Yom HaShoah 2020: Viktor Frankl

The following article was written by Thando Mlauzi ('21) in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day 2020.

Viktor Frankl Neurologist. Psychiatrist. Author. Holocaust Survivor.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

This quote was said by Viktor Frankl. Many have dedicated themselves to numerous fields to better understand and help mankind, physically and mentally. Frankl firmly believed that all life has meaning, in the brightest of times, or in the darkest, and helped many others see the same.

In 1905, Viktor Frankl was born into a Jewish family of civil servants. From a young age, Frankl developed a strong interest in psychology and philosophical thinking. Frankl’s interest didn’t stop there. Despite staying away from their viewpoints, his early interactions with Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler inspired him to also study medicine, which he did as a prominent student at the University of Vienna, specializing in Neurology and Psychiatry, with a concentration in the topics of depression and suicide. Even before completing medical school, Frankl began to achieve many things, perhaps most notably establishing a free counseling program to high schoolers, where he was also able to bring other respected psychologists as well, giving special attention to students as they received report cards. 1931 saw Vienna have a 0% suicide rate among students that year. His role in this phenomenal accomplishment was one of many where he made a major impact. In February 1934, the Austrian Civil War began. While completing his residency in 1937 by overseeing a “suicide pavilion” where he treated over 3,000 women with suicidal tendencies, he opened up his own practice in neurology psychology. However, in 1938, the Nazi takeover of Austria began. Frankl, a Jewish man, was not only forbidden to treat many patients, but wasn’t allowed to own or operate his own business. This lead him to the Rothschild Hospital, the only hospital that still admitted Jews, where he was the head of the neurology department. His outstanding work led to saving the lives of many from being euthanized with the Nazi euthanasia program. To avoid a likely dark and cruel fate, many Jews decided to die by their own hands by overdosing on sedatives. Viktor Frankl was granted permission by the Nazis to perform experimental procedures on these patients, but found himself arrested and send to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. In the Ghetto, he was a part of the suicide prevention, where he saved the lives of many that contemplated suicide, as well as helped newcomers overcome sensations like shock grief. Frankl was eventually sent to Auschwitz. Even in the harshest of conditions, he still was able to help others, from giving his food to the starving, to providing morale support. Once his camp was infected with typhoid, he was sent to treat 50 men who were infected. Finally, on April 27, 1945, the camp was liberated by American soldiers. Much of his family died in concentration camps, including his father of starvation and pneumonia, and his wife, who was murdered. His only surviving family member was his sister Stella, who immigrated to Austria, while Viktor returned home to Vienna to earn a Ph.D. in Philosophy, pen successful books like Man's Search for Meaning, be appointed as head of the Vienna Polyclinic of Neurology, and marry his second wife, Eleonore.

Frankl concluded that people are largely motivated “to find a meaning in one's life” in order to overcome painful or traumatic experiences. After surviving the Holocaust, Frankl maintained his firm belief that all life has meaning, in the brightest of times, or in the darkest. He found his and helped others find their’s. Perhaps we can all do the same as well.