Man’s Search for Meaning (English)
This story is about the daily experience of an ordinary prisoner. It does not focus much on the great horrors that occurred during the war. Many books have been written on them. This story is about the daily suffering of a man who lost everything, even his identity. It tells about the struggle to keep an idea of one’s self, in spite of all the cruelty in a concentration camp.
This is about the nameless prisoners who were treated as nothing but a number. They lost all dignity and were often called pigs. We were no heroes or martyrs. We were just skin and bones who struggled not only for bread, but also to remain human.To study psychology requires detachment. However, an outsider would not understand the suffering of a prisoner in a concentration camp.I intended to publish this book anonymously, revealing only my prison number. I realized that more people would read the story if I had the courage to present myself.
I did not serve as a psychiatrist in the camp. In the last weeks before liberation, I only tended to the sick prisoners. I spent three years in prison. Most of the time, I worked on railway lines. I was laying and digging tracks.One day, I dug a tunnel on my own. I was rewarded with premium coupons that Christmas of 1944. I had twelve coupons. They could be exchanged for twelve cigarettes or twelve soups. We were sold as slaves to construction firms. The firms paid the concentration camp a small price per head. For three years, I became nothing more than number 119,104.
Phase One: Admission to Camp
I had observed three phases of psychological reactions for prisoners in the camp. The first phase was his admission, the second was routine and the third was liberation. When a prisoner arrived at camp, he was overwhelmed with shock.We had travelled for days in a train. Our carriage was full. Only the top part provided some space for air. There were eighty men huddled in each coach. We all thought that we were being brought as forced labor to Poland.
We were filled with fear when we realized that our train had stopped at Auschwitz.Auschwitz meant crematoriums and gas chambers. Soon enough, we saw the watch towers, barbed-wire fences and long rows of prisoners. Our carriage doors were opened. Prisoners wearing striped uniforms entered. They had shaved heads, but they look well fed. They directed us to a shed.These special prisoners, called Capos, acted as guards. They were never hungry, unlike the normal prisoners. Some of them fared better inside camp than they had their entire life. Most Capos were more violent than the actual SS men.
We were made to fit in a shed for 200 men. There are 1,500 total passengers on our train. Most of us were still hoping that we would be safe.We were instructed to leave all our belongings on the train. We were made to form two lines, one line for men and one line for women. There was an officer who inspected each of us. He would point us to the left or to the right. Most of us were pointed to the left.
Our destiny was sealed by that single gesture. Someone whispered to me that those pointed to the right would be assigned for work. Those pointed to the left were the ones who looked sick and incapable. When it was my turn, I tried my best to look smart and strong. The man standing in front of me moved me to the right.Left meant death. That became the immediate fate of 90% of us. In the next hours, they were directed from the station to the crematorium. The building had a huge door where the word “bath” was written in different European languages Upon entering, each prisoner was given a small soap, but no water flowed from the showers.
I only found out the truth that evening, I asked another prisoner where my colleague had been sent. He was directed to the left. The man pointed his finger to the chimney. He said, “That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven.” He was burnt alive because the Germans thought he was too weak to do any useful work here in the camp.Those of us pointed to the right were escorted by guards. They commanded us to run towards the cleansing station. We passed along the barbed wires surrounding the camp, which were electric. The guards inspected us closely. They had their eyes on our watches and jewelry.
There was a blanket where we had to throw our remaining possessions. Some of us begged to keep a medal or wedding ring for sentimental value, but none of us were spared.A guard shouted at us to remove all our clothes within 2 minutes. Only shoes shall remain.Right there, in our line, we all stripped naked. Those who kept their belts were whipped by the guards.We entered a room where we were shaved. We were unable to recognize ourselves with all the hair on our bodies removed. Then we lined up for the showers. It was a relief when water really came out of the sprays.
I only had my glasses and not a single hair on my body. We were made to face our own nakedness. We had no clothes, no possessions, not even hair to cover us up. All of us stood wet in the open air. All of us were wondering what would happen next.
Phase Two: Routine and Apathy
That night, I shared an eight-foot board with eight other men. We slept side by side with only two blankets to cover all of us. It is not true when a man says, “I cannot sleep without this or that.” We slept crowded, and escaped pain for the next few hours.We went without brushing our teeth. We did not change our clothes for several months. We had nothing to wear but rags. We did not take a bath. Our hands were wounded from work and they went untreated. Dostoevsky was right when saying that man can get used to anything.
Almost everyone thought of committing suicide, of running into the electric wires. We were always in danger of being brought to the gas chambers, where people were burnt alive. It was often that we got beatings by the guards. We were feeling hopeless. We could be taken by death anytime. There was another doctor, my colleague, who escaped his hut to visit mine. He arrived in Auschwitz weeks earlier than us. He told us, “If you want to stay alive, there is only one way: look fit for work.” There were prisoners who looked sick, down, and miserable. Eventually, they would be sent to the gas chambers. These prisoners were called “Moslems.
Our life in the concentration camp was defined by apathy. When we arrived at camp, we felt an intense longing for home and loved ones. We were disgusted by the things we saw. As we moved on from admission to routine, we all started to feel nothing.Our first reaction to Auschwitz was normal. “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” As days went by, we were engulfed by apathy.The uniforms we wore were worse than the clothes of a scarecrow. We stayed in the huts as a group. Anyone caught going to other huts was punished. It is where we ate, slept, and excreted our wastes. In between our huts was pure filth.
The new prisoners were assigned to the worst task, to clear the latrines and sewage. It could not be avoided; they would be splashed in the face with excrement. Any attempt to wipe it off meant a blow from the Capos.There were often punishment parades for prisoners.They would march for hours around camp while being beaten by the guards. A 12-year-old boy was forced to stand in the snow for hours. With no shoes to fit, his toes suffered from frostbite and gangrene.Every day we encountered suffering and death. We could not feel pity, horror, or disgust. Instead, we were filled with apathy. Nothing could move us anymore.
I once stayed in a hut with prisoners who suffered from typhus. Their symptoms were extremely high fever and delirium. I watched many of them die around me. After each death, the other prisoners would swarm the body. One would take the corpse’s coat, another would take his shoes, and someone else would eat his leftovers. Only two hours had passed since I talked to that dead man. I watched the commotion while supping on my soup.
We got beatings from the guards as they pleased. I was working on the railway tracks when there was a snowstorm. I leaned on my shovel for a minute to rest. A guard saw me and thought that I was slacking off. He picked up a stone and threw it at me. I felt like I was a farm animal.I once got two blows on the head because the man behind me was not following the line. On these occasions, it was not the beating that was painful. What hurt the most was the insult, the injustice, and the lack of reason.
All of us prisoners suffered from edema due to overwork. It was a condition where the legs and feet were swollen. We could not bend our legs because of stretched skin. We could not tie our shoes because of our huge feet. Yet, we marched and worked under heavy snowfall. It was often that one prisoner would slip on the ice and the others would stumble over them. The guard would not waste time and hit us with the butt of his rifle.
The guards would tell us that normal laborers accomplished a lot more work than we did in a shorter time. But normal laborers didn’t get by on a small piece of bread and thin soup every day. They didn’t long for loved ones who may already be dead. They did not get beatings every now and then.
Our apathy was a form of self-defense. The only feeling left to us was the urge to survive. By the end of the day, it was often that a prisoner would sigh, “Well, another day is over.”Our thoughts and emotions were reduced to a primitive level. When a prisoner slept, he dreamt about warm baths, cigarettes, cakes, and bread. At work, when the guards were not watching, a fellow would start talking about his favorite meal. It was often that prisoners would exchange recipes and plan a reunion. They would happily talk about the day when they would come home and eat good food with their loved ones.
The dreams we had were very far from our daily ration of bread and watery soup.Occasionally, there would be a small bit of margarine or cheese.Sometimes, there could be a slice of low quality sausage or one spoon of watery jam. This diet was very lacking, especially when we had a heavy workload in the cold and wore only rags.When the fat had vanished, the body would start to consume itself. Muscles disappear as the body would feed on its own protein. We watched ourselves become skin and bones. We could predict with accuracy who in our hut would die next. At night, I often had the same thoughts. “This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me?”
Every morning, we were awakened by three loud blows of a whistle. The sun had not risen yet, but we would scramble to our feet. We would try to fit our swollen toes into our wet shoes. We would begin our march in the snow.While digging and shoveling on the railway, we would wait for the siren announcing lunch. We would receive our ration of bread at 9:30 until 10:00 AM.It was the highlight of our day. Some of us consumed their rations immediately. I was one of those who would save some for later. In the bitter cold, I would take comfort in breaking and eating crumbs from my pocket.
I was transferred from Auschwitz to the concentration camp in Dachau. There were 2,000 prisoners in total. Our train passed through Vienna, my hometown.Inside my prison car, there were fifty of us. We were all cramped in that small space with no windows.Some of us squatted on the floor while the others had to stand the whole ride. The only view we had, was from the two peepholes of our car.The track led us to my birthplace and to the house I lived in. I begged the others to give me some space to peek through the holes. I told them how important it was to me. But because of apathy, they just waved me off. The other prisoners said, “You lived here all those years? Well, then you have seen quite enough already!”
Man’s Search for Meaning
From winter to the spring of 1945, there became a typhus outbreak in the Auschwitz camp. Almost all the prisoners were infected. Many of us died. There were quarters intended for the sick, but there were no attendants or any medicine for them.I was also infected by typhus. To fight extreme delirium, I refused to sleep. I would compose my lectures in my mind.I surrendered my manuscript when we entered the camp. I busied myself on rewriting it on small pieces of paper.
The prisoner may lack in mental and physical aspects, but his spiritual belief is strong. Faith was what helped us survive our meager conditions. After a long day of work, some of us huddled in our huts to pray together.There was a paradox in camp survival. The ones who survived were not those who were strong physically, but those who were strong spiritually.Sensitive people, intellectuals and thinkers were able to retreat within themselves. They were able to find comfort in their inner lives. They may be suffering on the outside, but on the inside, they experienced spiritual freedom.
