Art Inside Auschwitz

It's Christmas Break, and while I probably ought to be reading something cheery and seasonal, instead I've been re-reading Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl's memoir about his harrowing experiences in the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps during World War II.  Since he had practiced psychiatry before the war, Frankl had a unique perspective on both his own suffering and his fellow prisoners' suffering.  The first part of his book describes in gritty detail the life of the prisoners, and the second part lays out Frankl's psychological theory.  Frankl's profound personal suffering gives his words gravity, and it is hard to ignore even the most counterintuitive of his insights.  

One of those insights is that the prisoners' suffering did not blunt their sensitivity to beauty but rather enhanced their experience of the wonders of nature.  Frankl describes it this way:

As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor - or maybe because of it - we were carried away by nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.

It's hard to know exactly what these men saw, but it was probably something like this picture of the Berchtesgaden valley near Salzburg.  The view is breathtaking indeed, but would it really have been even more stunning to a person who was cold, starving, crammed into a foul-smelling train, and expecting to die soon?

Frankl tells us it was.  He also tells another story in which one of his friends drew his attention to a view which reminded him of an Albrecht Durer watercolor.  The idea that one could even think about watercolors from the Renaissance at such a time is hard to conceive of, but Frankl tells us just that. 

In camp, too, a man might draw the attention of a comrade working next to him to a nice view of the setting sun shining through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods (as in the famous water color by Durer), the same woods in which we had built an enormous, hidden munitions plant.
 Albrecht Durer,  Pond in the Wood,  Watercolor, 1496

Albrecht Durer, Pond in the Wood, Watercolor, 1496

In some cases, experiencing beauty seems to give the prisoners enough energy to go on.  Frankl tells of one evening when they were all lying on the floor of their hut, dead tired and motionless.  And yet when another prisoner ran into their hut and told them that there was a beautiful blood red sunset outdoors, they pulled themselves up to go see what all the fuss was about.  After several minutes of silently standing outdoors in presence of this glory one prisoner remarked, "How beautiful the world could be!"

In another story, Frankl recounts a day when he was out in the trenches and, in his words, "struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying."  He imagined that he was speaking with his wife from whom he had been separated.  While he was conversing with her in this way, he had a spiritual experience of beauty.  He said:

I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’ - and the light shineth in the darkness.

This phrase that Frankl uses, et lux in tenebris lucet, is taken from the Gospel of John.  The full sentence in English is "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."  The light here is a reference to Christ.  Truthfully I'm not sure why Frankl, a Jewish prisoner, chose words from the New Testament, but regardless of his reasons, I think it is clear why they fit his situation.  There he was in place where darkness seemed to have overcome anything resembling light or hope, and yet he was able to hang on to a sense of meaning and purpose.  The darkness had not overcome the light.

 Earlier I said that this book is an unusual choice for this time of the year, but maybe it is not.  Advent is the season when Christians celebrate the fact that, as the prophet Isaiah wrote, "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned."  The fact that prisoners suffering in concentration camps were able to see beauty in the commingling reds and blues of a sunset is exactly what this time of year is about.  It's about hope and comfort entering even the bleakest corners of the world.  

In one of his final stories about the prisoners' relationship with art and beauty, Frankl writes about the artwork the prisoners themselves made while they were imprisoned.  Naturally they had limited resources, but they nevertheless managed to be creative.  Sometimes they would clear out a hut, create a stage with a couple wooden benches pushed together, and have a show.  People recited poetry, sang songs, and told jokes.  These events were so important to some prisoners that, in spite of their malnourishment and fatigue, they would forgo a meal in order to attend a gathering.

For those of us whose refrigerators are stocked with rich, spicy eggnog and expensive Christmas hams, this is a hard thing to imagine.  We are rarely in the position of choosing between food, the company of friends, and things of beauty.  We can, it seems, have it all.  And yet, even in our warm, cheerily decorated homes, we know a little bit about the darkness that is sometimes a part of life, and so it is not surprising to us that there are things we as humans need more than physical sustenance.  We need beauty, hope, meaning, and art.  We need friends who point out the the things around us that are worth looking at.  We need opportunities to use our creativity.  Most of all, we need light in the darkness.