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Man’s Search for Meaning

The harrowing experiences of the author in a concentration camp

By Viktor Frankl
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Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Originally published in 1946, Man’s Search for Meaning details the harrowing experiences of author and psychologist Viktor Frankl during his internment in Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War. It offers insights into how human beings can survive unsurvivable situations, come to terms with trauma, and ultimately find meaning.

Key idea 1 of 9

Prisoners’ first reaction to the concentration camps was shock – first in the form of hope, then despair.

Today, everyone has at least some awareness of the horrible, inhumane acts that were carried out in the concentration camps across Germany and Eastern Europe under the Nazi regime.

Likewise, the targets of Nazi violence during the Holocaust had at least some inkling of the terrible fate that awaited them. Because of this, you’d think that the initial reaction upon entering the camps would have been fear. Reactions, however, were split into three distinct phases.

The first phase began upon arrival at the camp – or even as inmates were being transported.

Prisoners were so shocked at what was happening that they desperately tried to convince themselves that, somehow, everything would be alright. Most prisoners had heard horrific stories about what happened at the camps, yet when they themselves were sent there, they told themselves that things would be different for them.

Those who arrived at the death camp Auschwitz, for example, were sent to the left or right as they exited the train – one group for hard labor and one for immediate execution. However, none of them knew what these groups meant.

Due to the shock of arriving at the camp, the prisoners succumbed to the delusion of reprieve, falsely believing that the line they were in would somehow mean an escape from certain doom.

During this first phase, the prisoners who hadn’t yet become accustomed to the horrors of the camp were terribly frightened by everything that went on. Newly arrived prisoners couldn’t manage the intensely emotional experience of watching other prisoners being punished in the most brutal ways for the most trivial offenses.

Confronted with grotesque brutality, they soon lost their hope and began to see death as some kind of relief. Most, in fact, considered suicide as a way out – perhaps by grabbing the electrical fence around the camp.

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