The Final Freedom

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Viktor Frankl yearned to make a contribution to humanity.

As a respected young psychiatrist in Vienna before World War II, he had meticulously prepared the manuscript for a book that he dared to believe might help change the world.  Since he and his wife were not yet parents, he called it “my mental child.” 

Then the Nazis came to power.  They rounded up the “undesirable” populations in Austria, including Frankl and his fellow Jews.  They were herded into railway carriages and sent to a future none of them could have comprehended. 

The young doctor didn’t know it at the time, but when the train pulled into the Auschwitz death camp there was only a 3% chance that any particular passenger would survive longer than a few days.  His parents, his brother, and his wife were all sent to the gas chambers.  Only he and his sister were alive at the end of the war. 

Frankl had cautiously hidden the manuscript of his book in his coat.  But the guards confiscated everything, including his clothing and his wedding ring.  His life’s work was casually discarded.  He was told to put on the worn-out clothes of a man who had been executed within his first hour at the camp.   

Frankl’s captors stole more than his personal possessions.

He was robbed of his identity:  He was no longer a husband or a psychiatrist.  He was robbed of his dignity: He suffered daily tortures and deprivations.  He was robbed of the assurance that he had even one more day to live, especially as he was forced to witness the random executions of his friends. 

But as the days turned to months and then to years, he gradually realized there was something that no one could ever take from him.

He had the power to choose how he would respond. 

“Everything can be taken from a man,” he would later write, “but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl observed that some prisoners ultimately surrendered their will to live.  They didn’t last long.  But other prisoners chose to serve their companions.  They shared their last morsels of bread, even though they were starving themselves.  In the midst of such sacrifices, they seemed to come alive. 

He realized he could decide what words he would speak, and what memories he would bring to mind.  He could choose to use his medical training to comfort and encourage others, which he did.

It dawned on Frankl that he was a powerful person.  A free person.  It was the guards who were locked up – imprisoned by their own hatred. 

Viktor Frankl ended up making a contribution to humanity, after all.  Following his liberation from Auschwitz, he documented his experiences in Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the most inspiring books of the 20th century.  Frankl spent decades trying to helping people understand that life is meaningful, even when everything seems hopeless.  Because it’s possible to find meaning in our suffering, we can go through anything. 

He reflected on the fact that his own existence had never seemed more empty than when he had lost his irreplaceable manuscript.  Now what did his life mean?

But an answer was already in store for him.  “I just hadn’t realized it yet.” 

On his very first day at Auschwitz, when his coat had been taken from him, Frankl mindlessly thrust his hand into the pocket of the worn-out clothes he had been forced to wear.  There he found a piece of paper.  It was a single page torn from a Hebrew prayer book.  It included the Shema, the most important of all Jewish prayers: 

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) 

Frankl called it “perhaps the deepest experience which I had in the concentration camp.” 

God was calling him not just to put words on a manuscript, but to accept the challenge of truly living a meaningful life – to become a three-dimensional example for the world to see.

We may pray that we will never have to walk the path Viktor Frankl was compelled to walk.

But we may certain that God is challenging us – even today – to a life that is surrendered to him.