The Holocaust and Our Search for Meaning
By Alissa Petee
Sammamish, WA


 

It is considered a calculated campaign of slaughter, rape, and starvation. It has left 3.5 million people starving, forced 2.5 million from their homes, and left 400,000 dead. It is a conflict on a devastating scale, and it is happening today. The situation in Darfur remains disastrous as a result of state-sponsored violence, aid obstruction, and the lack of an overall humanitarian strategic plan (Save Darfur online). When I reflect on the Holocaust, I ask how anyone could have allowed the horrendous acts of violence against human beings to go unchallenged for such a long time; today, I ask how it is possible that so few people are aware of the violence in Darfur, and why so few feel a sense of outrage or the desire to take action.

Genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia—events in my own lifetime—all echo the Holocaust which ruthlessly extinguished the lives of 6 million people during WWII. Astonishingly, Jewish people throughout the world continue to face some of the underlying anti-Semitism that made the Holocaust possible. Recently the President of Iran joined other historical revisionists in denying that the Holocaust had ever occurred. Against this backdrop of hatred and violence, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless to interrupt the cycles of genocide. The horror experienced by victims is almost unbearable to consider and causes us to want to turn away. This tendency to deny what is uncomfortable makes it all the more crucial to understand the Holocaust in a profound way if we are to comprehend what is happening in Darfur and elsewhere today; we need to appreciate why the unthinkable can never be dismissed as simply someone else's problem.

One way for us to examine these horrendous events is to look at how people psychologically survive an atrocity such as the Holocaust. The work of Viktor Frankl, a distinguished psychologist and Holocaust survivor has especially fascinated me. His experiences in a Nazi concentration camp gave him an opportunity to look at human nature through this unique perspective. Frankl, like hundreds of thousands of other prisoners, faced a constant lack of food, excruciating amounts of physical work, unsanitary conditions and the relentless threat of impending death (Frankl, Meaning 39, 48). The camps were psychologically devastating and people experienced extreme shock upon entry. They witnessed incessant beatings, murder and extreme suffering under agonizing conditions. The prisoners' entire world was depersonalized; everything that helps establish an individual sense of self was taken away, including clothing, professional identity and family connections. Eventually, shock gave way to apathy. Through the blunting of emotions, prisoners repressed their feelings as a natural defense mechanism, a means of coping with the unthinkable. Those who would have first flinched when observing a beating would, over time, simply stare without feeling great anger, sadness or fear (Frankl, Meaning, 26-27, 47).

Ultimately, Frankl was able to survive through experiences that led him to realize the significance of having something meaningful to live for despite his situation. An early example is seen in the loss of the manuscript for his first book, his life's work, during his transfer to Auschwitz. Later, he was to spend many nights attempting to reconstruct it, relying on his memory and stolen slips of paper on which to record his ideas. Another momentous circumstance occurred while marching to work to lay a railroad track. An inmate wondered aloud about the fate of their wives, and Frankl began to think about his own wife, not knowing if she was alive or dead. He suddenly found peace in concluding that she was present with him, and was optimistic in hoping they would be reunited (Boeree online). Each such instance created another reason for him to go on, helping Frankl find a purpose beyond the horror of the camp. His desire to finish his work and rejoin his wife and family kept him from losing all hope in what was such a truly impossible situation.

Why, in the face of starvation, physical pain and approaching death, didn't more prisoners commit suicide in the Nazi concentration camps? It is incredibly difficult to understand how a person, confronted with such crushing despair, could continue to fight for survival. As demonstrated in the extreme by the camp prisoners, those with a sense of meaning and purpose harbored hopes of a happier, more fulfilled life than those who could not find importance within themselves. Frankl observed that people with a more positive outlook, even in the direst of circumstances, survived over others who gave up hope (Frankl, Meaning 133). He encouraged camp prisoners to look inside themselves to find what made each individual's life worth living, despite everything the camp took away.
One idea we need to learn from the Holocaust, separate from the social and political dynamics that created such a situation, is that it is an essential human quality that allows a person—whose very humanity has been denied—to find the will to survive. Frankl taught us that it is a sense of meaning that inspires people to not only continue living during the bleakest of times, but to do so feeling purposeful and powerful.
In my learning about the Holocaust and our present-day tragedies, I want to deepen my own understanding of what it means to be human, and how we can manage our relationships to avoid the dehumanization that can arise during conflicts around religious, racial, tribal, or other differences.

One thing that I have devoted myself to is understanding dispute resolution. In 2003,1 began volunteering with Peace Council, a nonprofit that offers intervention for families in conflict. Peace Council's motto, "Peace Begins At Home," suggests that we must take small steps to achieve peace within our families and communities, before we can act on the global front. Another way I have found purpose in my life, and in which other students can participate, is by reaching out to groups that are most likely to be targeted because of their perceived differences in our society. I volunteer with Hate Free Zone, an organization that supports immigrant communities (primarily Somali) and advocates for their equality and respect. Building tolerance, teaching non-violent communication, and helping people to see the humanity in others are all part of the legacy given to us by the Holocaust.

It is important that teens study the Holocaust to find personal ways to connect to the experience, in order to discover a sense of individual meaning and power to effect change in the face of present day challenges. That might happen through reading and writing about the Holocaust, through volunteer experiences with marginalized groups, or through the pursuit of careers that promote social justice, fostering understanding and peace between diverse cultures and ideologies. The Holocaust represents a mirror into our own lives, even as it teaches us about human experience and possibilities—both for evil and for the transcendence of spirit.

 

Works Cited

Boeree, C. George. "Viktor Frankl." Personality Theories. 20 April 2006 <http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/rrankl.html>.

"Darfur Backgrounder and Policy Talking Points." Save Darfur. 20 April 2006 <http://www.savedarfur.org/news/backgrounder>.

Frankl, Viktor. Man's Searching for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press, 1963

 

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.

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