The Rebbe’s Communiqué to the Founder of Logotherapy
As Told by Jacob Biderman, Chabad Shliach in Vienna, Austria
Dr. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), a Viennese psychotherapist, spent three long years in Hitler’s concentration camps – and lost his parents, brother, and pregnant wife to the “Final Solution” – but did not lose his vision of human dignity.
In the first half of his best-selling book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he describes his harrowing experience in the camps and considers how it was that some of the inmates seemed to be able to transcend their surroundings. He writes: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread . . . they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms¬to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
He concludes that even in the most severe suffering, the human being can find meaning and thus hope. In his words, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”
After the war, Frankl returned to Vienna, where he developed and lectured about his own approach to psychological healing. He believed that people are primarily driven by a “striving to find meaning in one’s life,” and that it is this sense of meaning that enables us to overcome painful experiences. In the second half of his book, Frankl outlines the form of psychotherapy that he developed based on these beliefs, called logotherapy¬the treatment of emotional pain by helping people find meaning in their lives.
More about Viktor Frankl, and the impact he had in the area of mental health, later in this article.
I arrived in Vienna together with my wife, Edla – in 1981, to serve as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Austria. We immediately started serving the local Jewish community by arranging Torah classes for children, programs for adults and youth, and the like.
We were aware that the famous Dr. Viktor Frankl resided in the city, but as he never associated with the Jewish community in Vienna, we did not have the opportunity to make his acquaintance. He certainly never stepped foot in the Chabad center we established.
How surprised we were when Dr. Frankl responded with a contribution to our annual appeal, which we sent out to all the local Jews along with a Jewish calendar in honor of the upcoming High Holidays. He continued this practice every year thereafter¬I never met him or spoke to him, but his donation always came.
We did not understand, until one day in 1995 when all became clear. It started with a visit I received from a youthful, energetic 85-year-old woman, who introduced herself as Marguerite Chajes.
“Perhaps you think you are the first emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Vienna,” Marguerite told me, “but that is not entirely the case. You see, I performed an important mission here on the Rebbe’s behalf long before you arrived in Austria.”
Her mother’s maiden name was Hager. The Hagers were no ordinary Jewish family but relatives of the Rebbes of the famed Vishnitz chassidic dynasty. Marguerite was born in Chernowitz, but spent her childhood in Vienna. Marguerite became an opera singer; she married and had a daughter.
Just a few days before World War II, friends helped her escape, together with her husband and daughter, across the border to Italy, where they made it onto on the last boat to the US. Marguerite and her family settled in Detroit. Unfortunately, the rest of her family remained behind and perished.
Years passed. Marguerite’s daughter grew up and married a doctor, who, in 1959, was honored at the dinner of a Chabad institution. In conjunction with that occasion, Marguerite had an audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.
“I cannot explain why,” Marguerite said, “but while in the Rebbe’s room I suddenly broke down in tears. I felt that it was fine to cry. The dam holding back my river of tears gave way. Like many Holocaust survivors, I had never cried before. If I were to start crying, I felt that I might never stop… I always felt that I have to keep my emotions in check in order to be able to function as a human being.”
Marguerite told the Rebbe her entire life story. But more than that, a special relationship was born that night in the Rebbe’s room in Brooklyn. Marguerite left that audience feeling that she had been given a second father.
A Favor for the Rebbe
Marguerite had also mentioned to the Rebbe that for some time now she had had a yearning to go back and visit her native land. The Rebbe requested that in the event that she would make such a trip, she should come see him again beforehand. Not much thereafter, Marguerite scheduled a trip to Vienna, and, of course, first came to the Rebbe to inform him of her plan.
How surprised Marguerite was when the Rebbe asked her if she could do for him a favor. The Rebbe wanted her to visit two people in Vienna on his behalf. One of them was Dr. Viktor Frankl, who headed the Vienna Policlinic of Neurology.
