Viktor Frankl, Oskar Schindler, and a Call to Remember

by | Jan 27, 2023 | Current Events, Justice, Prayers

On January 27th, 1945—78 years ago today—Auschwitz Concentration Camp was liberated by the Soviet troops on the Vistula–Oder Offensive through Eastern Europe. Since 2005, the United Nations encourages all UN members to observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th to honor the millions of Jewish people as well as other victims of the holocaust.

A few weeks ago, I had no idea this call to remember even existed. Then I decided to read the historical novel Schindler’s Ark, by Australian author Thomas Keneally, which tells the real-life story of Oskar Schindler, an industrialist who helped save the lives of around 1,200 Jewish people during the holocaust. Afterward, I decided to read Victor Frankl’s autobiographical Man’s Search for Meaning in which he details his interior and exterior life while surviving multiple Nazi Concentration camps.

These two books create a juxtaposition in experience. Schindler’s Ark, while not strictly a true-to-life account of Oskar’s life during World War II, the author did do his research and spoke to those who knew Schindler, including his wife. The book depicts a German capitalist—an official member of the Nazi party no less—risk everything to save the Jewish men and women under his employment. Schindler bribed, swindled, lied, wined and dined his way into the good graces of Nazi officials to keep his Jewish employees at his factory and away from Auschwitz or Dachau or any of the other camps that were the main tools of death in the Nazi massacre of almost six million Jews as well as five million other so-called “undesirables.” 

Oskar Schindler’s experience during that time is in cold contrast to the horror endured by Dr. Victor Frankl, an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist, who spent a total of three years in four different concentration camps. During that time, Frankl’s father died of starvation and pneumonia in Theresienstadt concentration camp, his mother and brother were murdered in Auschwitz’s gas chambers, and his young wife died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Oskar Schindler spent the war years in relative luxury while Victor Frankl suffered a living hell. Schindler was a hedonist who pursued pleasure even at the expense of his relationship with his wife. Frankl was stripped of everything, including his immediate family, his wife, and I presume many friends. For three years his whole life was pain. Schindler, a Gentile, did what he could to save Jews outside the death camps. Frankl, a Jew, from the heart of Sheol1 exhorted his Jewish brothers to find meaning in their affliction so that they might hold onto the hope necessary to survive the horrors of the Nazi killing machine. 

While Schindler made his fortune during the war years, Frankl saw his life works thrown away. He shares in his book that he begged to keep just one thing as he was arrested. “Look at this manuscript of a scientific book…it contains my life’s work. Do you understand?” Frankl asked a fellow Jewish prisoner who was ordered to gather the belongings of the newly arrested. Frankl writes that the man first smiled piteously, before mockingly exclaiming a single word, “Shit!” Frankl realized at that moment the word as a description of what his worth and his work were to become as a prisoner in the concentration camps. He said at that moment he struck out his whole former life at that point. 

I was most moved in reading Man’s Search for Meaning when Frankl shared what he calls “the deepest experience [he] had in the concentration camp.” At a time when Frankl was grappling with the question of whether or not life had an ultimate purpose, he was forced to exchange his clothes for the “worn-out rags” of another prisoner who’d been killed in the Auschwitz gas chamber. In the pocket in which Frankl had kept his manuscript, this recently dead man stored a torn out page from a Hebrew prayer book containing the Shema Yisrael, the most important Jewish prayer. 

The Shema is a call to remember which begins with a section from the book of Deuteronomy, “Hear O’Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” It continues, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” It goes on to exhort the hearers to repeat these words to their children, to recite them day by day, and to honor the Lord in obeying his commandments.

I believe the Shema reveals what connected Oskar Schindler and Victor Frankl. God, who is Lord of all, used both men in their particular circumstances to bring light and life to his people. 

Schindler, who was originally motivated by profit, eventually created a safe haven for Jewish people. God used his wit, guile, and even his penchant for hedonism in order to manipulate the Nazi officials into permitting him to maintain almost an autonomy at his factory—one in which Schindler was able to provide better food to the Jewish workers as well as shelter them from the arbitrary beatings Jewish people received at the hands of the Nazis at other work sites. 

Dr. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning has become a classic on finding purpose in the midst of suffering. In the very depths of that terrible experience, God revealed to him a transcendent truth of life. It came to him as he marched to his work site. One man remarked, “If our wives could see us now!” As Frankl thought about his wife, he says, 

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

This insight helped Frankl understand that there’s a place in every person that no circumstance can alter or take away, and that is the contemplation of one’s beloved. 

As we remember all the victims of the Holocaust, let us also contemplate the one who binds us all, Jews and gentiles alike: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

Edited 11:44am 27/01/2023 


  1. Sheol is the Old Testament word for the abode of the dead.