20 years old when he published his first paper (with the encouragement of Freud, who later came out against his ideas), and he was barely 25 when he received his first doctorate. It was around this time that he started formulating his own therapeutical approach – Logotherapy, or meaning-based psychotherapy (the name is derived from the Greek word “logos,” defined as “meaning”).
Logotherapy was later called “the third Viennese school of psychotherapy”, preceded by Freud’s psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s individual psychology.
Adler himself, who was initially an ardent supporter of this up-and-coming talent, was unimpressed with Frank’s new independent ideas and literally threw him out of the “Society for Individual Psychology,” which he headed.
But that didn’t hurt Frankl. In fact, he became famous in Europe and throughout the world in his own right and was invited to give lectures at leading academic institutions – lectures that filled halls with enthusiastic students and researchers.
This description might bring to mind a terrifyingly serious boy and later, young man, who spent all of his time poring over thick tomes and cut off from the world, but that image is a far cry from the vivacious and loving character that was the young Viktor Frankl.
His lectures were so sought after, not only because of his ideas and innovative research, but also because he knew how to explain his theories in a clear, simple manner and was able to pepper the dry information with subtle humor.
Frankl’s personal charm also helped him with the opposite sex. He recounts in his memoirs how he used his position as a young lecturer to attract the women he liked: He’d tell them about “this Frankl fellow” who gave lectures, and then offer to accompany them to the popular scholar’s next lecture. It’s easy to imagine the women’s admiration at seeing the man who had escorted them suddenly walk on stage, to the sound of rapturous applause.
In the meantime, the Nazis had annexed Austria. Frankl, who was an ardent supporter of the Austrian Zionist movement, needed to keep a low profile. He could no longer use the title “Doctor”, which was denied to Jews, and he was forced to close down the private clinic he had opened less than a year earlier.
In 1940, when he was 35 years old, Frankl was appointed director of the neurological department at Rothschild Hospital in Vienna, a Jewish institution. Although he risked his life in doing so, he gave patients false psychiatric diagnoses in order to prevent the Nazis from executing or imprisoning the mentally ill.
Despite his promising academic and social status, it was clear that as a Jew, Frankl’s future wasn’t bright. The Americans opened their gates to him, even as they remained closed to many others, but he chose to stay in Vienna with his elderly parents who weren’t granted the desired visa.
Just then, when the future seemed like a looming black cloud, he met a nurse in the hospital named Tilly Grosser and fell deeply in love. They got married that year, and were the last Jewish couple allowed to officially wed in Nazi-controlled Vienna. But when Tilly became pregnant, the young couple had to give up their dreams of a family; pregnant Jews were immediately sent east, and Tilly had to have an abortion to save her life.
Years later, one of his books would be dedicated “to Harry, or to Marion. Children who were never born”.
In September 1942, he was taken, along with Tilly, his parents, and the rest of their family, to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. There, using his skills as a doctor and psychiatrist, he developed psychological programs to alleviate the initial shock of the new prisoners and to prevent cases of suicide.
When his father was dying in his arms from lung disease, he chose compassion over survival, injecting him with the only dose of morphine he had managed to smuggle into the ghetto so that he could die in relative peace.
Two years after arriving at Theresienstadt, the Frankl family was boarded onto one of the transports heading east, to a camp people didn’t return from – Auschwitz.
During the last few moments before he was forced to part ways with his wife, he held her hands and told her in the sternest voice he could muster: “Tilly, stay alive at any cost. Do you hear me? At any cost!” It didn’t work. He never saw her again, but was sure until the end of his days that she was among the 17,000 prisoners who died in Bergen-Belsen (the camp where she apparently was held at the end of the war) just after liberation.
The Nazis took more than just his family. In the pocket of Frankl’s coat, which he had to give up upon arrival in the camp, was the almost complete manuscript of his first book on the fundamentals of Logotherapy – The Doctor and the Soul. He later said that on the same day that the manuscript was taken from him, he was given a different coat, the pocket of which contained a page torn out of a prayer book with the words of the prayer “Shema Yisrael” written on it. He took it as a sign that now was the time not only to formulate lofty ideas but also, and perhaps above all, to live by them.
There was little he could do for his wife Tilly, he could only think and dream about her. But when it came to his book, there was something practical Frankl could do. He continued to write throughout this period – mainly in his head, but also on small scraps of paper that he was able to obtain.
“I am convinced,” he later wrote, “that I owe my survival, among other things, to my decision to recreate this lost manuscript. I began working on it when I was sick with typhus and tried to stay awake, even at night, to prevent a collapse of my vascular system. On my 40th birthday, a prisoner gave me the end of a pencil that he stole almost miraculously, and also some papers from SS documents. On the back of these documents, I wrote down the titles of the chapters, which helped me recreate my book.”
From those chapter titles, and his experiences from that terrible time, he was able to compose a new book. Man’s Search for Meaning was written in Vienna right after the war, when for nine consecutive days, Frankl stood and spoke before several typists who were able to put the flow of his words into text.
Frankl had developed his theory of Logotherapy before the war, but this book, published after years of wandering between concentration camps, was not the book he had originally planned. Now, in addition to his “dry” scientific theory, the book contained the story of his own survival in the concentration camps, an autobiographical story that served as a kind of case study for Logotherapy.
In the midst of the impossible routine inside the camps, Frankl tested his psychotherapeutic theory on himself and those around him. He found that the three main foundations upon which he had based the method of Logotherapy – the will to find meaning, the meaning of life, and freedom of will – were put to the most brutal test imaginable and withstood it.
“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.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
Frankl argued that the people who survived weren’t the strongest or the most cheerful but rather those who had managed to find some meaning worth living for. “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” may have been a saying of Nietzsche’s, but Frankl leant it some very practical meaning.
The result was a short book, barely 200 pages long, that sold more than 12 million copies and is considered by many to be one of the most influential books ever written.
With the end of the war and the gradual liberation of the concentration camps, Frankl returned to his hometown of Vienna, to the horrible discovery that his entire family, aside from his sister, had been murdered. Acting as a spectacular personal example – he rolled up his sleeves and set out to rebuild his life. In doing this, he kept in mind the greatest meaning his life could offer – “to help others find their meaning” – as he himself put it.
He got married again, to a nurse named Eleanore, and they had a daughter named Gabriel. This was a loving marriage between a practicing Jew and an equally practicing Christian. She went with him to synagogue, and he accompanied her to church.
Ever since, Viktor Frankl’s ideas have spread throughout the world. He published around 40 books that have been translated into over 50 languages. He himself continued to live in Vienna until the end of his life but spent many years traveling long distances for lectures and meetings at every important academic institution across the globe.
The fact that Man’s Search for Meaning has again become a bestseller in Israel, precisely when we are in the midst of one of the most difficult and challenging times in the history of the state, shows more than anything how eternally relevant his ideas are.
Since he himself is not with us today to provide words of comfort and meaning, we have no choice but to find some solace in words he spoke in the past, in reference to other terrible events:
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”