Contact Us

A Psychotherapist in Auschwitz

A Psychotherapist in Auschwitz

 Email

Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad ... Listen Israel, G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is One.

These words are a highlight of our daily prayers, expressing powerful pearls of faith.

These words have been whispered throughout the ages, in times of grave challenge, in dark hidden cellars, by those breathing their last breath, at an auto da fé in Spain or a gas chamber in Nazi Germany.

These are also words of hope and happiness, sung in joy while celebrating significant milestones.

But I didn't expect to read these Hebrew words in a timeless best-selling classic, a psychology book that has been touted by the Library of Congress as one of the ten most influential books in America.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl has sold more than twelve million copies worldwide. Frankl describes his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps, but more than his travails, he writes as a psychologist about what provided him with the strength to survive.

Frankl poignantly describes how prisoners who gave up on life and hope for a future were inevitably the first to die. They died less from lack of food than from lack of something to live for. By contrast, Frankl kept himself alive by thinking of his wife, and dreaming of lecturing about how his experiences reinforced what was already a central part of his thesis before entering the camps – that the primary motivational force of every person is a search for meaning.

Frankl's autobiographical memoir is followed by an outline of his therapeutic doctrine of curing the soul by finding meaning in life. His theory gains credence from the backdrop of his personal experiences in the concentration camps and how he found meaning while confronting his suffering.

A strong underlying thread throughout his book is the strength, fortitude and love that he drew not only from memories of his wife, but from his faith.

As he asserts in his book, Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning: "G‑d is not dead, not even 'after Auschwitz.' For belief in G‑d is unconditional or it is not belief at all. If it is unconditional it will stand and face the fact that six million died in the Nazi Holocaust; if it is not unconditional then it will fall away if only a single innocent child has to die...There is no point in bargaining with G‑d, say by arguing: 'Up to six thousand or even one million victims in the Holocaust I maintain my belief in Thee; but from one million upward nothing can be done any longer, and I am sorry but I must renounce my belief in Thee...A weak faith is weakened by predicaments and catastrophes, whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them."

Shortly after arriving at Auschwitz, Frankl was stripped of his most precious possession—a manuscript that was his life's work, which he had hidden in his coat pocket. Realizing that the odds of his survival were small, "no more than one in twenty-eight," he had what he describes as "perhaps his deepest experience in the concentration camps."

"I had to undergo and overcome the loss of my mental child. And now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a mental child of my own. So I found myself confronted with the question whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of meaning.

"Not yet did I notice that an answer to this question with which I was wrestling so passionately was already in store for me, and that soon thereafter this answer would be given to me. This was the case when I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chamber...Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in a pocket of the newly acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisroel. How should I have interpreted such a "coincidence" other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?"

And then in the concluding sentence of this best-selling book that has been translated into twenty-four languages, Frankl again draws on this timeless proclamation of faith.

"Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright with the L‑rd's prayer or the Shema Yisroel on his lips."


What is it about the Shema Yisroel prayer that has inspired so many through the most trying of times and has provided such meaning and purpose to help us survive even the most despairing circumstances?

I think aside from its simple assertion of belief in a single Higher power and the deep mystical meaning hidden within the words of this special prayer, there are four key psychological elements that have made it our bedrock of faith:

1) Relevance: Listen, Israel—A religion or way of life cannot start and end with theories; it must also address the humanness within us. The Shema does not begin in the realm of ideology, in the heavens, with a depersonalized statement of faith. It speaks by addressing each and every one of us. Listen, Israel, listen to this message, and make it a part of your being, because this is not speaking above you, not at you, but calling to you.

2) Belonging: The Shema prayer is in plural ("our G‑d" and not "my G‑d"), spoken as a collective group, addressing us all as Israelites. Human beings have a need to identify with one another. We gain strength from one another and fortitude from being a part of something greater than ourselves. More attractive than ideology is a sense of belonging to one extended family – despite barriers. That sense of community is one of our strongest assets.

3) Personalization: G‑d is our G‑d. G‑d is "ours." G‑d who is transcendental and infinite is also our personal G‑d who is with us at every moment in time, holding our hand in times of celebration as well as times of despair. G‑d is not just an objective ruler, who created and regulates the cosmos. He is "ours," near to us, subjectively understanding the deepest part of ourselves, more than we do; He is with us in times of need, joy and pain.

