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June 18, 2010 1:07 pm

The Rebbe and Viktor Frankl – Part 1

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

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This is a story about three remarkable lives which converged, in the most unlikely of circumstances, with extraordinary results. It is a story about a Jewish girl who became an opera singer, performing in front of Adolf Hitler; about a Jewish spiritual master, and a world-famous psychiatrist.

It was a strange phenomenon. The famed Viennese professor Victor Frankl (1905-1997), author of the perennial best-seller Man’s Search for Meaning and founder of Logotherapy, would send each year a donation to Chabad of Vienna before the High Holidays. This began in 1981 when Rabbi Jacob and Edla Bidermanarrived in Vienna to serve as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Austria and began sending an appeal to all the local Jews along with a Jewish calendar in honor of the upcoming High Holidays.

Nobody in the Chabad center or in the larger Jewish community could understand why. Here was a man who was not affiliated with the Jewish community of Vienna. He did not attend synagogue, not even on Yom Kippur. He was married to a devout Catholic woman. Yet, he would not miss a single year of sending a contribution to Chabad before Yom Kippur.

The enigma was answered only in 1995, two years before Dr. Frankl’s death at the age of 92.

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I Am the First Emissary

Marguerite Kozenn-Chajes (1909-2000) walked into the office of Rabbi Jacob Biderman, the ambassador of Chabad to Austria, who has since built the magnificent “Lauder Campus” in Vienna, infusing Jewish spirit in the country which gave birth to Hitler.
Marguerite, an 85 year old woman, was dressed very classy, and looked youthful and energetic. She told Rabbi Biderman: “I know you think you are the first emissary (shliach) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Vienna; but that is not the case. I have served as the first ambassador of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to this city, many years before you.”

From the Chassidim to the Opera

Marguerite began to relate her story.  Her mother’s maiden name was Hager. The Hagers were no ordinary Jewish family but descendants of the Rebbes of the famed Vishnitz chassidic dynasty. Marguerite was born in Chernowitz, where she studied to become an opera singer, and then moved to Vienna where her career blossomed. She married a Jewish young man with the family name Chajes. They had a daughter. Marguerite performed during the 1930’s in the Salzburger Festspiele—The Salzburg Festival—a prominent festival of music and drama, held each summer within the Austrian town of Salzburg, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

On 12 March 1938, German troops marched into Salzburg. The Anschluss-the annexation of Austria by Germany-was now complete, and Nazi ideology immediately began to affect the Salzburg Festival. All Jewish artists were banned, the leading Jewish conductors and composers were removed. Yet Marguerite Chajes was still performing.
For the Festspiele in August 1939, Hitler himself made an appearance at two Mozart operas. He did not know that one of the young women singing majestically was a young Jewess, a scion of a leading Chassidic family, Marguerite Chajes.

Shortly thereafter, the general management made a surprise announcement that the Festival would terminate on 31 August, a week ahead of the scheduled finale on 8 September. The reason was, supposedly, that the Vienna Philharmonic was required to perform at the Nuremberg Party Convention. But the Germans were brilliant deceivers. The true reason became apparent on 1 September when the German army invaded Poland and unleashed the Second World War, exterminating a third of the Jewish people, including Marguerite’s family.

On the very night after her performance at the Salzburg Festspiele, close friends smuggled her with her husband and daughter out of Germany to Italy. From there she managed to embark on the last boat to the US before the war broke out just a few days later. Marguerite and her family settled in Detroit, where she became founder and president of the Pro Mozart Society of Greater Detroit, and acquired in her circles the name “Mrs. Mozart.”

When she was asked in an interview why does a previously successful soprano work so avidly for the reputation of Mozart? Her answer was: “Because the idea of humanity is nowhere so convincingly expressed as in the work of Mozart.”

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.

“I walked into the Rebbe’s room,” related Marguerite to Rabbi Biderman, “I cannot explain why, but suddenly, for the first time since the Holocaust, I felt that I could cry. I—like so many other survivors who have lost entire families—never cried before. We knew that if we would start crying, we might never stop, or that in order to survive we can’t express our emotions. But at that moment, it was a though the dam obstructing my inner waterfall of tears was removed. I began sobbing like a baby. I shared with the Rebbe my entire story: My innocent childhood; becoming a star in Vienna; performing in front of Hitler; escaping to the US; learning of the death of my closest kin.

