I am approximately halfway through “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor E. Frankl. The book is written in two parts, Frankl’s personal experience as a prisoner in concentration camps, and his insights as a psychiatrist. I was made aware of the book by listening to Jocko Willink’s podcast, specifically the episode he did with pyschology professor Jordan Peterson. That podcast began with a graphic firsthand account of a young woman abused in ISIS captivity. The conversation that ensued between Willink and Peterson involved the reality of evil in the world and, the ability to recognize not just the humanity of the victim but the capacity of the average person to be a perpetrator. That dialogue has been on my mind while reading Frankl’s account.
Indeed, we have all read the stories of the Holocaust and seen the photos, and as jarring as those images of gaunt faces and piles of emaciated bodies are, I’m not revisiting this history for the tear-jerking reaction of pity and disgust as an outside observer temporarily moved by by intense pathos, no, the real gut punch here is the accessibility of the humanity of all the characters in the story. The crazy part about a story like this is that, despite their behavior, every character was human, or at least they began that way. The number one theme that struck me about Frankl’s account was the flickers of humanity popping up in this most inhumane set of circumstances. For example, Frankl spoke of his relationship with a particular Capo. These Capos were basically prisoners put in charge of groups of prisoners. For context, Frankl had commented earlier in the book that the Capos quickly became like the SS and the wardens, and often even more cruel.
“Fortunately the Capo in my working party was obligated to me; he had taken a liking to me because I listened to his love stories and matrimonial troubles, which he poured out during the long marches to our work site.”
That strikes me because it is such an ordinary human interaction occurring in the most insane set of circumstances. How the hell could such a normal thing happen?! After all, this was an environment where an experienced prisoner “did not avert his eyes anymore. By then his feelings were blunted, and he watched unmoved.” One step, one day, one little piece at a time is how you get there. This is what grabs me about the account, and makes it seem far too accessible:
“If someone now asked us of the truth of Dostoevski’s statement that flatly defines man as a being who can get used to anything, we would reply, ‘Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.”