A Holocaust Survivor’s Perspective on Life

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Jovo Mitrovic

Imagine if a game of finger pointing could determine whether you were going to live or die.  Imagine how your view of a chimney might change if you found out that a cloud of grey smoke was the last remnants of your family and friends and other people who were members of your faith group.  Imagine deconstructing the horrors of a gas chamber because you thought it was better than running into an electrically charged barbed-wire fence.  Imagine if something as small as a blister on your heel constituted that your life was worth ending.  Imagined being worked to death on a diet that consisted of less than 250 grams of bread and 600 ml of soup and living under constant mental stress.  Even worse, imagine being fast asleep and having the worst nightmare of your life, but if you were to wake up from the terrible nightmare that your reality would be more horrible.

These scenarios were actual reality for Viktor E.  Frankl, a Jew by faith and a neurologist and psychiatrist by profession.  He documented his holocaust experience in Man’s Search for Meaning and the valuable takeaways he gained from that experience.  The main three are still transferable to today’s way of life: one’s attitude can transcend one’s immediate surroundings, there are always choices to be made, and there are only two races of people.

One’s attitude can transcend one’s immediate surroundings.

Frankl discussed the thinking that people are completely and unavoidably influenced by their surroundings, and in his case, it was the concentration camps.  But he then goes on to unleash the following series of thought-provoking questions: “What about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological, or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these? Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?” Frankl responded by saying his concentration camp experience demonstrated that people have a choice of action, and he mentions some of the heroism amongst prisoners that proved to him that apathy could be overcome and irritability supressed, and that people could preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychological and physical stress.  Additionally, Frankl stated how most concentration camp survivors never forgot the names of the men who walked through the camp, giving away their last pieces of bread to those that were nearing their end of days, and although they were few in number, they demonstrated that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances and one’s own way.

There are always choices to be made.

Frankl described his mind frame around the concentration camp experience by saying, “And there were always choices to be made.  Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom, which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.” Ultimately, Frankl’s concentration camp experience indicated to him that the sort of person a prisoner became was the result of an inner decision and not of the result of camp influences alone.  Frankl also believed that any person could decide what should become of them, both mentally and spiritually, and that it was possible for one to retain their human dignity even in a concentration camp.

Frankl further elaborated on this belief which was based on his psychological observations of the prisoners and how the only way to subside to the camp’s degenerating influences was if a person allowed their inner hold on their moral and spiritual selves to subside.  Retrospective thoughts would contribute to a man’s decline because they could not picture a future, believing the real opportunities of life had passed.  Simply put, once a prisoner lost faith in their future, they were doomed because the loss of belief in the future impacted their spiritual hold and started the decay process.  Therefore, the loss of hope would result in the loss of courage, which would impact the state of mind.  So, Frankl was left to believe that it was a peculiarity of man that he could only live by looking to the future.

Frankl explained that one’s approach to everything, from life-threatening challenges to everyday situations, helped shape the meaning of life.  It was about the attitude one takes about challenges and opportunities, whether large or small.  The opportunities to act properly, the potentialities to fulfill a meaning, were affected by the irreversibility of our lives.

There are only two races of people.

After all the hell that Frankl was put through, the thing he was most sure of after surviving the concentration camp experience was that there were only two races of people in this world: the “race” of decent people and the “race” of indecent people, and segregation along these lines ran through all nations.  Both races of people were found everywhere, and they penetrated all groups of society, and no group consisted of entirely decent or indecent people, so there was no “pure race”.  He believed that decent people were the minority, and that they were always a minority, and they were likely to remain so, and that it was something people needed to come to terms with.  Above all, every individual had uniqueness and dignity.

The power in Frankl’s words.

Perhaps the most powerful takeaway by Frankl was the realization he had from his concentration camp experience that man was capable of overcoming anything, and the power in these words, “Man is ultimately self-determining.  Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.  By that same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instance.  One of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond biological, psychological, or sociological conditions.  Man has potentialities within himself, which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”

Personal familiarity with the concentration camp experience

The World War 2 concentration camp experience is something that is not unknown to my family and other people who originate from the powder keg of Europe, both Jews and non-Jews.  For some of my family, three to four generations before me, their uniqueness and dignity were taken from them the very moment the Nazis came to their rural towns, and there would be no chance of survival by the way of a concentration camp.