“Please send Dr. Frankl my regards. And pass the following message on to him: that I said that he should be strong and continue his work, with complete resolve. No matter what, he should not give up. If he remains strong and committed, he will certainly prevail.”
Arranging a meeting with Frankl was no simple task. Arriving at the clinic, she was told that the professor hadn’t shown up in two weeks. With effort, though, Marguerite found Frankl’s home address and made her way there. Marguerite knocked on the door, and it was opened by a woman. The first thing she caught sight of in the home was a cross, hanging prominently on the wall. (In 1947 Frankl married his second wife, Eleonore Katharina Schwindt, a devout Catholic.) Taken aback, and already wondering whether this was a mistake, if perhaps this wasn’t the person the Rebbe had wanted her to visit, she nevertheless asked whether there was a Herr Professor Frankl in the house.
Marguerite was asked to wait. Minutes later, a slightly annoyed-looking and apparently uninterested Dr. Frankl appeared. Marguerite, feeling very self-conscious, told him that she had regards for him “from Rabbi Schneerson of Brooklyn, New York.”
Marguerite steeled herself and continued: “Rabbi Schneerson, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, sent a message for you: Remain strong! Continue your work with complete resolve. Don’t give up. Ultimately you will prevail.”
The hitherto apathetic doctor suddenly transformed before a shocked Marguerite’s eyes. Tears filled his eyes. After composing himself somewhat he thanked Marguerite, and in the course of the ensuing conversation he told her that he had been planning to abandon his efforts to fight on behalf of his theory and philosophy, and actually was considering departing Vienna¬but now he would reconsider…
“So Rabbi Biderman,” Marguerite concluded, “now you understand what I meant when I said that I served as the Rebbe’s emissary to Vienna way before you arrived!”
The Other Side of the Story
Marguerite’s story fascinated me. What had the Rebbe’s message meant to Viktor Frankl?
What I had not known beforehand, but what Marguerite now explained, is that Frankl had not always been lauded and respected, as he is today. In his youth, Frankl had been a young colleague of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. But his beliefs challenged their teachings. Whereas the dominant view at the time was that people are driven by the need to gratify physical needs, a “will to pleasure,” he saw humankind differently. In Frankl’s view, we are unique beings, driven by a “will to meaning,” possessing free choice and the capacity for self-transcendence. “Between stimulus and response . . . is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Frankl had begun to develop these radical ideas before the war and during his time in the Nazi death camps, seeing how some prisoners were able to eke out a sense of purpose and maintain a positive outlook even there, he had solidified them. Now he found himself a lone dissenter. All around him were loyal Freudian scholars. He was taunted, and his lectures were shunned.
Understandably, Frankl experienced incredible emotional turmoil. The pressures were so great that he decided to simply give up. He decided to move to Australia, to join his sister who lived there. He was emotionally spent, and understandably dejected at the prospect of his life’s work going to waste.
When Margaret Chajes arrived at Frankl’s home, she told me, he had been sitting and drafting his immigration papers. She brought him a message from a Rebbe, a young chassidic master from overseas he’d never heard of before. “Don’t give up,” she told him. “You will prevail.”
Frankl was beyond astonished. How in the world did this Rebbe know about his situation? And why should this chassidic rebbe care about him or the perpetuation of his philosophy?
It was exactly the shot in the arm that Frankl needed, and the timing could not have been better. Instead of joining his sister in Australia, he continued his practice as a psychiatrist and went back to his work, full of renewed motivation, vigor, and optimism.
A Corroborating Conversation
Marguerite’s story certainly explained the annual contribution that Frankl would send to support the Rebbe’s institutions in Vienna. And hearing the story stirred me to contact Dr. Frankl himself, thinking perhaps he’d have something to add.
A few days later, I called Frankl and asked to meet him..
But it was difficult for him to meet me in person. This was 1995, you must understand, and Viktor Frankl was 90 years of age. So we spoke over the phone. “Do you remember Marguerite Chajes?” I asked. Naturally he did; she had become a friend of the family.