When you are stripped of all your belongings, your profession, your family and even your own identity, where do you find life’s meaning? Your body slowly withers and there is always the danger of death. Everywhere you are surrounded by hopelessness. What is a camp prisoner’s reason for living? Is there still a sense or meaning to his existence? Or is it better to just give up?
I did not serve as a psychiatrist in the camp, but I was able to analyze the psychological reactions of the prisoners. In our daily routine of hunger, cruelty, and death, I derived my study of logotherapy. I found that the memories of love and the appreciation of nature gave hope to the struggling prisoners.I continued to write the manuscript of this book in our hut. Sometimes, I would give counsel to my fellow inmates when I could. There was still a future for us waiting after our liberation.
If there was not, then it was up to us to start a new life. What is important is that we are still breathing. As long as there is life, there is hope.One early morning, we were heading off to our worksite. The guards were shouting “Detachment, forward march! Left-2-3-4! Left-2-3-4! Left-2-3-4! Left-2-3-4!” Those who were slow to move got to be kicked. We stumbled over large puddles and big stones in the darkness.
Suddenly, the man next to me whispered, “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.” What he said brought to my memories my own wife. I looked up to the sky and saw her face. She smiled to me as the sun rose.For the first time in my life, I realized the truth in the songs and poems. “The salvation of man is through love and in love.” I was a man who was left with nothing, suffering in the most desolate place in the world. Yet, I found happiness in the memory of my beloved wife.
I talked to her in my mind. I imagined that I was asking her questions and she answered back. Those in front of me stumbled over each other and got whipped by the guards. Still, I continued my fantasy.Soon, we arrived at the worksite. Everyone rushed into the hut to pick up decent tools. With our spades and pickaxes, we resumed work in the ditch. Every now and then, the guards would shout, “”Can’t you hurry up, you pigs?”
I kept thinking about my wife. I did not know if she was still alive. Her memory alone was enough to give me hope. My spirit, my inner self was overwhelmed with love. I realized that it didn’t matter if a person was near or far, alive or dead. The feeling of love itself can bring meaning to the other person’s existence.Having a strong inner life was important to the prisoner. It would get him through the emptiness and desolation around him. Our life in the camp dehumanized us. We could remain human in our spirits. The prisoner could find refuge in the memories of the past and in his plans for the future.
This is what is meant by logotherapy. Even after liberation, it was essential to the prisoner to find meaning to his existence. That is, even if all his family members were dead. Even if his hometown was destroyed and his career was lost, he must find a new reason to live. It isn’t about what life gives us. We are the ones who must give meaning to our existence.In our journey from Auschwitz to Dachau, we were able to appreciate nature like never before.We saw the lush mountains and the sun setting behind them through our barred windows.
We watched the sky change in vivid colors from blue to red. All of us were filled with happiness even if for a brief moment. One of my fellow prisoners exclaimed, “How beautiful the world could be!”
Phase 3: Liberation
Sick prisoners were brought into a hut where they could lie on boards all day. They were excused from work. But that was the only consolation. Aside from lack of medicine and supplies, their food rations were worse than the others.A doctor approached me to ask for help in attending the typhus patients. I was transported to the sick camp in Bavaria. I was assigned to a crowded hut of 50 patients. All of them were delirious.
One of my duties was to get the medicine supply for our hut. It consisted of ten tablets. Only the serious cases got half a tablet of aspirin. The hopeless cases were not given any medicine.I checked pulses from patient to patient. After doing my rounds, I would sit in a corner where I could see the landscape of Bavaria. Around me, there were corpses full of lice.Still, I would enjoy those moments of solitude.The situation in the concentration camps was getting worse. Some prisoners already resorted to cannibalism just to fight hunger. We were near the battlefront.
Around that time, I attempted to escape with my colleague. He had a contact outside camp who would provide us fake documents and uniforms. We went back to the hut to smuggle a few supplies. I collected a rucksack, toothbrush, a food bowl and torn mittens.In our first attempt, I was overwhelmed with guilt. I could not leave my suffering patients. I wanted to make my rounds for the last time. One of them asked me, “You, too, are getting out?” I saw the sadness in his eyes. I told my colleague waiting outside that I couldn’t escape.
My last day in the camp eventually arrived. The battlefront was almost on us. The guards and the Capos had fled. The prisoners were being mass transported. Everyone had to leave by sunset because the whole camp would be burned.Only the sick prisoners were left in the camp. They were still in the huts burdened with delirium and fever. My friend and I set out again to escape. We were commanded to bury three corpses outside camp. The two of us took turns getting our rucksacks.
We were about to run off, but the gate of the camp opened. A car with a huge red cross drove into the grounds. It was the delegate for the International Red Cross. He said we were all under protection. Medicines and cigarettes were distributed to everyone.The evacuation continued. My friend and I were left behind. We stayed in the hut with the typhus patients. In the dead of night, the doctor stormed in and shouted for us to take cover. We were awoken by gunshots, canons and rifles. The battle was upon us.
The struggle was over by dawn. In the morning, a white flag flew in the air outside the camp. That day marked the end of my journey as number 119,104.