“The Rebbe listened. But he not only listened with his ears. He listened with his eyes, with his heart, with his soul, and he took it all in. I shared all of my experiences and he absorbed it all. That night I felt like I was given a second father. I felt that the Rebbe adopted me as his daughter.”

Two Requests

At the end of my meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I expressed my strong desire to go back for a visit to Vienna. Marguerite was, after all, a kind of self-appointed “propaganda activist” for Austria and its music and she craved to visit the city of her youth.

The Rebbe requested from me that before I make the trip, I visit him again.

A short while later, en route to Vienna, I visited the Rebbe. He asked me for a favor: to visit two people during my stay in the city. The first was Viennese Chief Rabbi Akiva Eisenberg, and give him regards from the Rebbe (the Rebbe said that his secretariat would give me the address and literature to give to Rabbi Eisenberg.) The second person he wanted me to visit I would have to look up his address myself. The Rebbe said that he headed the Vienna Policlinic of Neurology. His name was Dr. Victor Frankl.

You Will Prevail

“Send Dr. Frankl my regards,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe said to me, “and tell him in my name that he should not give up. 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.”

Using the German dialect, so Marguerite would understand, the Rebbe spoke for a long time about the messages he wished to convey to Dr. Frankl. Close to forty years later she did not recall all of the details, but the primary point was that Frankl should never give up and he should keep on working to achieve his goals with unflinching courage and determination.

“I didn’t understand what the Rebbe was talking about. Who was Dr. Frankl? Why was the Rebbe sending him this message?  Why through me? I did not have an answer to any of these questions, but I obeyed.”

Marguerite traveled to Vienna. Her visit with Rabbi Eisenberg proved to be a simple task. Meeting Victor Frankl proved far more difficult. When she arrived at the clinic they informed her that the professor has not shown up in two weeks, thus there was no way she can meet him. After a few failed attempts to locate him at the clinic, Marguerite gave up.

Feeling guilty not to fulfill the Rebbe’s request, she decided to violate Austrian mannerisms. She looked up the professor’s private home address, traveled there and knocked at the door.

A woman opened the door. “May I see Herr Frankl please?” asked Marguerite.

“Yes. Please wait.”

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. They had a daughter Gabriella.) “It was obvious that this was a Christian home. I thought to myself, that this must be a mistake; this can’t be the person whom the Lubavitcher Rebbe wanted me to encourage.”

Victor Frankl showed up a few moments later, and after ascertaining that he was the professor, she said she had regards for him.

“He was impatient, and frankly looked quite uninterested. It felt awkward.”

“I have regards from Rabbi Schneerson in Brooklyn, New York,” Marguerite told him. “Rabbi Schneerson asked me to tell you in his name that you must not give up. You ought to remain strong. Continue your work with unflinching determination and resolve and you will prevail.

“Do not fall into despair. March on with confidence, Rabbi Schneerson said, and you will achieve great success.

“Suddenly,” Marguerite related, “the uninterested professor broke down. He began sobbing and would not calm down. I did not understand what was going on.”

“This Rabbi from Brooklyn knew exactly when to send you here,” Dr. Frankl told her. He could not thank her enough for the visit.

“So you see Rabbi Biderman?” Marguerite completed her tale, “I have been an emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Vienna many years before you came around.”

Forever Grateful

Rabbi Biderman was intrigued. Victor Frankl was now 90 years of age, and was an international celebrity. He had written 32 books which were translated into 30 languages. His book “Man’s rch for Meaning” has been deemed by the Library of Congress as one of the ten most influential books of the 20th century. What was the behind the Rebbe’s message to Victor Frankl?

I called him a few days later,” Biderman recalls, “and asked to meet him. But it was difficult for him to meet me in person. So we spoke over the phone. Initially he sounded impatient and somewhat cold.

“Do you remember a regards Marguerite Chajes brought you from Rabbi Schneerson in Brooklyn,” Rabbi Biderman asked Dr. Frankl.

