The Last Freedom
In 1943, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was arrested by the Nazis and sent to a death camp. Everything he valued was taken from him—they took all of his possessions and personal property, and he was separated from his wife and his family. Among the possessions that were taken from him and destroyed was the only copy of a book he was writing—his life work.
He had hidden the manuscript in the lining of his coat, and now the coat was gone. He described losing this manuscript as tantamount to the loss of his “spiritual child,” since it represented everything that he had worked for throughout his life.
When the Nazis forced the prisoners to give up even the clothes they were wearing, Frankl said he experienced total hopelessness, particularly as he contemplated the loss of his cherished manuscript.
And then he made a discovery, “When I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chamber immediately after his arrival at the Auschwitz railway station. Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in a pocket of the newly acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael. [“Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God.”] How should I have interpreted such a ‘coincidence’ other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?”
This single prayer, this single page, took on great meaning. Rediscovering the Shema in such grave circumstances gave Frankl a new focus. The spark of hope generated by this providence—for I cannot think of it as a coincidence—enabled Frankl to begin to regain his humanity and the meaning of his life.
He began to realize that the most important thing he could do was to find meaning in even the bleakest moment by serving others—by focusing on what could be done rather than on what had become impossible. About this discovery he wrote, “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.”
The power “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances” was the discovery that helped Frankl survive. After Auschwitz was liberated, Frankl returned to Vienna to rebuild his life. He set out to recreate the manuscript that had been taken from him. He included his experiences during captivity, and the new book was built around his conviction that “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life.”
Many people have been inspired by the life and work of Viktor Frankl. In our own time, when there are things that discourage us or cause us to doubt and even despair, Frankl stands as a beacon of hope and promise. First, that we will remember the Shema—that God is in our world and our life. And second, that we will remember in all circumstances what Frankl called the last freedom—the power to choose our attitude toward the circumstances in which we live.
(Quotations from Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, 1959.)