What a Survivor Learned

27 January 1945. That was the day that Auschwitz, a World War II death camp, one that defies sufficient description, was liberated, but not before 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered there. Why should this matter to us and to our children, and to our children’s children, seventy-two years later? In short, it should matter because of love.

This week I’m reading Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It is his story of surviving the Auschwitz death camp. Frankl’s training was in psychology—the study of the soul/mind. In the book he explores the question of how and why some Jews were able to survive the agonies of existence within the barbed wire, the death trenches, the freezing temperatures, the inexorable starvation, etc.

How did some Jews survive the tortures of dehumanization and humiliation at the hand of the Nazis? The answer: love.

This passage from Frankl’s book is profound:

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature . . . .

 And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous that the sun which was beginning to rise.

 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 the 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.

 There is much to this passage that deserves thoughtful reflection. However, what interests me is the link between the survivors’ spiritual lives and their endurance. The spiritual rootedness of some people set them apart from their fellow men and women. They were sustained amidst unimaginable horror by their spiritual lives, by the lives, if you will, of their souls—their psykhe (soul) + logia (study of).

A fellow military chaplain friend of mine includes these words from General George C. Marshall in his emails: “The soldier’s heart, the soldier’s spirit, the soldier’s soul, are everything. Unless the soldier’s soul sustains him he cannot be relied on and will fail himself and his commander and his country in the end.”

Gen. Marshall and Victor Frankl both understood that the soul is what’s most important. They were not Gnostics; they were not arguing that the body and matter are bad, and that the soul and spirit are good. No. They were simply but profoundly calling us to think, and to admit the crucial role of the human heart, the human soul.

In the biblical worldview, Jesus teaches his followers, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 ESV). The human soul, then, is crucial, as is each individual’s standing with God.

In the biblical worldview, love is rooted in the nature of God. God has revealed himself in creation, in Scripture, in conscience, and supremely in Christ. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

I do much studying of history, especially military history, and as I reflect on the horrors of Auschwitz, and of how men inflicted unparalleled horrors on other human beings, I feel shame. I see what the human heart is like when it’s rooted in lies. But I also see how God reached down to a sin-soaked creation in rebellion against him. Jesus became sin. He suffered the horror of divine wrath. And he did it for love. Why? Because he is the divine redeemer who has infinite knowledge of men’s souls and knows that outside of his righteousness imputed to men by faith, our eternal fates are worse than Auschwitz. But because of Christ, we may be liberated.

I know this will sound simplistic for many—this idea of penal and substitutionary atonement for sinners, but Scripture reminds us that the message does appear as a stumbling block and folly to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:20-31). But the great promise is that others will be humbled, will be teachable, will think consistently, and will believe upon the loving savior of souls.

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