When Viktor Frankl arrived into Auschwitz concentration camp, he still had hope.
Most people did, he recalls. Everybody on the train knew what Auschwitz was, and what it meant for the passengers. Many had been to other concentration camps before.
And yet, most people genuinely believed that somehow, it might all end up being okay.
They were quickly dispelled of that belief. As soon as the train stopped, the passengers were forced into a line. An SS officer in charge would inspect them, one by one. A lazy gesture to the right meant “suitable for work.” A lazy gesture to the left meant the gas chambers. Or, the “bath.”
90% of the arrivals were sent to the left. They were poisoned and burned within hours. It was still dawn at Auschwitz.
The name of the game, Frankl and his colleagues quickly learned, was to look fit for work. That’s how you stayed alive in Auschwitz.
If a guard sees you limping or taking a break too many, they’d calmly look at the number tatooed on your arm and let you finish your work. Then, usually by the next morning, someone would quietly take you to the gas chambers.
“But one thing I beg of you: shave daily,” Frankl was told on one of his first nights by a more experienced prisoner. “If at all possible, even if you have to use a piece of glass to do it…”
See, shaving made you look younger. Your skin looked healthier and your overall impression was more youthful. Shaving, Frankl recalls in Man’s Search for Meaning, was even more important than eating.
Food was the other thing that could save your life. It’s hard to look fit for work on a lump of bread and a bowl of watery soup per day. Currying favors with superiors for an extra calorie here and there could very well be the difference between life and death.
But it wasn’t the body that gave out the quickest. It was the mind.
If the physical punishment hurt, the mental insult injured. Frankl remembers one particular time when he was digging frozen soil for a water pipe. Just as he stopped for a breath, a guard turned at him, thinking he was slacking.