Frankl and Shalamov on existence in the camps

Image: Viktor Frankl

Image: Varlam Shalamov, NKVD photo
Viktor Frankl, born in Austria in 1905, had the tragic misfortune to be swept up into the maelstrom of the Final Solution. He was an impactful psychotherapist, both before and after the war, and his experience in Auschwitz and other Nazi camps had a deep impact on his view of the human being’s emotional life. Frankl invented the field of logotherapy. He expressed some of his Auschwitz experience — initially anonymously — in Man’s Search for Meaning.

Varlam Shalamov was born in 1907 in Vologda, Russia. He supported the Russian Revolution, but sided with Trotsky rather than Stalin. He became a victim of Stalin’s purges and spent 1937-1951 as a political prisoner — a zek — in various Kolyma slave-labor camps, the harshest part of the Gulag. After his release in 1951, and following another two years in Kolyma as a non-prisoner medical assistant, he began writing a series of stories capturing the experience of the slave labor camps of Kolyma. These writings were initially circulated as samizdat, then published abroad in translation in 1966, and finally published in Russian in 1978. Many of those stories are collected in Kolyma Stories, and they provide stark, unadorned still-life images of moments of cruelty and almost unendurable hardship in the camps in the far north, from the point of view of a long-serving zek

Frankl’s account of life in Auschwitz is detailed and grueling. He describes arrival at Auschwitz, labor, food, starvation, the cold, beatings by the guards, and severe physical suffering. Laconically he reports that of the 1500 prisoners in the train that brought him to Auschwitz, 90% were immediately consigned to the gas chambers. And he speaks honestly about the dehumanization created by existence in a death camp.

On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles–whatever one may choose to call them–we know: the best of us did not return. (19)

But this is not Frankl’s last word on dehumanization. He returns to the question late in the memoir, and finds that this descent into a brutish, dehumanized fight for existence was not universal. Rather, Frankl finds room for optimism about the capacity that human beings have for courage and for maintaining their ability to choose their responses to suffering.

It is worthwhile comparing Frankl’s descriptions with “lessons learned” by Shalamov in his years of forced labor in the prison camps of the Gulag. In his introduction to Kolyma Stories Donald Rayfield quotes a fragmentary text from 1961 in which Shalamov describes “what I saw and understood in the camps”. With these 45 terse observations Shalamov provides his most explicit statement about what the experience of Kolyma was for him.

1 The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

3 I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

15 I realized that one can live on anger.

16 I realized that one can live on indifference.

17 I understood why people do not live on hope—there isn’t any hope. Nor can they survive by means of free will—what free will is there? They live by instinct, a feeling of self-preservation, on the same basis as a tree, a stone, an animal.

31 I am convinced that the camps—all of them—are a negative school; you can’t even spend an hour in one without being depraved. The camps never gave, and never could give, anyone anything positive. The camps act by depraving everyone, prisoners and free-contract workers alike.

44 I understood that moving from the condition of a prisoner to the condition of a free man is very difficult, almost impossible without a long period of amortization. (Kolyma Stories, introduction)

There are many similarities in the lives of prisoners in Auschwitz and Kolyma. Both Frankl and Shalamov focus on the extinction of ordinary human emotions of kindness and friendship under the conditions of an extermination camp or force-labor camp. Both describe the condition of an almost absolute empire of arbitrary and capricious power wielded by the guards. And both highlight the crucial centrality of the basics of human needs: food, shelter, a warm place to sleep. Here is an observation from Frankl that is reminiscent of the experience of Shalamov as well. After describing the prisoners who ladled soup to the starving prisoners Frankl recalls that most of them “favored their friends” with a potato or a ladle from the bottom of the pot. But occasionally there would be a soup provider who did not look at the prisoners and gave everyone the same. Frankl writes of the ones who showed favoritism, whom his readers might want to condemn:

