Today’s pages (p64-70) concern Viktor Frankl’s attitude to fate. He believed that destiny will run its own course, and his only responsibility was to his own conscience.
One day, Frank’s name appeared on the list for transportation to a ‘rest camp’. The other prisoners were all convinced that this was nothing more than a euphemism for ‘gas chamber’, but Frankl did nothing to get his name crossed off the list – even when the camp’s chief doctor told him he only had to ask.
I told him that this was not my way; that I had learned to let fate take its course. … He shook my hand silently, as though it were a farewell, not for life, but from life.
As it happened, the transport was to a rest camp. Those who had got themselves off the list were left behind and, shortly afterwards, the famine became so acute that cannibalism broke out. As Frankl observes: ‘They tried to save themselves, but they only sealed their own fates.’
The prisoners’ desperate efforts to avoid the hand of fate reminds Frankl of a story he calls Death in Teheran, worth quoting in full:
A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.
Prisoners in the camp feared making drastic decisions and taking the initiative: ‘there was a great apathy’ and they preferred to ‘let fate make the choice’. Nowhere was this agony of decision more apparent than when the opportunity to escape arose. Frankl experienced this ‘torment’ twice.
The first time, he turned back when gripped by an unpleasant feeling as he said goodbye to one of his patients. “You, too, are getting out?” the patient asked in a tired voice. It felt like an accusation. Frankl listened to his conscience and changed his mind about the escape. The unhappy feeling left him and he ‘gained an inward peace that [he] had never experienced before’.
The second time Frankl tried to escape, was, by fortune, on the very day the International Red Cross arrived. ‘Now there was no need for us to risk running toward the fighting line.’
Frankl’s tribulations weren’t yet over, but that’s a story for next week.