Austrian Jews Respond to Nazism, Part 2

Jewish Identity, the Holocaust: Reflections on Bettelheim, Améry, and Frankl.

Posted Jul 03, 2018

Part 2 of 3

Frankl’s response and subsequent experience to the rise of Nazism differs significantly from Bettelheim.

Frankl’s father was a member of the civil service, and before the deprivation of the First World War remained Kosher. Frankl appears to have a typical upbringing for a middle-class Jewish family from the Leopoldstadt (the Jewish section of Vienna). We also know that in the late 1920s, Frankl apparently went through a self-described “atheistic period” before discovering the more or less Catholic phenomenology of Max Scheler, which apparently brought him out of this period. In 1930, Frankl earned his Medical Degree from the University of Vienna, and from 1933-37, he was employed as a psychiatrist at Am Steinhof.

It was at Am Steinhof that he held a Yom Kippur celebration for around 40 schizophrenics, which was directed by Rabbi Bela Fischer. Frankl described how when the Rabbi began prayers, the catatonic patients took notice, and the Rabbi claimed only during the First World War did he ever have such a moving religious experience.

Unlike Bettelheim (and, as we shall see in part three, Améry), Frankl didn’t immediately flee with the Anschluss. At the time, Frankl had lost his position at Am Steinhof and was just beginning his private practice. He had also established a connection with the Goering Institute (which had the sanction of the Nazi state) by participating in the Vienna seminars of the Institute and by writing an article for their journal the Zentrallblatt. (See previous post).

In terms of his politics, Frankl’s Gauachten (the file the Gestapo kept on him) reveals he joined the Fatherland Front in February of 1934 and was described as “politically perfect” (politisch Hinsicht). Why this is in his Gestapo file, and why he was considered politically perfect, is not exactly clear. It is also likely that Frankl’s file was “cleansed” after the war, because although Frankl describes being interviewed by the Gestapo at least twice before he was deported, there are no documents in his file. In terms of his Fatherland Front membership, it is also possible that as a state employee at Am Steinhof he may have been automatically signed up for the Fatherland Front—but whatever the case, unlike Bettelheim, he was not sent to Dachau on political grounds. From all the evidence, it appears Frankl had moved from left to right in terms of his politics. In May of 1938, Frankl applied for an immigration visa, but when it arrived in 1941, he declined on account of wanting to stay to help his parents. At this time, he was also employed at the Rothchild hospital.

Frankl’s Judaism

After the Holocaust, Frankl was initially very public about his personal religious commitment. But during the 1960s, when his form of psychotherapy (logotherapy) gained popularity amongst pastoral psychologists and ministers, Frankl backed off his public religiosity and claimed logotherapy must remain open to everyone, even atheists. This led to a great deal of anxiety over the role of religion in logotherapy. Was the founder also a believer? Was logotherapy just another form of religion? Was it more in line with Judaism or Christianity? Also, as a survivor of the Holocaust, an event that caused many intellectuals to question the covenant between God and man, the question of Frankl’s personal religious commitment took on an important historical dimension. However, when his official biographer, Haddon Klingberg, prompted Frankl to discuss religion, he replied, “Do we have to confess everything?…Ja ,Ja. I started doing the prayers when I was required to as part of my confirmation at the age of thirteen.” Apparently Frankl was a lifelong privately practicing Jew, and Klingberg describes, “Even to his wife Elly he did not speak often of his faith, but she said, “There were times when I was sure that I was living with a holy man.” According to another biographer, Alfred Längle, Frankl “held to the Jewish faith staunchly,” but “did not often go to synagogue, perhaps twice a year.” Längle also describes how although Frankl was critical of Christianity’s mandate to accept Christ, he nevertheless felt affinity for Christianity because of the “positive value placed on suffering.” Many commentators have noticed the affinity between Frankl’s logotherapy, especially his attitudinal values of suffering proudly, and the Christian (one might add especially Catholic) worldview. Also we should note that as a Jew, it is not surprising that Frankl felt somewhat isolated from Viennese society. According to Klingberg, Frankl had “mixed feelings” about Vienna, because he had had been “disregarded and resented.”

Rabbi Reauven Bulka (a quasi-disciple of Frankl in North America) claimed this about Frankl:

     Frankl was "courted" by the Christian community, to the extent that rumors were afloat for a while that he had converted. He vehemently denied this.

I actually saw the tefflin that he wore. They were worn out.

Bulka also “vividly remember a call I received from him around 1982, from San Diego, in the middle of Passover, when he informed me, with pride, that he had done a Passover Seder for the first time since the end of the war. That is a long hiatus, of close to 40 years. And the Passover Seder is one of the main staples, so his not doing it reflected some disaffection with Judaism at least.” Also, he stated, “It is clear from his writings that he was not enamored with the Jewish community, certainly not the psychological group, whom he felt were more loyal to Freud than to Moses. So, if you add it up, he felt that Jews shunned him, but he was not about to embrace another religion, leaving him with no link to established religion. But beginning with the Seder, that changed, and the Jewish connection was, to put it in an odd way, resurrected.”

Frankl’s son in law describe his religious sentiment in these terms:

     [Frankl] never talked about his own religiosity, and I wish this to be respected. However, I can say that he always had the Psalms on his bedside, could freely quote from them, and that he held the big holidays and his own memorial days including his being called to the Torah on certain days. I like to remember the Chanukkah evenings to which I, the Catholic-raised young man, was invited. Also, I noticed he regularly withdrew for prayer, putting on a set of old, worn tefflin.