More than just memoir: Deeper thinking about the Holocaust “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness” and “Man’s Search for Meaning”


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The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon

You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness. What would you do? Withe responses by Robert Coles, The Dalai Lama, Matthew Fox, Mary Gordon, Harold S. Kushner, Dennis Prager, Dith Pran, Desmond Tutu, Harry Wu, and forty-four others.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Viktor Frankl survived more than one concentration/death camp, including Auschwitz, during World War II. His father, mother, brother, and wife all died in the camps. He lost everything he’d owned. Frankl was also a psychiatrist. In his classic Man’s Search for Meaning, he reflects on why some people survive in the most horrific circumstances possible. He asks –and answers—how can man find life worth living?

Those of us who’ve worked with teens for awhile know that you ask yourselves this difficult question. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean that you haven’t had a crisis, a ‘dark night of the soul.’ If you do worry about life having any meaning, reading this book is a great start toward answering your questions.

The book has two parts. The first part reviews some of Frankl’s experiences in the death camps. He looks at what causes friends to give up hope and what brings moments of happiness. In every case, the individual has to make sense out of his suffering. Frankl believes that all suffering (even that which ends in death) has meaning. Man can rise above his fate by choosing to be worthy of his suffering.

The second part covers logotherapy, Frankl’s school of psychotherapy. In this second part, the reader sees how Frankl uses his experiences to help ordinary people who feel that life isn’t worth living.

Many students ask for books by or about Holocaust survivors. This is different from others because it delves into life’s purpose as much as it does into the story of Frankl’s captivity. I found myself wanting to copy down quotations to remember.

“The majority of prisoners suffered from a kind of inferiority complex. We all had once been or had fancied ourselves to be ‘somebody.’ Now we were treated like complete nonentities. (The consciousness of one’s inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things, and cannot be shaken by camp life. But how many free men, let alone prisoners, possess it?)”

“I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide. Both used the typical argument—they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.”

“From all this we learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only two—the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure’ race.”

“What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: ‘Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?’ There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds true for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.”

There’s much hope for all of us in this little book. If you’re in the middle of a tough time and looking for purpose, check it out.


About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
This entry was posted in Biography/Memoir, Controversial Issue/Debate, Faith-Based/Religious Element, Fiction, Human Rights Issues, Non-fiction, Short Stories and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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