A name that has always been familiar to me growing up was Jovo Mitrovic, who was a young man when the Nazis surrounded his rural town and sent him to Mauthausen Concentration Camp.  The Mauthausen Concentration Camp was described as having non-existent supplies of food and people would fall dead at different times of the day, and the depravities towards the prisoners were such that they are hard to fathom.  Despite all of this, Jovo managed to maintain a positive attitude throughout his time at the camp by looking out of the little “window” in his cell, dreaming of the day he got to go home and back to Serbia, while also expecting that each day would be his last because of how frequently executions of prisoners took place.  Then, one day, one of the guards came to Jovo, with Jovo thinking it was “his turn”, but instead he was told that the war was over and that he was free.

Much like Frankl, Jovo’s dream helped him survive Mauthausen, yet parts of both their dreams that involved friends and family would never come true because they would perish at the hands of the Nazis.  Although Jovo was not directly related to us, when my parents and I fled the civil war in Sarajevo and made their way to Belgrade, Jovo would encourage my parents by sharing his story of survival, and it helped them overcome their own war experience.  I have had two chances to reconnect with Jovo, once in my early teens and once after graduating high school, during summer trips to Serbia.  Back then, I was not as interested in the great feats of which people are capable, so I did not ask him the questions I would have asked today, but I do remember my last conversation with him in 2009, his emphasis on “attitude”, and being left in awe of him.

The name “Jelka Remic” was one that bore no significance until after my 2019 trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina.  As it would turn out, Jelka Remic (1904-1942) was related to my great-grandfather, Marinko Golijanin (1904-1966), on the paternal side of my family.  Her story goes something like this: by the time the Nazis had rolled into her rural town, after hearing that there was a large Jewish population living there, many of the men had gone and taken up arms against the Nazis by joining the Partisans or Chetniks.  When Jelka was identified as being Jewish, she was with some family that were helping her around because she was well into her pregnancy, but the Nazi soldiers were outraged that there was someone in their midst carrying life within them, a life they viewed as being undesirable and unworthy of living.  So, the Nazi soldiers took out a knife a sliced open Jelka’s stomach, killing the unborn baby, and they then grabbed a living and breathing Jelka and impaled her on a wooden stake, where she would suffer a slow and painful death while they killed all the other suspected Jews too.  This sadism was meant to send a clear message as to what would happen to Jews when the Nazis got their hands on them.  Although Marinko would never end up getting captured or taken prisoner, the fighting that he took part in and witnessed had a major impact on his health, and as countless war survivors have done, he turned to alcohol to help him cope. He died relatively young, at the age of 62 years old.

When I visited the rural area’s local cemetery in 2019, I walked around observing all the names, dates, and tombstones, and I identified Marinko and Jelka’s tombstones.  What was unique about their tombstones was that they were some of the few tombstones that had the Star of David on them, and I began asking questions and connecting some loose dots.  It turned out that people in the surrounding area were so afraid of identifying as Jewish after the war that they would completely erase their “Jew-ness” and become something else instead.  The thought of a World War 3 was unimaginable for them.  Instead, they would honor their heritage discreetly at the time of their death, etching a Star of David for the year of birth, but also etching a cross to mask their “Jew-ness” and to protect their families in case of a third world war.  When I asked some of our relatives about Jelka’s Jewish heritage and started making other connections on the family tree, suggesting that Marinko, too, had parents and grandparents of Jewish heritage, I was quickly shut down and told that our family trees were Serbian through and through.  And just like that, everyone seemed to forget the reason that Jelka was killed had to do with her “Jew-ness”.  It was not surprising, because that part of the world is rife with ethnic nationalism, but, like Frankl had stated before, I knew that there was no “pure race”—only decent and indecent people.

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