Dr. Viktor Frankl says that we can find meaning in our suffering. I think that is really insensitive to those who are oppressed. It is insensitive to say to the oppressed: “Oh, you are a victim of racism. Rise above it by finding meaning.” What do you think?
Dr. Frankl never meant to imply that we should seek to be oppressed (or ignore the oppression) so that we can find meaning in our suffering. You seem to be dichotomizing finding meaning and seeking justice, as if we can do only one or the other. We must remember that Dr. Frankl was in concentration camps during World War II. He certainly did not imply that this was good for him so that he could find meaning in his suffering. Instead, we need to right the wrongs of injustice by practicing the moral virtue of justice and, as the same time, find meaning in our suffering. These two (seeking justice and finding meaning in suffering) are teammates, not opponents.
Editor’s Note: Viktor Emil Frankl was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor. He was the founder of logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy which describes a search for a life meaning as the central human motivational force. Dr. Frankl published 39 books including his best-selling autobiographical Man’s Search for Meaning, based on his experiences in various Nazi concentration camps.
How does forgiving work in huge issues such as the Holocaust, for example? Can a person forgive an entire group that has followed a misguided ideology?
This idea of forgiving in the context of “huge issues” such as the Holocaust is extremely controversial. Some will say that forgiving is not appropriate in this context for a number of reasons (The vast majority of people in the current generation were not in the Holocaust and so it is not their place to offer forgiving; some injustices are so grave as to eliminate the possibility of offering forgiving). Yet, there are people who are on record as offering their own forgiveness to the Nazis. The late Eva Mozes Kor, in the film Forgiving Dr. Mengele, is one example of this. People can forgive groups because when we forgive we do forgive people; groups are made up of people. Thus, if certain people so choose, they can forgive those who instituted Nazism or slavery, as two examples.
Also, the philosopher, Trudy Govier, makes the distinction among primary, secondary, and tertiary forgiving. Primary forgiving is when someone hurts you directly; secondary forgiving occurs when you are hurt because a loved one was hurt (a grandson, then, who is hurt by the death of a grandparent in the Holocaust, can forgive for his own sake, but not forgive on behalf of the grandparent); tertiary forgiving is when you forgive, for example, a public official who is guilty of corruption in another country. In this case, you are not hurt directly and, let us suppose for the sake of this example, none of your relatives were hurt directly. You feel badly, even resentful, and so tertiary forgiving is appropriate.
We need to remember that forgiving is a person’s own choice. Even if everyone else says that injustice X is too severe for anyone to offer forgiveness, we still might be surprised to see that someone steps up and decides to forgive despite popular opinion to the contrary.
For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.
Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and a world renown psychiatrist, made the point that the only ones who survived concentration camp were those who somehow could find meaning in what they suffered. Those who saw their suffering as meaningless died.
In other words, finding meaning in this case meant to find life. What fascinates me about Dr. Frankl’s observations is that finding any meaning seems to count in staying alive. Whether a person saw the suffering as a way to toughen the self, or as a way to reach out to other suffering people was not the main point.
I wonder now, in reflecting on Dr. Frankl’s broad view of meaning in suffering, whether he had it entirely correct. Yes, it may be the case that any meaning can keep a person alive. Yet, what kind of meaning in suffering actually helps a person to thrive, not just to live? Perhaps people thrive only when they derive particular meaning from suffering. Of course, we do not know for sure, and any comment here is not definitive because it is open to scientific investigation and philosophical analysis. With that said, I think that when people realize that suffering helps them to love others more deeply, this is the avenue toward thriving.
How does suffering help people to love more deeply? I think there are at least three ways this happens: 1) Suffering makes people more aware of the wounds that others carry; 2) Suffering makes people more determined to help those others bind up their wounds, and 3) Suffering gives the sufferer the courage to put into action these insights and motivations to make a difference in the lives of others.
As people love in this way, there are characteristically two consequences which help them to thrive: 1) Those who deliberately love in the face of suffering grow in character, each becomes a better person; and 2) The recipients of this love-in-action have their well-being enhanced. As those who suffer see the fruit of their loving actions, this increases satisfaction with life, increasing thriving.
When we have been treated unjustly by others, this is an occasion of suffering. Let us cultivate the habit under this circumstance of finding this meaning: I have an opportunity now to love those who have hurt me. The one avenue to loving the unjust is to forgive them. Let us remember this meaning to forgiveness: “In my forgiving, I am someone who can love despite hardship.” As we say this routinely and come to know it is true, we may find that we have been given an opportunity to thrive as persons.
Eva Mozes Kor (January 31, 1934 – July 4, 2019) is one of my heroes. This is the case because of her unrelenting message that she, personally, and not representing any group, forgave the Nazis for their abuse of her twin sister, Miriam, and herself while they were imprisoned in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland during World War II.
