A Psychiatrist Survives the Holocaust, What does he learn?
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
— Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl was born to a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. in 1905. From an early age, he was fascinated with psychology, leading him to study psychiatry and neurology alongside famed psychiatrists Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. His studies were centered on suicide and depression. In 1928, he organized a program to counsel high school students, and in 1931, for the first time in years, no high school student committed suicide in Vienna. This accomplishment got him an invitation to Berlin, where he oversaw the suicide wing of the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital, treating thousands of patients with suicidal tendencies. In 1938, he was prohibited from treating “Aryan” patients due to his Jewish heritage, so he started overseeing neurology at the Rothschild Hospital, the only facility to which Jews were still admitted.
In 1942, Frankl, his parents, wife, and brother were arrested and sent to the Thereisienstadt concentration camp. Over the next three years, Frankl experienced four concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He continued to practice psychiatry in the camps, making efforts to address the hopelessness of his fellow inmates. In 1945, Frankl was liberated and returned to Vienna, where he was informed that his entire family had been lost except his sister. He could overcome his despair by returning to his work, using his experiences and observations from the camps to develop a new approach to psychological healing. Frankl named his theory logotherapy, founded on the belief that “it is the striving to find a meaning in one’s life that is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.” He documents these findings in a book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which went on to sell millions of copies around the world.
Frankl believed 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.” This first principal truth lies at the essence of what it takes to unlock your magic in the world today. Let me attempt to simplify:
Your life is a series of situations, good and bad.
You aren’t defined by these situations. You can’t avoid them.
You’re defined by how you respond to these situations.
A life, a career, a relationship is the compounded result of your responses over a period of time.
Think of it as a scorecard. With little boxes monitoring your responses, good, OK, and bad. Your goal is to maximize the positive responses and minimize the negative ones.
Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Your response is your ability to define yourself, to allow your best self to shine through.
After the war, Frankl practiced and taught psychiatry for twenty-five years in Europe and twenty years in the United States. He was awarded twenty-nine honorary doctorates, climbed mountains, and learned to fly. He never retired. At ninety, he was interviewed and said not a day went by without him thinking of what had happened in the camps. Yet, in a way, he pitied those younger people without the ability to compare the experience of the camps or the war, to their present problems, saying, “What I would have given then if I could have had no greater problem than I face today.”