I remember getting out of the rental car and feeling an incredible weight fall on my shoulders, as if decades of sadness and grief had found themselves stuck here and had no where to go. Unless I knew better, this place seemed to be a quiet stretch of land on a hilltop surrounded by beautiful hills and valleys as far as the eye can see – a place where someone might come to find peace and a place to get away from the rigors of everyday life.
But, I wasn’t in that kind of place at all. In fact, the ground I stepped on had seen atrocities and horrors that I could never imagine. I had stepped into one of the most notorious concentration camps that ever was – Buchenwald in southern Germany. While on a mission trip in college across Germany, we had the opportunity to stop by and visit the camp and memorial site on the way to our next city. As a young college kid, I had no idea what I was about to see, feel.
I really had no idea about the horrors of this place. An estimated 56,000 people were killed while over 250,000 were imprisoned and tortured over a seven to eight year period. Senseless torture and pain were inflicted on people who committed no crimes other than being born into a certain ethnicity or religion.
An indelible mark left on me was the set of train tracks that dead-ended into the heart of the camp. The prisoners were loaded like cattle into boxcars and taken into these camps from points across Europe. The finality of the train tracks represented the inevitable end for so many of these prisoners. It was truly a horrible thing to see.
The weight of this place was indescribable. Knowing the place I stood was a place of unspeakable pain and anguish was almost too much to bear. It is a place you would never want to die. Or survive.
One such holocaust surveyor (though not imprisoned at Buchenwald specifically) was an Austrian psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl. He was a brilliant doctor who, before the war worked with depressed and suicidal patients in Vienna. As the Nazis took over, Frankl and his family were deported to a small concentration camp, then were split up and sent to various camps across Germany. Out of his entire family, only Frankl and his sister survived the camps.
In his first few years in these concentration camps, Frankl established “suicide watches” for incoming prisoners and cared for the psychological needs of inmates as he was allowed. Though under extreme duress, Frankl reached out to care for the suffering people around him.
After the war, Frankl built upon his previous work and his time in the death camps to develop a therapeutic technique called “Logotherapy”. In short, Logotherapy is built on these three ideas:
– Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
– Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
– We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.
Frankl survived the holocaust with these things in mind, and helped so many others survive during and after. In fact, in his work with suicidal patients, it was said that none being treated with Logotherapy died under his care.
No matter the level of suffering an pain, for Frankl there must be purpose in our pain or even successes.
This might seem like fluff to some of you. However, for a holocaust survivor to find some meaning in life after literally losing everything – including their identity – says something of this idea.
For me, there is little meaning in life outside of being a follower of Christ. And the times in life where I feel lost and aimless are the times when I am not around Jesus as much as I should be. Christ gives meaning to all things in life for me, and especially during times of disappointment and sadness – there is a faint hope that knowing Jesus will help me make it another step along the way.
What do you think about this? How has finding meaning in your suffering moved you forward?