Vienna, 1960. Viktor Frankl, the world-famous author and psychiatrist, was ready to uproot his whole life—his research, his clinical practice, his family—and move to Australia.

Having survived the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, emerging from the ashes of Auschwitz with an unorthodox and daring theory of human psychology, he could no longer endure the constant derision of his life’s work by his colleagues in the field. Frankl’s view of human nature differed in certain key areas from the party-line views that dominated the discipline of psychology after the war, making him and his work a consistent target of public scholarly ridicule.

It was this very diminution of his deepest held beliefs regarding the inner makeup of the human being that was the last straw. He could survive the attacks of the Nazis on his body, but he could no longer bear the attacks of his peers on his soul.

It was at that moment when Marguerite Kozenn-Chajes (1909-2000), a well-known opera singer and descendant of Vizhnitz Chasidim, knocked on his door in Vienna.1 When Dr. Frankl came to the door he found a sharply dressed woman whom he had never met before standing on his doorstep.

She announced herself as the bearer of a personal message addressed to him by a Chasidic Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, from Brooklyn, New York. Upon hearing this startling explanation for her visit, and recognizing the name of the Rebbe, Dr. Frankl promptly invited Mrs. Chajes inside to speak privately.

“The Rebbe asked me to tell you,” she began, “that you must not give up. You must be strong. Do not be disturbed by those who ridicule you. You will succeed and your work will achieve a major breakthrough.”

Upon hearing this reassuring voice from afar, Dr. Frankl broke into tears. Dispirited, he had just recently been filling out his immigration papers to Australia. He had given up—but the Rebbe’s words of encouragement brought Dr. Frankl back to life.

After regaining his composure, Dr. Frankl responded vigorously with a renewed commitment to continue his life’s work. And, indeed, he did. Following this fateful meeting, Dr. Frankl redoubled his efforts in spreading his unique insights and therapeutic approaches to healing the human psyche. Not long afterward, his magnum opus, Man’s Search for Meaning, was translated into English, sparking immediate popular interest in his work and worldview that has continued to this very day. That work alone has been translated into 28 languages and sold over ten million copies, giving birth to an entire genre of self-help literature as well as the field of logotherapy, Frankl’s unique philosophy and practice of psychological health and healing.

History tells us that Viktor Frankl went on to become one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century; he lived through the hell of the Holocaust and nevertheless found the strength to put forth an inspiring view of the human psyche that diverged in fundamental ways from the accepted norms of his time. But why was the Rebbe so concerned with Dr. Frankl and, particularly, with the fate of his work? There were plenty of psychologists at the time, what was it about Dr. Frankl’s view of the human psyche that so piqued the Rebbe’s interest and attracted his personal attention and support?

To answer that question, we must dig deeper into the beginnings of psychoanalysis itself. In the 1920s, Viktor Frankl was a prized student of Sigmund Freud. Indeed, from the very inception of the field of psychoanalysis, Frankl was an early adopter and gifted adept of Freud’s radical theories and practices. However, after a time, their ideas about the shape and substance of human nature began to diverge.

In Freudian thought, the human self is defined by—and entangled in—a perpetual struggle to balance competing drives and desires, conscious and unconscious. Frankl, by contrast, emphasized the soul’s potential to transcend the limitations of the self through a search for deeper meaning and acts of loving kindness.

This fundamental rift between their perspectives only grew wider and more pronounced over the years.

Sigmund Freud, having passed away in 1939, was never forced to face the ultimate inhumanity of the Holocaust; one can only imagine how that might have complicated or clarified his initial insights into the psychic nature of the human being.

Viktor Frankl, on the other hand, survived Auschwitz. He heard its terrible sounds and saw its dark visions; he tasted its putrid waters and smelled its rotting corpses, but he also witnessed miraculous deeds of utter selflessness and caring.

“If Freud were in the concentration camps,” Frankl wrote,2 “he would have changed his position. Beyond the basic natural drives and instincts of people, he would have encountered the human capacity for self-transcendence. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances; to choose one’s own way.”

