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Viktor Frankl

Eugenio Fizzotti

Pontifical Salesian University, Rome


It must have been 1976. During one of my periodical visits to see him in Vienna, Frankl said to me with a certain sense of satisfaction: "You know, the first page of my article, published recently in an Austrian magazine, was next to a picture of Don Bosco and to a description of the world of the Salesians".

"What a coincidence!", I said, to which he answered almost vexed: "No coincidence at all, rather I’d say it was providence!". He began recounting to me, a salesian myself, of the times in which he was a guest at the Salesian University in Rome and had noticed with satisfaction the welcome which had awaited both his person and his theory.

September 3, 1997. After having wished it for many years, I had finally succeeded in visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau. I spent the entire afternoon wandering around the barracks of the two notorious lagers. In their tragic eloquence, the signs of violence imposed themselves with rigour and solemnity and without too many words of commentary. Frankl’s image accompanied me constantly. I imagined him whilst, with indomitable courage and challenging fate, he changed his course with respect to that assigned him by the terrible doctor Mengele, and instead of going left towards the gas chamber, he went right. Or else when, after having dragged himself with difficulty onto his straw bed, he was asked by the commander of the watch to deliver a short speech of encouragement for his companions in misfortune, who were punished because someone had removed some potatoes from the food store. Or else when, during the second night at Auschwitz, whilst voices of drunks were shouting out ballads, all of a sudden, "a violin sang a desperately sad tango, an unusual tune not spoiled by frequent playing. The violin wept and a part of me wept with it, for on that same day someone had a twenty-fourth birthday. That someone lay in another part of the Auschwitz camp, possibly only a few hundred or a thousand yards away, and yet completely out of reach. That someone was my wife".

I wanted to send him a card from Auschwitz; I was even tempted to call him, to communicate what I was feeling in those hours. I chose silence, so as not to destroy with paper or the telephone the sacredness of that experience.

I learnt of his death two days after my return to Italy. I could not help but to communicate what I had experienced to his wife Elly, who was describing her husband’s last hours of life and his funeral which had taken place on the same day on which I was at Auschwitz. "What a coincidence!", I added, to which she answered: "Why a coincidence? Could it not have been a sign of providence?". Amongst the ‘games’ played by providence there may well be that of making two experiences coincide in time, over a distance of hundreds of kilometres, between two persons who have been united for almost thirty years by a deep tie which progressed from a mutual scientific interest to brotherly and fatherly friendship.

"Finally, Viktor has now found peace", continued Elly through her tears. "Yes", I added. "Especially after having been a rich source of serenety and peace for millions of people". Which is true. Whoever, within almost half a century, has had the chance of reading and studying Frankl’s books, or has approached Frankl personally during one of his innumerable travels to teach or attend conferences has undoubtedly felt a deep sense of interior peace and has experienced an unexpected and cheerful ‘reconciliation with life’. This is what Frankl had always sought; In his clinical practice and in his activities as a fruitful writer of both scientific and more popular texts, his aim was the rediscovery of the sources of life (in whatever condition it is lived) whilst holding one’s head high and looking forward, without bending passively under the scourges of daily vicissitudes.

His "unconditional faith in an unconditional meaning" of life has certainly not made him well-liked in the world of psychiatrists, too preoccupied with understanding the link between the way of living and neurological structures, or in that of sociologists, solely oriented towards seeing cultural, family, political conditioning but not the individual’s radical capacity - which is never lost - to face such conditioning with dignity and courage. Neither was he well-liked in the world of psycologists, capable only of seeing in the labirynthes of the psyche, subconcious compulsions acting as detonators when one least expects it, thus abdicating any possibility of a responsible decision.