But it is not for me to pass judgment on those prisoners who put their own people above everyone else. Who can throw a stone at a man who favors his friends under circumstances when, sooner or later, it is a question of life or death? No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same. (58)

Shalamov too talks about food and its centrality in the life of the starving prisoner:

Supper was over. Glebov took his time licking his bowl clean, then carefully raked the bread crumbs off the table into his left hand, which he lifted to his mouth so as to lick every crumb off his palm. Without swallowing them, he could feel the saliva in his mouth greedily covering the tiny lump of bread in a thick layer. Glebov could not have said whether it tasted good. Taste was something different, too weak compared with the passionate, oblivious feeling that food gave him. Glebov took his time before swallowing; the bread melted in his mouth and it melted quickly. (“At Night”)

And he refers to the crippling cold of life in Kolyma:

But there was no letup in the cold, and Potashnikov realized that he could not stand it anymore. Breakfast gave him the ability to endure an hour’s work at most, and then he was overcome by tiredness and the cold got to his very bones: an idiomatic expression that was literally true. All you could do, so as not to freeze to death by lunchtime, was to wave your pickax or spade about and hop from one leg to the other. The hot lunch, the notorious dumpling soup and two spoonfuls of porridge, did little to restore your strength, but it did warm you up. Once again, you had the strength to work for an hour, after which Potashnikov was overcome by a desire, if not to get warm, then just to lie down on the sharp edges of the frozen stones and die. But the day still came to an end and after supper, with a drink of water and a mouthful of bread, which all the workmen took back to the barracks, never eating it with the refectory soup, Potashnikov would immediately lie down to sleep. (“Carpenters”)

Shalamov’s observations about camp life are bleak. Few human emotions survive the Gulag; only anger, passivity, and opportunism survive. Frankl’s memoir leaves a different impression. He makes an observation about his inner life in the camp that it is entirely foreign to Shalamov:

The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: 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. (49)

And:

This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past. When given free rein, his imagination played with past events, often not important ones, but minor happenings and trifling things. (50)

Shalamov’s stories make us think that the Kolyma extinguished all humanity. But Frankl’s assessment of life in Auschwitz is different; the possibility of remaining human persists.

Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances? We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. (74)

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. (76)

These ideas about agency and choice play an important role in Frankl’s theories about logotherapy and “man’s search for meaning”. As Frankl puts it in the companion essay, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell”, “Logotherapy regards its assignment as that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life” (108). And Frankl plainly believes that his observations in Auschwitz and his own personal experiences confirm that human beings can seek meaning in their lives under even the worst imaginable circumstances. Frankl acknowledges that only a minority of prisoners “kept their full inner liberty” (76); but the possibility exists for all of us.

Both Frankl and Shalamov faced long odds against survival from their experiences. Both survived. But their subsequent lives were very different. Even the photographs of the two men seem to suggest very different orientations towards life: Frankl almost always with a gentle smile, and Shalamov with a serious glare. Shalamov’s life was shattered. His physical health was ruined by Kolyma, his family disintegrated, and he lived in hard circumstances through the end of his life. He wrote poetry and stories, but it is hard to see from available biographical information that he took happiness and satisfaction from his life after his release. Frankl, on the other hand, seems to have survived as a remarkably whole human being. He describes in the final pages of the memoir the personal difficulties faced by survivors, but he seems to have transcended the horrors that he experienced in Auschwitz and other camps. He too had suffered physically from the great hardships, cold, and hunger of the years in Nazi death camps. His first wife Tilly, about whom he wrote movingly in the memoir, had died in Belsen Belsen concentration camp, and he also lost his father, mother, and brother in Nazi extermination camps. He had lost a great deal — family, friends, health — and had suffered great trauma. And yet he had a highly productive career following the end of the war and liberation of the camps, and he seems to have had a satisfying and happy life. 

One can ask an obvious question: did Frankl’s ideas about the importance of finding meaning in one’s life actually contribute to his own ability to go beyond the “depersonalization” experienced by survivors? 

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