4) Individuality: As much as we all need a sense of belonging and community, we must not negate our individual differences. The Shema statement ends with the words "G‑d is one" (rather than G‑d is "singular" or "alone"). The oneness of G‑d is present within the diversity of the world. As the Chassidic masters have said, "There is nothing other than Him." While conformity stunts growth, the "oneness of G‑d" should empower us to discover and cultivate the G‑dly oneness and uniqueness within each of us.


A basis of Frankl's theory is that forces beyond our control can take away everything we possess except one thing—our freedom to choose how we will respond to the situation.

After describing the anguish of his experiences in Auschwitz, Frankl concludes his personal memoir: "The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more—except his G‑d."

That can become our most empowering credo.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of five popular books.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
12 Comments
1000 characters remaining
counselling london okara, pakistan September 8, 2011

http://sessionaltherapist.com Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl has sold more than twelve million copies worldwide. Frankl describes his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps, but more than his travails, he writes as a psychologist about what provided him with the strength to survive.

Frankl poignantly describes how prisoners who gave up on life and hope for a future were inevitably the first to die. They died less from lack of food than from lack of something to live for. By contrast, Frankl kept himself alive by thinking of his wife, and dreaming of lecturing about how his experiences reinforced what was already a central part of his thesis before entering the camps – that the primary motivational force of every person is a search for meaning. Reply

Cindy Friedman Springfield, NJ via chabadgn.com April 21, 2010

Thank you! Reply

Anonymous Richmond, VA via westvillechabad.com April 18, 2010

Wisdom appears in unlikely places This piece reminds me of one my favorite scenes in the Lord of the Rings, when Frodo is on the verge of despair. He says, "I wish none of this had happened. I wish the ring had never come to me." Gandalf responds, "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us. There are forces at work in the world, Frodo, besides the will of evil." He then goes on to talk about how what is happening was meant to happen--it is as if he is describing hashocha protis, divine providence on the individual level. Tolkien wrote the Rings Trilogy during WWII, so I guess the resonances betw his writing, and what Frankl was living are to be expected in some way. For anyone who wants to watch the clip from LOTR (on youtube), the title of the clip is Gandalf's Final Words To Frodo. Reply

Eric Siegel Mequon, WI via chabadmequon.org April 15, 2010

I read this book several years ago And still often think about a statement Frankl makes at the beginning of the book (I'm paraphrasing):

"Know that the best of us did not survive".

He was referring to those whose altruism and concern for the other victims led to their imminent demise while those who were more selfish increased their probability of living. For example, some people would give up their food or clothing to another who was crying. Reply

Anonymous ny April 14, 2010

Simplified So, if all prisoners in concentration camps had adopted Dr. Frankl's attitude, would they all survive? Would the number of survivors increase at all?
I'm certainly not critisizing his attitude but don't assume it will resolve all problems especially those beyond one's control. Reply

Nwaizu Ikechukwu Lagos August 3, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

The point Frankl is emphasizing, is that attitude and decisions made by a human being in situations like Auschwitz Concentration Camp can help the chances of survival or Sleep ( Since Y-VH is not G-d of the dead). He is not saying that his mental state was the providence for his survival, but rather, it helped him in his strong conviction on Shema. You can take the fact away that it is purely Divine acceptance of his will that made him survive. Shalom Reply

Anonymous +, + April 14, 2010

I need to believe It’s hard to find someone to believe. Of course, we trust in God, but we need to trust in people too....how to identify who? Reply

Anonymous -, - April 14, 2010

great article..as allways. Tks Reply

frieda boerne, texas April 13, 2010

Surviving! Good Good article, Thank you Reply

izzy ny April 13, 2010

very inspiring! no words can describe .... Reply

Jessica Detroit, MI via lubavitchliverpool.com April 13, 2010

Correction Very good, except Dr. Frankl was a psychiatrist, i believe, not a psychologist. VEry good article otherwise. Reply

Jolie Leuven, Belgium April 12, 2010

G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is One Allahou Akbar, la Allah illallah, same thing Reply

Related Topics