He had already created a fracas in 1945 when with decisiveness and conviction, he took sides against the concept of collective guilt. "I drew reprimands from various organizations. [... Nevertheless] I spoke against collective guilt in the presence of the commanding general of the French forces. The next day a university professor came to me, himself a former SS officer, with tears in his eyes. He asked how I could find the courage to take an open stand against collective guilt. "You can’t do it", I told him. "You would be speaking out of self-interest. But I am the former inmate number 119.104 at Dachau, and I can do it. Therefore I must. People will listen to me, and so it is my obligation to speak against it"".

He expressed himself similarly 50 years later in the great square in front of the splendid town hall in Vienna. In accordance with his profession of faith in man, in man’s freedom, in man’s dignity and assumption of responsibility, he declared in a firm voice both his rejection of any attempt to minimize and reduce the human person, and his strong conviction that at all times and in all places, man is capable of transcending himself, of looking beyond the narrow horizons of daily life, and of drawing from the spiritual depths of his own unconscious (no longer, therefore, can man’s unconscious be only an inexorable receptacle of instincts and blind impulses, devoid of any glimmer of authentic freedom, as taught by psychoanalysis over the decades).

"If I don’t do it, who will do it? And if I don’t do it right now, when should I do it? But if I do it for my own sake only, what am I?". These three phrases of Rabbi Hillel, who lived towards the end of the I century a.c., resurface like a refrain in the writings of Frankl, and underline three central aspects of his thought: a) the uniqueness of the person, beyond any attempt to render him part of a mass, b) the uniqueness of the present moment, beyond any refuge in the illusory world of irresponsibility and of an impersonal eternity lacking any connection with daily tragedy, c) an orientation towards a world of values and duties, that everyone is called on to discover and bring about day by day, without expecting advantages or rewards. The whole in a context of re-discovery of meeting, as an area of loyalty to being, to life and to relationship, in the knowledge of the risk of manipulation and de-personalization.

The meeting between two unique and inimitable persons, emphasises Frankl, is truly authentic only so far as it captures "the superior dimension, that in which man is transcended in the direction of a meaning and in which existence is placed in direct comparison with the logos". Otherwise, a dialogue and a meeting not open to meaning, and thus, not based on mutual subjectivity that transcends itself, will remain a dialogue and meeting without logos; a pure mystification closed within the narrow horizons of immanence, searching only for the roots and in the sole direction of satisfying needs rather than objective aims, laden with challenge and provocation, that have an imperative character and demand to be realized.

Ever since being a young university student, Frankl manifested a deep passion for man and for his responsible freedom, which characterized his valuable activities as a psychiatrist, writer, holder of conferences and university professor. The commitment towards youths with no direction and lack of orientation, was translated by him in 1926, at twenty-one years of age, into the activation of the Centres for psychopedagogic consultancy in Vienna. The existential behavioural forms with which, in the following decades, he would meet the numerous patients at the psychiatric clinics where he lent his services, testify to an uncommon wealth of humanity, capable of understanding the most intimate calls that are recieved, understood, loved and most of all in the knowledge that always and everywhere, man never loses his sense of his own existence and everything must be done to help him rediscover such a sense and translate it into the behaviour and choices of every day.

What contributions then can Frankl and logotherapy offer man, who is about to cross the thresholds of the year two thousand? In what circumstances and with what conditions attached, is it possible to predict a serene and constructive future? From the entirety of Frankl’s literature and of the long and unforgettable friendship with both him and his family, it seems that I could or should honestly recognize that, the more the desire to dedicate oneself to finding sense not only in what one does, but also in what one experiments and suffers, emerges in the heart and mind of each man, the more humanity will be capable of reaching a situation of peace founded on respect and recognition of the dignity of each individual.

This however, is only possible with a constant and educationally valid commitment to allow the interior freedom of every human being and above all the responsibility of answering those questions that come from the world,society,culture, and religion, to shine through. These, and these only are the necessary conditions for the world, and with it life, every life, to manifest their beauty and their indelible store of sense and hope.

Eugenio Fizzotti

Pontifical Salesian University, Rome

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