The prisoners’ inner life was so important to their survival, whether it was the mundane nostalgic memory of catching the bus or answering telephone, or the sublime sight of the setting sun through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods.
After admiring such a sunset, one prisoner said to another: ‘How beautiful the world could be.’
Viktor Frankl had a moment of transcendence while digging a trench at dawn. He was conversing silently with his wife and struggling to find the reason for his sufferings.
[F]rom somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse … – and the light shineth in the darkness. … More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me … Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.
As well as nature, art played a role in alleviating the misery of the camp. There were improvised cabarets with songs, poems and jokes, and one prisoner sang Italian arias at lunchtime and was rewarded with a double helping of soup ‘straight “from the bottom” – that meant with peas!’
Humour was also a useful tool in the battle to overcome the meaninglessness of life in the concentration camp, giving prisoners ‘an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds’.
Frankl tells the story of when a simple round of applause helped him curry favour with the camp’s most dreaded capo.
The Murderous Capo entered the room by chance, and he was asked to recite one of his poems … I bit my lips till they hurt in order to keep from laughing at one of his love poems, and very likely that saved my life. … It was useful, anyway, to be known to The Murderous Capo from a favourable angle. So I applauded as hard as I could.