When I was in the military service in Germany, there was an older Nazi Concentration camp quite close by, named Dachau. I visited it twice, both times unimpressed. In the early 1970’s, West Germany (then) did not maintain such camps well. No barracks, one museum, three chapels (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish), a small gas chamber, and of course a crematorium. I got a good understanding of the purpose behind the camp. It was mainly for political prisoners. It was clearly not a death camp. I went there curious and that is how I left it.
I did not see an actual death camp until I left the service and became an ordained priest. I led a pilgrimage to Auschwitz, mostly to pray at the prison cell where Saint Maximillian Kolbe was martyred. My group and I were shown this cell, and then we were given an overall tour of the camp. To my surprise it was quite large, 20 times larger than Dachau – and well maintained. Whereas I felt nothing at Dachau, it was quite the opposite now. I was horrified. Images of it stayed with me long after the tour finished.
I had met some death camp survivors in the past and couldn’t help but notice the engraved numbers on their arms. I thought, mistakenly, that such a process was used on prison inmates throughout the war. I was wrong. I learned at Auschwitz, that this process was used only during the last two years in the war. Prior to that, photographs were simply taken, much like today when we get a driver’s license. My group and I were brought into a rather large building where we saw rows upon rows of pictures of children just before they were killed. My experience in this building is one reason why I left horrified. Although my experience here was intense, I still would have to admit that I cannot imagine what a human being felt going through such an experience. It is totally beyond my imagination. For this reason, I completely admire Victor Frankl. He was a Jew who did, in fact, go through this experience in Auschwitz. Victor Frankl developed a mode of therapy at Auschwitz called, “Logotherapy.” At the death camp he came to the conviction that he had a choice. Do I give into despair and depression, or will I choose to remain centered, with finding meaning in my experience? He chose the latter and developed a therapy that he believed would help people after the war. His logic was that if he could live in such a way in a death camp, that other people could live in such a way in, say, Darien, Illinois, or for that matter anywhere else.
I accept this logic. It remains true, as Reality Therapy points out, that one is not forced to stop at a red light. One chooses it, because we all know that people go through red lights all the time. I might get a ticket; I might kill someone or myself or both; nonetheless, it still is true that despite such realities, people go through red lights all the time. Can’t we conclude that Victor Frankl is right?
We are in Darien, Illinois and not Auschwitz. We can choose here as he chose in a death camp that we will not choose depression, increasing anger and despair – and all other negative emotions that can disable us. We can, and we will choose meaning in Jesus Christ. We will choose to live.
Blessings, Fr. Walter