It was thus within the crucible of that horrific concentration camp that Frankl came to refine and crystallize his earlier intuitions concerning the underlying realities of human psychology. Once the war was over, Dr. Frankl could not avoid the inevitable collision with the founding principles and devoted followers of his former teacher.

The essential question is whether an underlying, integral spiritual essence—a soul—exists beneath it all. Are we defined by the limited circumstantial ingredients that make up our particular personality, or is there something deeper and infinite within our makeup that we can access and activate to transcend our own limitations?

Freud and Frankl, each in his own way, sought to uncover what lies hidden within our psychic depths beneath the masks we show the world. They both wanted to know what truly defines and drives human behavior—who are we really? And, more importantly, who can we be?

In response to these questions, both Freud and Frankl posited the existence of a stratified structure of human consciousness. Meaning, that each human contains multiple levels of awareness, including, of course, the unconscious regions of the psyche that exert primal influences upon our behavior and express themselves in mysterious ways through dreams and language.

Dr. Frankl believed that underneath the varying self-serving or socio-adaptive drives there is something deeper—an inner essence, a soul that transcends and includes the complex elements of the psyche and mind.

This level of our being is primarily driven by a “striving to find meaning in one’s life.” Hence the title of his best-selling book—Man’s Search for Meaning.

This fundamental difference of opinion between Freud and Frankl concerning what lies at the root of the human psyche is beautifully encapsulated in a conversation between the Rebbe and a well-known professor who complained to the Rebbe about the twisted nature of people:

“From my encounters in life, I have noticed that people might seem nice and charming at the outset. They may express concern for you, show interest in your life, and even openly admit that they love you! But if one digs just a little deeper than the outer surface—some require more digging than others—at their core, everyone is exactly the same—selfish, arrogant, and egotistical. Why is this the nature of mankind?”

The Rebbe responded with a parable:

“When one walks on the street, things often look so elegant and appealing—tall flowery trees, fancy houses, paved roads, and expensive cars. But if one takes a shovel and begins digging beneath the surface, he discovers dirt and mud, nothing like the beautiful but ‘deceptive’ world above ground.”

At this point the professor was nodding his head in agreement.

“But—if he weren’t to give up,” the Rebbe concluded, “and would continue digging deeper, he would eventually encounter precious minerals and diamonds.”

The Rebbe acknowledged the fact that beneath the surface of people’s outward personalities, there often lies a much less flattering psychic reality. However, the Rebbe further stressed that beneath all the “dirt and mud” there is something deeper, something beautiful and holy: There is a soul.

This is perhaps why the Rebbe took such a strong interest in Dr. Frankl and his work. Frankl’s view of the human psyche corresponded quite closely with that of Chasidic understanding: We have a soul beneath the surface of the self. This soul forms the very core of our being and connects us to other souls and to a Higher power. Activation of this core point within is what allows us to transcend our baser nature and become a force for good in the world.

Throughout the years following his initial motivating message to Dr. Frankl, the Rebbe wrote admiringly about Frankl’s approach:3 “It is obvious [that] some doctors have helped and healed their patients in straight ways, especially since one professor (Frankl) found the courage in his soul to declare and announce that, contrary to the opinion of the famous founder of psychoanalysis (Freud), faith in G‑d, and a religious inclination in general, which gives meaning to life, etc., is one of the most effective ways of healing.”

Additionally, the Rebbe continued to support and endorse his work,4 even suggesting to other scholars and psychologists5 that Frankl’s work would be a good place to find and forge further connections between the views of psychology and the teachings of Chasidism.

What’s more, despite the fact that Dr. Frankl rarely engaged the Jewish community in any public way, he became a consistent supporter of Chabad’s work in Vienna for the rest of his life.

It is clear from all of the above stories that ultimately, despite Freud’s uncontested influence in the field of psychology, the Rebbe felt a kinship toward Dr. Frankl’s ideas and approach to healing and motivating the human being to become more human. The Rebbe agreed with Dr. Frankl that each person has the potential to be so much more than just their body and their ego. By activating their inner point of ultimate meaning, a person can escape the quicksand of self-centered obsessions and truly become holy.