My father spent two years in concentration camps—first Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, then a smaller camp in the Black Forest. No, that does not mean I am Jewish—he was a Catholic Pole living in Warsaw, turned in to the Gestapo by an orphan boy he had assisted and arrested for his role in helping to publish an underground newspaper.
I talked with him extensively about his experiences over the years, and he once said that if I really wanted to know how he related to the whole thing I should read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, which closely resembled his own perspective. I have since read it more than once, and have found its central message remarkably consonant with that of Buddhism.
One of the themes I remember my father talking about was the deep challenge of making decisions. In the camps one felt like a pawn in a vast machine—ultimately, whether one lived or died was entirely outside one’s own control. As Dr. Frankl put it:
The camp inmate was frightened of making decisions and of taking any sort of initiative whatsoever. This was the result of a strong feeling that fate was one’s master, and that one must not try to influence it in any way, but instead let it take its own course.
And yet my father’s life was saved on many occasions by his own initiative: managing to volunteer for a more sheltered job when near defeat from the exhaustion of hard labor; trading several days’ food for a typhus vaccination; bargaining his number off the list of a transport headed to an extermination camp; hiding from work in the latrine when overcome with dysentery (facing instant execution if caught); there were many such examples. As Dr. Frankl wrote, “At times, lightning decisions had to be made, decisions which spelled life or death.” The most important decision faced by all the prisoners, however, was one even more basic and existential than any of these:
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