Although it is not widely read or appreciated as such, Viktor Frankl’s celebrated book Man’s Search for Meaning is a Holocaust memoir. When it was first published in German in 1946, it bore the title A Psychologist’s Experiences in a Concentration Camp. In the opening paragraph, Frankl calls his book “the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.” But the “great horrors,” he immediately observes, “have already been described often enough”—even though he is writing little more than a year after the Soviet Army had liberated Auschwitz. His intention lies elsewhere. What he wants is to describe “the hard fight for existence” in the camps, the “unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself, for one’s own sake or for that of a good friend.”
Everything that follows must be read in the light of Frankl’s intention. But it rarely has. The Los Angeles Times critic Robert R. Kirsch, who did more than anyone to establish the book’s reputation in English, set the tone of the discussion early on. “This work was more than a narrative of suffering,” he wrote; “it was in fact the kind of response which makes suffering meaningful.” The book was read as an account of triumph against all odds. As talk about the Holocaust began to rise into many Americans’ mouths in the early ’seventies, Frankl began to be consulted as a witness to its meaning for latter-day bystanders. The Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy summed up the message. Frankl, he wrote, “said that often the men who survived were those who had a strong, unwavering reason he survive: ‘he who has a strong enough why can endure almost any kind of how.’ ”
In the words attributed to him here, Frankl is quoting the twelfth maxim in Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, a fact that McCarthy conveniently ignores. The full version, translated by Walter Kaufmann, has a rather different effect: “If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.” Frankl too chops off the end:
Compare the story that Primo Levi tells in If This Is a Man. Levi explains “the whole process of introduction to what was for us a new order”—a new order of human existence. In his first days in Auschwitz, he does not understand that the old order has been totally replaced:
And once it is understood as referring, not to ordinary experience, but to a world (in Levi’s phrase) from which “the only exit is by way of the Chimney,” Frankl’s advice for “bearing the terrible how of existence” can be seen for what it is—a failure to plumb the depths of the Holocaust. “Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross,” he writes. Required? Yes, by the German Nazis. “One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph,” he writes, “or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.” And in either case, one would almost certainly be gassed and burned and dumped in a mass grave. “[A man] may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp,” Frankl writes. “Dostoevski said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ ” Who is worthy of the gas chamber?
Man’s Search for Meaning infuriates me precisely because my own thought, under the influence of Stage IV cancer, veers dangerously in Frankl’s direction. Here are two things to remember. No human experience is comparable to Auschwitz. There is no possible advice that floats like ash from the crematorium’s chimney. The Holocaust is another world, and any effort to adjust it to the ordinary world of ordinary human experience is a perversion and a lie. Perhaps if he had written a cancer memoir—if he had written about suffering that stops short of human understanding’s limits—Frankl might have offered words of wisdom to those in extremis.
But perhaps not. Although I too have written that the response to affliction is an elective decision fully within human command (and though I too would be superficial and mawkish if I were to write such a thing about the Holocaust), I distance myself from Frankl by disputing the connection between why and how. The search for meaning is not man’s search. The real question is how to do any good, or as Etty Hillesum put it just days after learning for a certainty that the Germans “are after our total destruction,” the problem is one of “offering what little assistance I can wherever it has pleased God to place me.”