Victor Frankl Man's Search for Meaning

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 2 'We know: the best of us did not return.'

These first pages (p17-21 in my 2004 Rider edition) of Part 1: Experiences in a Concentration Camp contain the most chilling passage I think I have ever read in a work of non-fiction.

After describing how desperate was the fight for survival in the concentration camps of World War Two, Viktor Frankl matter-of-factly states:

On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves.

We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return.

Conditions in the camps were, to understate the matter, appalling. Frankl spent most of his six months in captivity digging and laying railway tracks.

One time, he also took on the job of digging a tunnel for a water main under a road – alone and without help. He was rewarded for this particularly arduous task with coupons for 12 cigarettes, which he could exchange for 12 soups: ‘a very real respite from starvation’.

For most of the prisoners, soup took priority over cigarettes.

The only exceptions to this were those who had lost the will to live and wanted to ‘enjoy’ their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned.

All the Days

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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