Life Lessons From a Holocaust Survivor


By Samantha Hager

In life, especially as a business owner and leader, there are obstacles and setbacks you are sure to face on a daily basis. However, it’s the ways in which you approach these roadblocks that determines whether or not you push past them and persevere. For Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, some of the worst human experiences possible helped him to have an entirely unique outlook on life that inspired countless others, including myself.

When I first read Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, I was dealing with the uncomfortable effects of a quarter life crisis. I felt as though my sense of purpose was not being fulfilled and the obstacles I was facing in my career and personal life were leading to nothing of any particulr worth or value. Then, I read and truly heard the words Frankl wrote in his prolific recountment of his experience during the holocaust and how he found hope despite it. With his words, I was able to completely redefine my outlook on life, find the good in what I already had, and strive for more with a defined life purpose. Now, I hope these messages of perseverence and will can inspire you to find fulfillment beyond your daily work and overcome the obstacles that your business and personal life throw your way. But, to truly see why Frankl’s words are so prolific even now, you must first understand his devastating story of pain and loss in Auschwitz.

Viktor Frankl’s harrowing story of perseverance  

As a young man, Viktor Emil Frankl studied neurology and psychiatry, with a focus on depression and suicide. In 1940, he joined Rothschild Hospital, the only hospital in Vienna still admitting Jews, as head of the neurology department. Prior to his deportation to the concentration camps, he helped numerous patients avoid the Nazi euthanasia program that targeted the mentally disabled.

Then, just nine months after his marriage began, Frankl and his family were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. His father died there of starvation and pneumonia. In 1944, Frankl and the surviving members of his family were transported to Auschwitz, where his mother and brother were murdered in the gas chambers. His wife died later of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. Frankl spent three years in four concentration camps before being liberated.

Then, in 1946, Viktor Frankl published his story of his experience in these camps along with how he managed to survive and overcome this experience while many others fell victim to the pain and suffering inflicted upon them. As Frankl explained, “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.”

In his book, Frankl also explains the concept of ‘delusion of reprieve’ which he defines as “A man sentenced to die becomes convinced that he might be set free just before his execution and thus is filled with a sense of contentment right before death.” This, along with the lessons he learned from his struggles, are what inevitably led to him developing logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy that describes a search for a life’s meaning as the central human motivational force. It is this concept that he developed within his memoir that leaders should use to motivate and empower themselves just as I and thousands others have since it was released in the 1940s.

Frankl quotes to learn from as a leader  

Although the entire book is well worth the read, here are a few of the best quotes from the memoir that leaders can use to fuel their sense of drive, passion, and motivation for the new year:

  • “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
  • “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.”
  • “The attempt to develop a sense of humour and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living.”
  • “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
  • “But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
  • Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
  • “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
  • “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
  • “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
  • “What is to give light must endure burning.”
  • “So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
  • “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
  • “For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth ““ that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

Recognizing your good fortune and pushing past obstacles

There were many lessons that I learned from Frankl’s prolific words. However, the main principle that stood out to me above all else as a leader and mentor to others”“including my two stepsons—was that, with a sense of purpose and meaning in life, anything is possible and can be overcome. As business owners in the restoration and carpet cleaning industries—especially during the slow winter season—determining your own sense of purpose and meaning can help you to handle the struggles of everything from tough clients and jobs to employee turnover rates and profit deductions. After all, as Viktor Frankl explains, “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”

Cleanfax Staff

Cleanfax provides cleaning and restoration professionals with information designed to help them manage and grow their businesses.

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