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Book review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

It sounds macabre, but for some reason I feel attracted to books about the Holocaust. In recent years, I have read The Tattooist of Auschwitz, The Nightingale and The Book of Dirt, among others.

My desire to read Holocaust books might be a result of my Jewish ancestry, meaning that I am drawn to reading the stories of individuals with whom I feel some affinity, however different our lives might be. My mother’s family descended from European Jews, that apparently lived in Portugul.

Or perhaps it is the extremes of human spirit, suffering and cruelty that fascinate me. I find myself desperate to know how this could have happened, although the more I learn, the more inexplicable it seems.

Then there is the responsibility I feel to bear witness to atrocity, in order to honour the dead, and in the hope that nothing like that can ever be allowed to happen again.

However, despite reading many books about survivors’ experiences of the Holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning is different to many of the accounts of this time in history.

Written by a survivor of a concentration camp, it does not strive to understand how or why the Holocaust happened, but explores the reasons why some prisoners survived, physically and mentally, in the death camps.

In his book, neurology and psychology professor Viktor Frankl sets out the theory that, while decisions about life or death often seemed to depend on the toss of a coin, a belief that life had meaning or purpose encouraged some prisoners to fight for survival during the darkest of times.

It was fascinating to read Frankl’s accounts of his own experience and that of other prisoners, some who gave up hope and others who found something to which they could cling that gave the reason to survive.

He also alluded to the way the lessons he learnt during his imprisonment could inform people living in more peaceful times. Frankl claims that it is crucial for people to find meaning for their lives, either in the work they produce, the community of which they are part or the people they love.

We might not be faced with tragedy and despair on the scale of those imprisoned during the Holocaust, but this book made me recognise the importance of caring about something or someone as an end in itself. It offers purpose and meaning at times when psychological pain might come from financial or emotional hardship, even at times of peace.

Of course, this book is a harrowing one – Man’s Search for Meaning is by no means an easy or comforting read. But it is a rewarding and important one, that stays with you long after reading it.

Man’s Search for Meaning is available at Booktopia (Australia) and The Book Depository (US and UK).

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