In today’s pages (p37-41), Viktor Frankl describes how even the most hardened concentration camp prisoner can be roused through insult to rash – and potentially suicidal – indignation.
The beating Frankl received after defending his honour as a doctor against the insults of a particularly repugnant foreman was only relieved by the favour of the Capo in his work party.
How had Frankl won the good favour of this Capo? By lending a sympathetic ear to the Capo’s tales of matrimonial strife!
This Capo would reserve for Frankl a place at the head of the marching party, where he could pour out his stories of domestic woe.
This was of great benefit to Frankl: those at the front of the column suffered less frequent beatings. He also got a few extra peas from the bottom of the soup vat at lunchtime.
The apathy that was a distinguishing feature of camplife meant that ‘all efforts and all emotions were centred on one task: preserving one’s own life’.
This diminution of reality lead to a form of regression in the inmates, ‘a retreat to a more primitive form of mental life’.
Wishes and desires were only unshackled in night-time dreams of ‘bread, cake, cigarettes, and nice warm baths’.
But, of course, come morning the dreamer had to wake from these sweet dreams to the brutal reality of camp life.
One night, Frankl felt an urge to wake a fellow inmate who was obviously having a horrible nightmare. But he stayed his hand:
At that moment, I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.