Their experience was horrific. Both were injected with a poison, which eventually took Miriam’s life and left Eva almost deceased in the camp. Yet, Eva’s will to live dominated and not only did she survive but also, later, she donated a kidney to Miriam in the hope of aiding her survival. When Miriam passed, there was not sufficient time for Eva to get from her home in the United States to the Israeli funeral, thus adding one more incident which could have embittered her. Instead, she lived a life of love, sacrifice, and forgiveness.
What I find so intriguing about Eva’s exemplary life is her steadfastness when it came to forgiving the Nazis. She had ample opportunities to back off from such a gesture because of heavy criticism from others. Mengele did not apologize; you cannot forgive on behalf of others (which she did not); to forgive such a horror is improper. While it is true that many have their convicted reasons why they, personally, would not forgive in this context, Eva realized that hers was a private decision that she willingly chose.
The forgiving worked well for her. As one example, in the film, “Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” she is shown, in her elderly years, running robustly on a treadmill in a gym. A crushed heart with no hope does not lend itself to such strenuous exercise. In another segment, she is seen comforting a teenager who was shouldering deep pain. Eva was the comforter, showing a motherly love to this teenage whom she was meeting for the first time. Her love was brighter than all of the atrocities perpetrated against her.
“Forgiveness is a way of healing oneself from pain, trauma, and tragedy.
It is a means of self-liberation and self-empowerment.”
Eva Mozes Kor
I know of Eva’s strong and loving attributes from personal experience, having had the honor of sharing air time with her on the radio and having met her and her strong son, Alex, for a dinner engagement.
Eva found a freedom, an independence from what could have been a lifelong hatred. The freedom won. It, thus, is fitting that this immigrant to America passed away on Independence Day in the United States, when the new nation shed oppression in 1776. Eva, having known oppression, rose to her Independence through forgiveness.
May your forgiveness live on, Eva. Thank you for a life lived with integrity, steadfastness, and forgiveness.
Read more about and by Eva Mozes Kor:
- “My Forgiveness” – A guest blog Eva wrote for this website last year.
- “Let’s Heal the World Through Forgiveness” – Eva talks about forgiving Joseph Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death of Auschwitz” who tortured her and her twin sister.
- “Forgiveness Brings Peace” – Eva discusses a new film (“Eva”) about her life.
- History of the Holocaust – Learn more about the systematic state-sponsored killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children and millions of others by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II.
- “I Survived The Holocaust Twin Experiments” – Eva discusses the horrors she and her family endured during the Holocaust (a 14:47 video by BuzzFeedVideo on YouTube with actual concentration camp footage).
- “Nothing Good Ever Comes From Anger” – Eva talks about meeting former Nazi prison guard Oskar Groening during his trial in 2015.
WIBC-FM, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA – Although she is known around the world for forgiving the Nazis who tortured her during World War II, Eva Mozes Kor reveals in a newly-released film that she lived for nearly 50 years as an angry person before learning to forgive.
“I was very angry with many people. I was in a lot of pain,” said Kor as she reflected on her life and how uncomfortable she was baring her soul for the documentary “Eva” that was released in April.
“Forgive your worst enemies. It will heal your soul and it will set you free,” Kor says in the new film narrated by Ed Asner. It documents Kor’s life, her travels and struggles and how she became the person who was able to forgive the individuals who committed atrocities on her, and who killed her family and millions of other people.
Kor and her sister Miriam were the only survivors in their entire family and that was because they were twins who were separated from the others by the Nazis. Josef Mengele, a Nazi doctor, was fascinated with twins and performed experiments on Kor and her sister among others. The lingering effects are believed to be what killed her sister in 1992.
The Holocaust (in Hebrew, “Ḥurban” meaning “destruction”), was the systematic state-sponsored killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children and millions of others by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II. The Germans called this “the final solution to the Jewish question.”
Even before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they had made no secret of their desire to eliminate all Jews. As early as 1919, Adolf Hitler had written, “Rational anti-Semitism (discrimination against the Jews), must lead to systematic legal opposition.…Its final objective must unswervingly be the removal of the Jews altogether.”
In his political manifesto, Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), Hitler further developed the idea of the Jews as an evil race struggling for world domination. Nazi racial ideology characterized the Jews as “subhumans” and “parasites” while the Aryans (Germans) were the “genius” race. Ultimately, the logic of Nazi racial anti-Semitism led to annihilation of millions of Jews.
- Watch the official “Eva” movie trailer (2:08).
- Listen to an Eva Kor interview about the new movie (9:54).
- Hear from other Holocaust survivors in this University of Michigan-Dearborn Holocaust Survivor Oral History Project.
- Learn more about the horrific History of the Holocaust from this comprehensive report in Encyclopedia Britannica.
Read previous posts on this website about Eva Mozes Kor:
- A Feb. 27, 2018 guest blog by Eva Mozes Kor written especially for this website.
- Eva Mozes Kor: “Let’s heal the world through forgiveness” – March 6, 2018
- Some Auschwitz Survivors Disagree with Eva Mozes Kor – May 6, 2015
- Nothing Good Ever Comes from Anger – April 28, 2015
- Forgiveness as Freedom – March 17, 2012