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  • Reverend James Squire

Devastation: Holocaust, Ukraine, Florida




If I asked people to name a book that was one of the ten most influential books named by the Library of Congress and was one of the twelve books that are must reads on the Holocaust, they might struggle to find the answer. It is one of the most important books written that is unknown to the general population. The book is Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl written in 1946. My copy which I have had since studying in New Haven is something less than ½ inch in thickness. Some people read it in one sitting. So, why is this book so important?


Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who was a prisoner at three concentration camps including the infamous concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau. The book is written in two parts. The first part is a description of life in the camps, and the second half describes what Frankl learned why some people survived the camp experience while others didn’t. What emerged from his reflection on those who survived was a new form of therapy called Logotherapy.


What Frankl discovered in his reflection on his time in Auschwitz is that the survivors had two characteristics. They had a sense of their own identity based on who they loved and in turn who loved them. Their identity was based as well in their belief that they would eventually be free from the camp which was based on a person’s basic freedom found in their ability to make choices. This creates hope that instilled the basic thrust of human nature leading to be able to survive tragedy through a search for meaning and purpose.


Frankl’s favorite quotation from Nietzsche summarizes his view of the importance of finding meaning even in the worst of times in the midst of devastation seen in the rubble of death and devastation surrounding you. “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”


A theory that was an outgrowth of Frankl’s ideas was Logotherapy based in his experience of Auschwitz. There are two things that Frankl thought were necessary to not only survive but to thrive in the midst of suffering.


First, he noticed that the people who survived the concentration camp had a clear sense of identity that expressed itself in many forms. An example would be if we were stopped on a street as we were going to a basketball game in which Villanova was playing and someone asked you who you were, you may say, “I am a student at Villanova.” But if you were picked up by the police for disorderly conduct and the same question is asked, you would probably say, “My name is John Jones.” Our identity shifts depending on the context in which we find ourselves. But there is a lot wrapped in our identity such as focusing on those who love you and who you love in return.


An important part of your identity is how you are going to respond to devastating situations. Frankl and other survivors spent a good bit of time remembering the good old days of great memories with family members. This type of remembering was picked up by the film industry to make movies more powerful through the use of flashbacks. The movie, Cinderella Man, was the true story about James J. Braddock who becomes a boxer to earn money to feed his family during the Depression. There are various scenes of him being brutally beaten in the ring. He gets his motivation and resilience by thinking of wife and children in flashbacks. They inspire him to go on in the midst of battle to keep his family from being devastated by the Depression.


Frankl believed as well that people who survived the camps knew that there was one thing that the Nazis could not take from them. The prisoners could choose how they would respond to their terrible situation. To know that you have choice is a powerful boost to move forward. One concert pianist who was in the concentration camp emerged being a better pianist after he left the camp because he practiced on an imaginary keyboard during his free moments.


The second thing that the people who survived had was a sense of hope where they could picture their destiny which was to escape. It is the opposite of the picture painted in Dante’s Inferno as the words that lead to hell, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”


Frankl’s ways to survive are still true today. Identity and destiny are essential to move on from devastation. Everyone asks how do the Ukrainians survive and seem to even thrive in a Russian made hell. Certainly, courage is at their heart, but the Ukrainian people have such a strong sense of their identity and pride in it. If they were asked, “Who are you?” They would respond heartedly as we have seen on the news, “I am a Ukrainian.” If asked if they expect to win and return to rebuild their homeland, to a person they are sure that victory is theirs no matter what the odds were against them in the beginning of the war.


The devastation in Florida is difficult to view. The despair is found as they mourn so much loss of all that they have ever known for some, no money to rebuild, and captured in that mournful sound “we have lost everything that we have worked so hard for.” We shall watch their identity take shape in a myriad of descriptions such as neighbor, helping one another, Floridian, family member, their name, first responder. “Who are you?” Their identity will change in the midst of different people asking that question of them.


In all three situations, the Holocaust, Ukraine, Florida, God will work through them to discover purpose and meaning. “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”


I was terribly moved when I saw a man and a woman on the news who were thrilled that they had rescued the Torah scroll from their synagogue. They embraced the scrolls with the fervor of finding a lost child. They found them just in time for Yom Kippur, the time of atonement.


Frankl was a Jew so he knew the history of the Israelites and I am sure celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Passover. Could that have been part of his inspiration to create Logotherapy and research why some arise from the ashes and survive and go on to thrive? Identity and destiny are the heart of Passover. Identity, I am the Lord your God, you are my chosen people. Destiny, I have freed you from bondage to travel to a land of milk and honey.


As long as we feel chosen by God and made in his likeness and that our destiny is new life with him, we can rise from any devastation. “This I know for the Bible told me so!”

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