Throughout this short conversation, however, Frankl sounded impatient.
“Do you remember a regards she gave you from Rabbi Schneerson in Brooklyn?” I asked him.
A change in his demeanor. Now Frankl responded warmly: “Ah… of course! Can I ever forget it? The Rabbi came to my aid during a very difficult time in my life. I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude!”
The Pursuit of Meaning Comes into Vogue
What, indeed, was the result of Marguerite’s mission?
Well, it was soon after that, in 1959, that Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” (see sidebar), was translated into English (at first it was translated under a different title), became a bestseller and classic psychiatric text, and propelled him into the international limelight. Frankl became a guest lecturer at universities on five continents. He received honorary doctorates from universities around the world, and national and international awards and medals for his pivotal work in psychotherapy. Before his death in 1997, his magnum opus had been translated into dozens of languages and sold millions of copies.
His brand of therapy inspired thousands of other books, seminars, workshops, new-age and spiritual groups, all based on Frankl’s idea of the human being’s unique ability to make choices and pursue his own meaning. From Scot Peck’s “Road Less Traveled” to Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits,” and hundreds of other bestsellers during the last 30 years, all are variations of Viktor Frankl’s perspective.
So many millions of people benefited – directly or indirectly – from the Rebbe’s communiqu to Dr. Frankl. I sometimes shudder when I imagine what would have occurred if not for that perfectly-timed message.
More Details Come to Light
Haddon Klingberg, author of When Life Calls Out To Us: the love and lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl, the only authorized biography of Viktor and Eleonore (“Elly”), writes:
“…after his death I asked Elly if he actually made these prayers every day. ‘Absolutely. He never missed a day. Every morning for more than fifty years. But nobody knew this.’ As they traveled the globe Viktor took the phylacteries with them, and everywhere, every morning, he prayed. He uttered memorized words of Jewish prayers and Psalms…
“(After Viktor died I saw his phylacteries for the first time. Elly had placed them in the little cubicle with his few simple possessions…)”
Indeed, Frankl’s non-Jewish son-in-law confirmed this fact to me: “My father-in-law would close himself off in a room every day for a little while. Once I opened the door and saw him with black boxes on his head and hand. He was annoyed about my intruding on his privacy. When he was taken to the hospital, however, his practice of putting on tefillin became public.”
* * *
I’ve often wondered why the Rebbe took an interest in the success of Viktor Frankl, a secular and intermarried Jew, and sought him out to offer encouragement and support. It would seem that the Rebbe did this not only out of personal concern for Frankl’s welfare, but also in order to advance a philosophy which he felt ultimately fosters belief in G d, a spiritual perspective, and good values. The fact that this constitutes the real cure to a suffering soul is something the Rebbe repeatedly taught us.
I can’t help but marvel over the Rebbe’s wide reach, broad-mindedness, and remarkably visionary approach.
* * *
In a letter dated June 19, 1969 (3rd Tammuz, 5729), the Rebbe writes (free translation):
…I would like to take this opportunity to add another point, that the medical condition of ….. proves (if proof is needed in this area) the awesome power of faith – especially when applied and expressed in practical action, community work, observance of mitzvot, etc. – to fortify a person’s emotional tranquility minimizing and even elimination of inner conflicts, as well as complaints one may have to his surroundings, etc.
This is in spite the theory that faith and religion demand the discipline to restrain and suppress natural instincts and drives, and is, therefore, generally undesirable, and particularly in the case of a person who requires treatment for emotional issues.
I particularly took interest in the writing of Dr. Frankl (from Vienna in this matter. To my surprise, however, his approach has apparently not been appropriately disseminated and appreciated. Although one can find numerous reasons as to why his ideas are not widely accepted – including the fact that is related to the personal lifestyle exemplified by the treating doctor – nevertheless, the question still remains…
You can read this story at Chabad.org by following this link