Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Shemini Atzeret Yizkor and Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl, the renowned psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor, once said, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”[1]According to Frankl, to search for meaning in our lives is also to search for meaning in death. Every time Yizkor comes around, we are forced to reconcile and wonder: What, if any, meaning is there in death or in life? The meaning of death and life was the focus of much of Frankl’s career. During the war, he struggled to find meaning in death and life while imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. During this time, Frankl saw four different experiences in people who struggled with the meaning of life and death. Today, we can recall many loved ones who struggled with the same ponderings. We may search in them for the answers to our own questions.

The first type of person Frankl identified was the person who has lost all hope and all purpose in death and in life. Frankl described these people with a term popularized in the lagers, theconcentration camps in his memoir, Man in Search of Meaning. The term used by Frankl (and many others) was Muselmann. He used Muselmann to describe people who had lost all desire to live, for these people saw no meaning in living or in dying. To this effect, as Frankl stated, “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”[2] To this group of people, losing the zest for life usually meant a short life expectancy.

Opposing this outlook on life and death was a survivor mentality that developed in the camps. Of this group, Frankl wrote, “Whoever was still alive had reason for hope. Health, family, happiness, professional abilities, fortune, position in society—all these were things that could be achieved again or restored.”[3] Frankl continues, “After all, we still had all our bones intact.”[4] For this group of people, meaning in life and in death was affirmed in any circumstances. Life never ceased to have a meaning, and this infinite meaning of life included suffering and dying, deprivation and death.[5]

Contrasting both experiences was a third type of person who lived and died in the lagers—children. Of this group, Frankl writes that distressingly, children need no existential meaning in life or death. During the war, they were all innocent martyrs. It is upon us to derive meaning out of our own suffering in their absence. Once, when speaking to a rabbi—a Shoah survivor who was troubled by the thought that he had been a sinner and would never be reunited with his children in heaven—Frankl assured, while citing a verse in Psalms, that his years of suffering guaranteed his place in heaven alongside his children.[6]

Lastly, Frankl acknowledges a fourth group of people who willing died in martyrdom, in acts of Kiddush Hashem. Their meaning in death was an act of defiance. To this effect, Frankl remarked, “I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful”[7] to them.

We are saying Yizkor for people of all sets of experiences today. Many of us can recall memories of loved ones who fit either neatly or loosely into one or two of these groups during their lives and deaths. Our memories of them do not replicate the descriptions by Frankl but they may reflect some similar details. We recall loved ones who lost their zest for life. Unable to live every day with the ruach of Modeh ani, they may have laid motionless and emotionless waiting for death to come. We have helplessly witnessed them quickly wither away and die.

We also recall those who lived, died and suffered inversely to this. They may have never imaged life, death and suffering without meaning. They lived and died by the blessing Ad’ Meah V’esrim—may you live to be 120. As we are taught, Moses was 80 when he heroically led the Jewish people from Egypt. These loved ones were much like Moses in this regard; filled with zest even under the most unrealistic circumstances.

We also remember young children. Their lives, though short, were blessings to us. We recall rocking them in our arms, changing their diapers, and kissing them asleep. We remember reading to them at night and teaching them our heritage. Some of us may find meaning and comfort in our sacred texts, in Tehillim, Psalm 90:12, where life is described as precious and what we are given is a blessing, even if it is only ephemeral.

Lastly, we recall memories of our people who died sanctifying G-d’s name. The elevation of their martyred souls unto the heights of heaven has also elevated the holy name our G-d. We remember with fresh wounds the loss of Lori Kaye during the Poway shooting earlier this year. Kaye, as you may recall, jumped between the shooter and one of his victims, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. She saved Rabbi Goldstein, but died Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s holy name.

Not everyone struggles, searching and finding meaning the way Frankl describes it in his powerful memoir. His descriptions of people have fallen under fair criticism. Frankl was describing people living, suffering and dying under extremely unhuman circumstances. The world he is describing is thankful far removed from our own. Frankl’s work should be understood as a basic foundation to think about the meaning of human life, death or suffering. It is not as an opportunity for detailing an ordered categorization of people in search of meaning.  Most of our loved ones did not cleanly fit into one category, rather they lived and died in a combination of the first two experiences described. Reading into Frankl on a deeper level, on Yizkor we should think of our departed loved ones and the lessons that they taught us about how to live and die with meaning. For many of us, we were our loved ones’ meaning in life and in death. They were our mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters, spouses and more. We are their lasting legacy. We love them. We miss them. We remember them.

Keyn Yehi Ratzon

[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Mans Search for Meaning (Beacon Press, Kindle Edition), 67.

[2] Frankl, Mans Search for Meaning, 74.

[3] Frankl, Mans Search for Meaning, 81.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Frankl, Mans Search for Meaning, 81-82.

[6] Frankl, Mans Search for Meaning, 120.

[7] Frankl, Mans Search for Meaning, 66-67.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuel Polin is the Rabbi of Etz Chaim Congregation - Monroe Township Jewish Center on Monroe Township, New Jersey. A New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Subsequent to both of masters programs, Rabbi Polin graduated with a third Masters in Hebrew Letters and received his Semikhah (Rabbinic ordination) from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations.