Part I, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” Summary
“Experiences in a Concentration Camp” is structured around Frankl’s observations of three distinct phases of the average prisoner’s psychological response to life in the concentration camps, each with its particular symptoms: the phase immediately following arrival at the camp, the phase when prisoners are entrenched in camp life, and the phase following their liberation.
The first phase is characterized by the symptom of shock. Frankl recounts his arrival by train at the infamous Auschwitz, when he and his fellow prisoners’ initial shock and horror quickly gave way to the condition known as the “delusion of reprieve”—the conviction that they would be saved at the last moment, that things could not be as terrible as they seemed. Frankl describes how, not for the last time, he waited for fate to take its course as the prisoners took their turns standing in front of an SS officer who casually pointed them to the right, which meant they looked physically fit enough for manual labor, or the left, which meant they would be sent to the gas chambers.
For Frankl, the culmination of this first phase came when the prisoners were taken to the showers and all their clothes and possessions were taken from them. Desperate to keep the manuscript of his first book, which he had in his coat pocket, he tried to enlist the help of an older prisoner. The prisoner grinned at Frankl, then cursed at him. At this moment, Frankl says, he realized he would have to “strike out [his] whole former life.” After this incident, shaved and stripped of everything but their “naked existence,” the prisoners were overtaken by a grim sense of humor, a cold curiosity about their situation, and an ongoing surprise at how much they were able to endure. Still, many considered committing suicide by running into the electrified barbed wire that surrounded the camp. His first night there, Frankl promised himself he would not do the same. A colleague who had been imprisoned weeks before advised him and his fellow new arrivals to shave daily, stand up straight, and avoid looking weak in any way. Men who looked worn out or sick—men who looked like they could no longer work—were called “Moslems” and were inevitably sent to the gas chambers.
After a few days, inmates entered the second phase, which was characterized by apathy, detachment, and what Frankl terms an “emotional death.” Faced with so much daily suffering, prisoners’ initial feelings of disgust, horror, and pity were deadened. This apathy was a necessary defense mechanism, as all a prisoner’s emotions were concentrated on ensuring his own survival and the survival of those closest to him. Frankl illustrates this deadening of emotion by recalling how he calmly watched the body of a man who had just died of typhus be dragged from their hut into the snow, telling readers that he would not have even remembered this incident if his own lack of emotion had not interested him from a psychological standpoint.
Prisoners suffered frequent beatings from guards and foremen, edema from working in the ice and snow in worn-out shoes, and outbreaks of typhus. They were also all severely undernourished, receiving only a small portion of bread and watery soup every day. Many starved. Frankl writes that the inmates largely “regressed” to a more primitive level due to the conditions of camp life, and the need for food was the “primitive drive” on which their desires centered. There was no room for the desire for anything not directly related to survival. In Frankl’s view, however, the desire for meaning was more directly related to a prisoner’s survival than anything. He quotes Nietzsche: “A man who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how .” Having something to live for, Frankl says, was the only reason anyone survived in such conditions. For him, it was the thought of seeing his wife again, returning to his work, and reconstructing his lost manuscript, which he began to...
(The entire section is 2,402 words.)