Viktor Frankl's Biography

Background

In September of 1942, a young doctor, his new wife, his mother, father, and brother, were arrested in Vienna and taken to a Nazi concentration camp. The events that followed led the young doctor to discover the significance of meaning in one's life. That man, prisoner 119,104, was Viktor Emil Frankl.

He was born in Vienna, Austria on March 26, 1905 as the second of three children. His mother, Elsa, was from Prague and his father, Gabriel, from Suedmaehre. Frankl grew up in Vienna, the birthplace of modern psychiatry and home of the renowned psychiatrists, Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. A brilliant student, Frankl was involved in Socialist youth organizations and it was his interest in people that led to his fascination with psychiatry.

At the age of 16 he began corresponding with Sigmund Freud, and soon thereafter Frankl sent him a psychoanalytic essay he had written, which was published three years later. In 1925, a year after graduating from high school and on his way towards a degree in medicine, he met Freud in person. Frankl was also interested in Alfred Adler's theory, and that year he published another psychoanalytic article in Adler's International Journal of Individual Psychology. The next year, Frankl used the term Logotherapy in a public lecture for the first time, and began to refine his particular brand of Viennese psychology.

Frankl organized free counselling centres for teenagers in Vienna and six other cities, and began working at the Psychiatric University Clinic in 1928 and 1929. In 1930, he earned his degree in medicine, and was put in charge of a Vienna psychiatric ward for the treatment of suicidal women. In 1937, Frankl opened his own practice in neurology and psychiatry. One year later, Hitler's troops invaded Austria and although he had obtained a visa to the United States in 1939, Frankl's concern for his elderly parents forced him to stay.

In 1940, Frankl was made head of the neurological department of the Rothschild Hospital, the only hospital for Jews in Vienna during the Nazi regime. It was during this period that he began his manuscript, Ärztliche Seelsorge (The Doctor and the Soul ), which was consequently lost during the Holocaust, after Frankl had to discard the jacket he had sewn the manuscript into.

In 1942 Frankl married his first wife, Tilly Grosser. Nine months later, Frankl, his wife, parents and brother were deported to the Theresienstadt camp near Prague.

In the Concentration Camps

Even though he was in four Nazi camps, Frankl survived the Holocaust, including Auschwitz in Poland from 1942 to 1945, where the camp doctor, Josef Mengele, was supervising the division of the incoming prisoners into two lines. Those in the line moving left were to go to the gas chambers, while those in the line moving right were to be spared. Frankl was directed to join the line moving left, but managed to save his life by slipping into the other line without being noticed. Other members of his family were not so fortunate.

One day, while Frankl was on a predawn march to work on laying railroad tracks in one of the concentration camps, another prisoner wondered aloud about the fate of their loved ones.  Frankl began to think about his own wife, and realized that even though he couldn't know at that time whether she was still alive, she was present within him:

“The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”

– Viktor Frankl

And throughout his ordeal, he could not help but see, that, among those given a chance for survival, it was those who held on to a vision of the future; whether it be a significant task before them, or a return to their loved ones; that were most likely to survive their suffering. Frankl lost his wife, his parents, and other members of his family to the Holocaust and it was the meaning he found in that suffering that led to the writing of Man's Search for Meaning.

Frankl's Career

After being liberated from Auschwitz in 1945, Frankl, who had secretly been keeping a record of his observations in the camps on discarded scraps of paper, published a book in German, setting out his ideas on Logotherapy. This was translated into English in 1959, and a revised and enlarged edition was published in 1963, titled, The Doctor and the Soul : An Introduction to Logotherapy . By the time he died, Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, had been translated into 24 languages and reprinted 73 times, as well as having been used as a standard text in high school and university courses in psychology, philosophy, and theology.

In 1946 Frankl became Executive Director of the Viennese Neurological Health Centre and kept this position until 1971. Frankl married his second wife, Eleonore Schwindt in 1947 and bore a baby daughter, Gabriele. In his post-war career, Frankl received 29 honorary doctorates from universities all over the world. He wrote over 30 books and became the first non-American to be awarded the American Psychiatric Association's prestigious Oskar Pfister Prize and was a visiting professor at Harvard, Stanford and other universities in Pittsburgh, San Diego and Dallas. Frankl has given lectures at 209 universities on five continents. The California International University installed a special chair for Logotherapy - this is the psychotherapeutic school founded by Frankl - often called the “Third Viennese School”, after Freud's Psychoanalysis and Adler's Individual Psychology. The American Medical Society, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have officially recognized Dr. Frankl's Logotherapy as one of the scientifically based schools of psychotherapy.

In a 1991 survey of general-interest readers conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club, Man's Search for Meaning had sold over nine million copies in the USA alone, and was ranked among the ten most influential books in America.

Frankl's Interests

Frankl was also a dedicated mountain climber and pilot. At 67 he obtained his pilot's license and a Solo Flight Certificate as well as the Mountain Guide badge of the Alpine Club “Donauland”. Three difficult climbing trails on the Rax and Peilstein Mountains were also named after him.

One of his quirkier interests was his fascination with ties; he often used to stare at them lovingly through shop windows!

In Memory of Frankl

In 1992, the “Viktor Frankl-Institute” was created in his honour in Vienna. He died in 1997 in Vienna, Austria, of heart failure, leaving behind his second wife, Eleonore Schwindt and daughter, Dr Gabriele Frankl-Vesely.

Viktor Frankl's life serves as a reminder to all, no matter how difficult the path may be, choosing to give up, before you have had the chance to fly, only holds the human spirit back.

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Meaningful quotes

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. Viktor Frankl

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