Life or death?

A visit to Cracow in Poland means you have a lot of things to see and do, but a visit to Auschwitz may not be at the top of the list for everyone. I decided to join a tour during my recent visit. It took about 7 hours, with a lot to see and learn; what it was like during World War II. The guide in the concentration camps – Auschwitz I and II – stated very clearly to the group: “You are not tourists here. You are visitors – at a memorial”.

If anybody might start to think of a sandwich around the usual lunch-time, this was hardly the right place. Eating was forbidden, as one visitor was told when he tried to take a bite of the sandwich he had brought (there are no coffee shops around). Auschwitz is not the kind of place that makes you eager to eat, anyway. To wait for some hours seemed more natural; since lack of food characterized daily life there.
Despite many TV documentaries from concentrations camps, including the well known gate where the trains arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was quite different to be there. It had actually been real; although it also seemed unreal. Was it really that bad? In barracks meant to be stables for 52 horses, 600 persons were packed together. Everything that might increase the chance for survival was taken away from the moment one arrived. It came as no surprise when the guide said: “Nobody escaped from Birkenau. It was impossible to get out”.

It was hardly a place for meditation (chairs didn’t exist anyway), but the impressions have kept coming back in my meditations afterwards. Images from the camp, that could have left no doubt for those who arrived there: the main question was about life or death. What were the options – with very little food, very hard work, no possibility to take care of one’s health, sanitary conditions were horrible, no warm clothes, surrounded by seriously ill fellow prisoners, being totally dependent on the mood of the guards? How long would it be possible to endure those conditions, without control over vital factors, like diseases that spread rapidly?

In the modern, more peaceful society we are from time to time reminded about the fact that we don’t live forever, but we can more easily forget about this question. Under the “unreal” conditions in Birkenau, nobody could forget about it, but it was hardly the place for philosophy about existential questions (although there are some impressing testimonials from some prisoners). Nowadays, when survival is not the only challenge, it may be possible to go deeper into such questions. Yet, it doesn’t seem to be easy. So many impressions and tasks keep us busy with other things. Meditation may help us get beyond the daily residues and be more open to reflections upon psychological and existential issues that otherwise will not be dealt with. It may help to focus some attention on these areas of life, as well as finding some time for meditation.

6 Comments

  1. Kaif

    One can vividly sense the grim and charged atmosphere of the camp while reading this post.

    As a teenager clueless but curious about existential questions, I remember reading Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for a Meaning. It was fascinating to see how Frankl’s sense of vocation as a psychologist and more specifically, his desire to complete the thesis he was working on helped him survive the concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

    There is something profound in his insistence that every situation offers us an opportunity to respond to it in a manner that is meaningful rather than thoughtless, and both reflection and decision are involved here.

    “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked” – Viktor Frankl.

  2. Carina

    I felt the same way as you did when I visited Teresienstadt outside of Prague some years ago, while I imagine that Auschwitz is even worse. It was strange to be there, in one way I had the impression i was on a film set, while being there made me realise this had happen, people had been living, suffering and dying there.

  3. Karan Sewani

    i would agree with kaif here, one can mildly sense the atmosphere of camp while reading the post and definitely it makes us realize the importance of existential questions and psychological reflections, after all they make our personality what it is.

    Aside to Kaif: man i got the goosebumps when i read the quote.

  4. Kaif

    It’s a good quote!

    Have a look at this interview:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EIxGrIc_6g

    His passion and conviction are really palpable.

    If you like it, I would recommend Frankl’s books to you. Man’s Search for a Meaning would be a good place to start I think. I recently ordered another book by him – Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, which is, seemingly, more about his understanding of God and the unconscious. They are all on Flipkart.

    You may also like some interesting comments on this quote by Jens on my Facebook page.

  5. I also read the account of the visit to Auschwitz with a sense of awe, as the words seemed to convey the feeling of incomprehensible pain and meaningless torture that never left the place. It’s also true that this is a reminder of how man (as long as he survives) has a freedom to shape his own life, in spite of the circumstances. But somehow I also find the Frankl quotation and at least part of the interview a little harsh.

  6. Kaif

    Do you mean that Frankl does not acknowledge the “realness”, authenticity, or intensity of suffering / meaninglessness, and provides a cure that is too easy to fit?

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