‘To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, 19th century
I read many books to learn lessons to help me better deal with difficult life situations. I came across a reference to Viktor Frankl. Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist, survived for three years in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He applied what he learned from his camp experiences to logotherapy, the theory of psychotherapy that he developed.
One can survive a difficult situation by having a meaning in life, a great love, or a noble, stoical acceptance of one’s suffering.
I read many of Frankl’s books, especially Man’s Search for Meaning, the book that describes his experience. I used his experience as a guide for dealing with my difficulties. I surmised that skills learned and used to help someone survive the greatest, most evil calamity that man has committed against man must be powerful skills.
So I started to write this book and read about other concentration camp experiences. I extracted lessons that can be applied to our own lesser difficulties in life. Our difficulties do not approach the horror of the Nazi death camps.
Nothing else that man has ever done to his fellow man approaches the organized, systematic horror of the Nazi death camps. Only one inmate in 28 sent to these camps survived. Their main purpose was racial extermination.
The Nazis established several camps for the sole purpose of extermination – most notably Treblinka, Sobibor, Chełmno and Bełżec. There were very few survivors of these camps, which is why they are less well known than the bigger workcamps.
Only two Jewish prisoners survived Bełżec, in which around 500,000 died. Only three survived Chełmno. There were revolts in Treblinka and Sobibor and some escapees survived to tell their tale. Extermination was carried out on a similar scale at the multi-purpose camps of Auschwitz and Majanek.
The Soviet Gulags, to which I also refer, were bad but not in the same league. Many were imprisoned for surprisingly minor reasons such as escaping from a German POW camp or referring to Stalin as ‘Old Man Whiskers’ in private communication to a friend.
30% of those imprisoned in gulags perished. This was an inevitable result of carelessness and indifference. Inmates died because they were underfed and overworked in Siberian winters. There was not a policy of deliberate extermination as there was in Nazi camps.
Auschwitz, in Poland, earned its notoriety because more people died there than in any other camp – over one million. It was the main destination for Jews transported from occupied countries as part of the Final Solution in the latter years of the war. By then the Germans were losing the war and most other extermination camps had been closed.
Upon arrival there was the first selection. Children, old people and those judged unfit to work went straight to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
During those latter years of the war, healthy adults were sent to workcamps to help the failing war effort. Frankl was transported to a subcamp of Dachau near Munich. Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, other authors I refer to below, were both sent to Auschwitz-Monowitz. This workcamp, also known as Auschwitz III or Buna, provided labor for building of a synthetic rubber factory.
Wiesel also survived the notorious death march and transportation ahead of the Russian advance to Buchenwald in Germany. His father died shortly after arriving in Buchenwald.
Some uneasy facts that I came across in my research present surviving a concentration camp in a darker light than that presented by Frankl. Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist who survived for a year in Auschwitz, wrote extensively on his experience in If This Is a Man.
In his follow-up book The Drowned and the Saved, published in 1986, Levi makes the point that the privileged prisoners were a minority in the camps but represent a majority of the survivors.
Privileged prisoners, or Prominenten in German, helped run the camps. They included specialist workers such as doctors, and cooks, and supervisors to help run the camp — camp wardens and foremen, known as Kapos. They received better treatment than the ordinary prisoners.
Many of the survivors felt guilty about surviving when so many ‘better’ people died. They might have done something that they felt was not the right thing in order to survive a bit longer.
This is another reason that the death camps were so evil. Not only did they kill so many people, but they also scarred many survivors with feelings of guilt. The Nazis wanted those imprisoned, especially the Jews, to be degraded.
I now realize that doing whatever it takes to survive is a key message of this book. To survive you need not just a noble attitude, your life work or someone to love, and resilience. You may also need to make compromises. You may have to do things that you would not do in better circumstances.
This book contains lessons to help you survive a difficult situation until a better day. When that day comes you can fully enjoy life again. Do not feel guilty about doing what it takes to survive your difficult situation.