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The Heart of Life: Auschwitz

Monday, April 25, 2011


It had been an especially gloomy day in the Auschwitz concentration camp.  One prisoner had stolen some food, and thus camp officials demanded to be informed of the prisoner's identity so he or she could be executed.  The officials threatened to make the entire camp go hungry for a day, but the prisoners agreed that it was better for 2500 men to be hungry for a day than for one man to lose his life.  To add to the discomfort, the lights went out.  At the end of the day, the prisoners sat tired and hungry in pitch black barracks.

Spirits were low, and the wise senior block warden saw this as a potentially dangerous situation.  Suicide often accompanied this kind of misery.  Should a man attempt suicide, other prisoners were forbidden from taking measures to save him.  Thus, it was imperative to keep thoughts of suicide out of prisoners' minds.

The warden turned to one of the cold, tired, and hungry men and invited him to say some words to his fellow prisoners.  This man went by the name Viktor Frankl and had been a psychiatrist prior to his imprisonment in Auschwitz.  He stood in the darkness before his comrades feeling emotionally unequipped to inspire hope in his fellow prisoners when he himself felt very low.  However, he began to speak anyway.

First he spoke of the present.  He acknowledged that they had all lost much on their road to Auschwitz.  He reminded them that although they'd lost much, one thing had yet to be taken from them--their lives.  He told them their sacrifices would make them stronger people.  He quoted a German poet, "That which does not kill me, makes me stronger."

He then spoke of the future.  He admitted that he estimated the chances of his own survival to be about one in twenty.  The work was hard, the food was inadequate, and disease spread quickly.  However, he firmly stated that although the odds were against him, he would not give up hope.  He reminded them that there is no way to tell what the future would bring.  Perhaps it would bring death.  But perhaps it would bring freedom and a re-accumulation of all that was lost before Auschwitz.  Or perhaps the future would contain a different form of luck--an assignment to a work group with unusually good working conditions.

Next he spoke of the past.  He asked them to think of the wonderful and joyous things they had experienced in their lives before coming to Auschwitz.  He told them, "What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.  Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past" (Man's Search for Meaning, p. 82).  The Nazis may have robbed their possessions, but they could never steal happy memories.

Lastly he spoke of the importance of meaning in a man's life--the importance of having a reason to live.  He explained that this meaning is different for every person.  For one person this reason to live might stem from the love of a family member.  For another it may come from a great work that has been left unfinished.  For others, this meaning comes from a promise that they will live and die with their faces pointing toward God.  Knowledge that a dead loved one is watching over them can give men the strength to even suffer or die with dignity.  Mr. Frankl quoted the German poet again, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how" (Man's Search for Meaning).  If a person knows why he is living, how he lives--whether it be good or bad conditions--is an insignificant detail.  No man wants to live and die for nothing.

Eventually the lights came back on that night.  Some time later World War II ended and the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated.  Viktor Frankl was one of the relatively few survivors of Auschwitz set free that day.  He later wrote a book entitled Man's Search for Meaning which described his experiences in Auschwitz.

I know many people who have found themselves in their own metaphorical Auschwitz.  Depression keeps them caged in a very dark, frightening, and humiliating place.  It does not seem fair that they were brought to this place while so many others avoid it.  It seems as though they will never be liberated from this Auschwitz, and at times suicide appears to be the only escape.

Last month a young man from my hometown took his own life.  I never met this boy, and I do not know the circumstances of his suicide, but I was told that this metaphorical Auschwitz appeared to be a factor in his death.

I have never been to Auschwitz, and there is much I do not know about this place.  There is much about Auschwitz that I hope to never learn first hand.  But to those who do know Auschwitz, I strongly encourage you to get professional help.  Do not keep your Auschwitz a secret.  The strongest sort of people reach for help when they feel weak.  If suicide begins to become an option, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) any time of day or night.  This hotline is free, completely confidential, and they will talk to you as long as you need, then give you some ideas of people or agencies to contact in order to get long-term help.  There are lots of people and organizations who can help you, but they won't know you need help until you ask for it.

If you know someone who seems trapped in Auschwitz, do everything you can to be supportive.  Pay particular attention to any extreme changes in how that person lives.  A few things to watch for are changes in sleeping patterns (sleeping a lot more or a lot less), extreme weight gain or loss, changes in eating habits, changes in hygiene, withdrawal from social activities or hobbies that used to be enjoyable, or increase in drug or alcohol consumption.  These are just a few common warning signs for suicide, but most importantly trust your instincts.  If something feels wrong, do something about it.  If someone tells you they have been considering suicide, encourage them to call the phone number above, let them know you care about them, and then tell someone about it (even if they ask you to keep it a secret).  If you feel someone is about to commit suicide right then or is in the process of it, call 911 immediately.  If you are interested in learning more about how to help a friend, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website has some really good information.  Another good website to look into is What a Difference a Friend Makes.

After World War II, these words were found etched into a wall of a cellar used to hide Jews escaping from the Nazi regime:
"I believe in the sun,
even when it is not shining.
I believe in love,
even when I don't feel it.
I believe in God,
even when there is silence."

At one point or another, the sun will grow dim for all of us, and things will look impossible.  We might be cold, tired, or hungry, but we must not lose hope.  The gates of Auschwitz are formidable, but they can always be torn down.



At April 26, 2011 at 8:27 AM , Blogger Georgia said...

A profound post, Lindsey.


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