Suddenly, a change in his voice. Dr. Frankl melted. “Of course I remember. I will never forget it. My gratitude to Rabbi Schneerson is eternal.”

And Victor Frankl confirmed the rest of the story Marguerite has already explained to Rabbi Biderman), which captures one of the greatest debates in psychology of the previous century.

In the Camps

Victor Frankl was born in 1905—three years after the Lubavitcher Rebbe—in Vienna. The young Frankl studied neurology and psychiatry, and in 1923 became part of the inner circle of one of the most famous Jews of the time, Dr. Sigmund Freud, the “Father of Psychoanalysis” who lived and practiced in Vienna.

The “Final Solution” did not skip over the Frankl family.Dr. Frankl relates in his memoirs of the war years that he had a chance before the war to go to America to write his books and build a reputation. Yet he was confused. Should he pursue his career and abandon his parents or should he remain with them? He arrived home from the American consulate, visa in hand, to find a large block of marble sitting on the table. Recovered by his father from a local synagogue razed by the Nazis, it was, Frankl recalled, a piece from a tablet bearing the first letters of the Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” He let his visa lapse and stayed.

Victor’s mother and father were murdered in Auschwitz; his first Jewish wife, pregnant, was murdered in Bergen Belsen. All of his siblings and relatives were exterminated. Professor Frankl was a lone survivor in Auschwitz (he had one sister who immigrated to Australia before the war.) After the war, he returned to Vienna where he taught neurology and psychiatry.

The Great Debate

Already before the war, and even more so during his three years in the Nazi death camps, Victor Frankl developed ideas which differed radically from Sigmund Freud. Yet the faculty of his department and the academic elite in post-war Vienne consisted of staunch Freudian scholars (“Freudesten,” in Frankl’s expression.) They defined Frankl’s ideas as “pseudo-science.”

Freud emphasized the idea that all things come down to physiology. The human mind and heart could be best understood as a side effect of brain mechanisms.  Humans are like machines, responding to stimuli from within or from without, a completely physical, predictable and godless machine, albeit a very complicated machine.

Victor Frankl disagreed. He felt that Freud and his colleagues reduced the human being to a mere mechanical creature depriving him or her of his true essence. “If Freud were in the concentration camps,” Frankl wrote, “he would have changed his position. Beyond the basic natural drives and instincts of people, he would have encountered the human capacity for self-transcendence. Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright, with the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

“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 may have been few in number, but 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.'” A person was not a son of his past, but the father of his future.

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.

But in the Academic Vienna of the 40’s and 50’s they defined Frankl’s ideas as fanatic religiosity, bringing back the old, unscientific notions of conscience, religion and guilt. It was unpopular for students to attend his courses; his lectures were shunned.

“My position was extremely difficult,” Frankl shared with Rabbi Biderman. “Rabiner Biderman!” Frankl said, “I could survive the German death camps, but I could not survive the derision of my colleagues who would not stop taunting me and undermining my success.”

The pressure against Dr. Frankl was so severe, that he decided to give up. It was simply too much to bear. He was watching his life-work fade away. One day, sitting at home, he began drafting his resignation papers and decided to relocate to Australia where his sister lived. In the battle between Freud and Frankl, Freud would, at last, be triumphant. Soullessness would prove more powerful than soulfulness.

Hope & Resolve

And then suddenly, as he was sitting at his home, downtrodden, in walked a beautiful woman. She sent him regards from a Chassidic master, Rabbi Schneerson from Brooklyn, New York. His message? “Do not dare give up. Do not dare despair. If you will continue your work with absolute determination, you will prevail.”

Frankl was stunned. Somebody in Brooklyn, no less a Chassidic Rebbe, knew about his predicament? And what is more—cared about his predicament? And what is more—sent someone to locate him in Vienna to shower him with courage and inspiration?

Frankl began to cry. He was deeply moved and felt like a transformed man. It was exactly what he needed to hear. Someone believed in him, in his work, in his contributions, in his ideas about the infinite transcendence and potential of the human person.

“That very moment I knew that I would not surrender. I tore up my resignation papers. New vitality was blown into me. I grew confident and motivated.”

To be continued in next issue.

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