Viktor Frankl

In September of 1942, a young doctor, his new bride, his mother, father, and brother, were arrested in Vienna and taken to a concentration camp in Bohemia. It was events that occurred there and at three other camps that led the young doctor — prisoner 119,104 — to realize the significance of meaningfulness in life. One of the earliest events to drive home the point was the loss of a manuscript — his life’s work — during his transfer to Auschwitz.

He had sewn it into the lining of his coat, but was forced to discard it at the last minute. He spent many later nights trying to reconstruct it, first in his mind, then on slips of stolen paper. Another significant moment came while on a predawn march to work on laying railroad tracks: Another prisoner wondered outloud about the fate of their wives. The young doctor began to think about his own wife, and realized that she was present within him:

The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. (1963, p. 59) And throughout his ordeal, he could not help but see that, among those given a chance for survival, it was those who held on to a vision of the future — whether it be a significant task before them, or a return to their loved ones — that were most likely to survive their suffering.

It would be, in fact, the meaningfulness that could be found in suffering itself that would most impress him: (T)here is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, and existence restricted by external forces…. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. (1963, p. 106) That young doctor was, of course, Viktor Emil Frankl. Biography Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna on March 26, 1905.

His father, Gabriel Frankl, was a strong, disciplined man from Moravia who worked his way from government stenographer to become the director of the Ministry of Social Service. His mother, Elsa Frankl (nee Lion), was more tenderhearted, a pious woman from Prague. The middle of three children, young Viktor was precocious and intensely curious. Even at the tender age of four, he already knew that he wanted to be a physician. In high school, Viktor was actively involved in the local Young Socialist Workers organization. His interest in people turned him towards the study of psychology.

He finished his high school years with a psychoanalytic essay on the philosopher Schopenhauer, a publication in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, and the beginning of a rather intense correspondence with the great Sigmund Freud. In 1925, a year after graduating and on his way towards his medical degree, he met Freud in person. Alfred Adler’s theory was more to Frankl’s liking, though, and that year he published an article — “Psychotherapy and Weltanschauung” — in Adler’s International Journal of Individual Psychology.

The next year, Frankl used the term logotherapy in a public lecture for the first time, and began to refine his particular brand of Viennese psychology. In 1928 and 1929, Frankl organized cost-free counseling centers for teenagers in Vienna and six other cities, and began working at the Psychiatric University Clinic. In 1930, he earned his doctorate in medicine, and was promoted to assistant. In the next few years, Frankl continued his training in neurology. In 1933, He was put in charge of the ward for suicidal women at the Psychiatric Hospital, with many thousands of patients each year.

In 1937, Frankl opened his own practice in neurology and psychiatry. One year later, Hitler’s troops invade Austria. He obtained a visa to the U. S. in 1939, but, concerned for his elderly parents, he let it expire. In 1940, Frankl was made head of the neurological department of Rothschild Hospital, the only hospital for Jews in Vienna during the Nazi regime. He made many false diagnoses of his patients in order to circumvent the new policies requiring euthanasia of the mentally ill.

It was during this period that he began his manuscript, Arztliche Seelsorge — in English, The Doctor and the Soul. Frankl married in 1942, but in September of that year, he, his wife, his father, mother, and brother, were all arrested and brought to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Bohemia. His father died there of starvation. His mother and brother were killed at Auschwitz in 1944. His wife died at Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Only his sister Stella would survive, having managed to emigrate to Australia a short while earlier.