I am not sure who the author of the following account is, but it is a beautiful chronicling of the intersection of Logotherapeutic meaning and how we, as Jews, understand the concept of hashgacha pratis.
I want to share with you a story tonight. It is a story about a Jewish girl who became an opera singer, performing in front of Adolf Hitler, about a world-renowned Jewish spiritual master and a world-famous psychiatrist – and how their three lives converged. It was a strange phenomenon. The famed professor Victor Frankl, author of the perennial best-seller Man’s Search for Meaning and founder of Logotherapy, would send each year a check to Chabad of Vienna before the High Holidays. Nobody in the Chabad center or in the larger Jewish community could understand why. Here was a man who was not affiliated in any fashion with the Jewish community of Vienna. He did not even attend synagogue even on Yom Kippur. He was married to a very religious Catholic woman. He is not even buried in the Jewish cemetery in Vienna. Yet, he would not miss a single year of sending a contribution to Chabad before Yom Kippur.
The enigma was answered only in 1992.
I Am the First Emissary
Margareta Chajes walked into the office of my colleague, Rabbi Jacob Biederman, the ambassador of Chabad to Austria. Rabbi Biederman built the magnificent “Lauder Campus” in Vienna creating a Jewish renaissance in Austria, the country which gave birth to the greatest monster in Jewish and human history, Adolf Hitler yemach shemo. Margareta, an 85-year-old woman, was dressed very classy, and looked youthful and energetic. She told Rabbi Biederman: “I know you think you are the first shliach, you are the first emissary, of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Vienna; but that is not the case. I have served as the first ambassador of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to the city, many years before you.”
You see, in the 1930’s Margareta was a young Jewish opera singer in Vienna. She even performed at the Saltzburg Opera Festival in 1939 in the presence of Hitler himself. She escaped to the US, but lost her family in the Holocaust. Years later, she paid a visit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe who, she said, became like a father figure to her.
From the Chassidim to the Opera
She began to relate her story. Margareta’s maiden family name was Hager; she was an heir to the famed Chassidic Hager family, producing the Rebbe’s and leaders of the Vishnitz Chassidic group.
As a young girl, she left home. The lifestyle and belief system of her parents did not inspire her. She traveled to the cultural center of the world, Vienna, where Margareta Hager, a granddaughter of the Vishnitzer Chassidic Rebbes, became an opera singer. Margareta performed during the 1930’s in the Salzburger Festspiele (pronounced: Fest Shpile) — 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 affect the Salzburg Festival. All Jewish artists were banned, the leading Jewish conductors and composers were “deleted.” Yet Margareta 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 so majestically was a young Jewess, a scion of a Chassidic family, Margareta 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 liars. The true reason became apparent on September 1st when the German army invaded Poland and unleashed the Second World War – exactly 70 years ago — which exterminated a third of our people, including much of Margareta’s family. On the very night after her performance at the Salzburg Festspiele, close friends smuggled her 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. Margareta settled in Detroit, where she married a fine Jewish young man with the family name Chajes (a grandson of one of the most famous 19th century Polish Rabbis and Talmudic commentator, the Maharatz Chayos, and they gave birth to a beautiful daughter.
Forward the tape recorder of history. It is now many years after the war. Jews were rebuilding their lives and their careers. The rabbis were rebuilding their communities. But one rabbi was thinking of not just of his own community. You see, the daughter of Margareta married a prominent Jewish doctor, who was honored by the dinner of a Chabad institution in the US and his mother-in-law, Margareta, acquired an audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
“I walked into the Rebbe’s room,” related Margareta to Rabbi Biederman, “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: Innocent childhood; leaving home; 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 everything and he absorbed everything. That night I felt like I was given a second father. I felt that the Rebbe adopted me as his daughter.
At the end of my meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I expressed my strong desire to go back and visit Vienna. 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 secretary would give me the details and literature to give to Rabbi Eisenberg). The second person he wanted me to visit I would have to look up myself. The Rebbe said that he was a professor at the University of Vienna and 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 must remain strong and continue his work with vigor and passion. If he continues to remain strong, he will prevail.”
Speaking in German so Margareta 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 a word the Rebbe said. 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.
Margareta traveled to Vienna. Her visit with Rabbi Eisenberg was simple. Meeting Victor Frankl proved far more difficult. When she arrived at the University they informed her that the professor has not shown up in two weeks. There was thus no way she could meet him. After a few failed attempts to locate him at the University, Margareta gave up.
Yet feeling guilty not to fulfill the Rebbe’s request, she decided to violate Austrian manners. 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?”
“Yes, please wait.”
“I saw a room filled with crosses,” Margareta continues her tale. “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.” You see, in 1947 Frankl married his second wife — a very devout Catholic, Eleonore Katharina Schwindt. Victor Frankl showed up a few moments later, and after ascertaining that he was the professor at the University, she said she had regards for him. “He was extremely impatient, and frankly looked quite uninterested. It felt very awkward.” “I have regards from Rabbi Schneerson in Brooklyn, New York,” Margareta told him. “Rabbi Schneerson asked me to tell you in his name that you must not give up. You ought remain strong and continue your work with unflinching determination and you will prevail”.
“Do not fall into despair. March on with confidence,” Rabbi Schneerson said, “and I promise, you will achieve great success.” Suddenly, the uninterested professor broke down. He began sobbing like a baby. He could not calm down. I did not understand what was going on. I just saw him weeping uncontrollably.
“Wow,” Dr. Frankl told me. “This Rabbi from Brooklyn knew exactly when to send you here.” He could not thank her enough. “So you see Rabbi Biederman?” Margareta completed her tale. “I have been an emissary of the Rebbe to Vienna many years before you came around.”
Rabbi Biederman was intrigued. Victor Frankl was now 87 years of age, and was an international celebrity. He had written 32 books which were translated into 30 languages. His book “Man’s Search for Meaning” has been deemed by the Library of Congress as being one of the ten most influential books of the 20th century. What was the secret behind the Rebbe’s message to Victor Frankl?
“I called him immediately,” Biederman recalls. “Do you remember Margarete Chajes?” Rabbi Biederman asked Dr. Frankl. “No,” the professor responds. Well, he can be forgiven. More than 40 years had gone by. “Do you remember a regards she gave you from Rabbi Schneerson in Brooklyn?” Rabbi Biederman asked the professor. Suddenly, a change in his voice. Dr. Frankl melted like butter in a frying pan. “Of course I remember. I will never forget it. My gratitude to Rabbi Schneerson is eternal.” And Victor Frankl began to unveil the “rest of the story,” which captures one of the greatest debates of the last 100 years, encapsulates the essence of Jewishness and reveals to us the secret of Kol Nidrei.
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 (7). 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 (he had one sister who immigrated to Australia before the war.) He returned to Vienna where he taught neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna.
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 Freud. Yet the entire faculty of his department at the University consisted of staunch Freudian scholars. Academically they hunted down Victor Frankl calling his ideas “pseudo-science,” and the joke of the century.
You see, friends, this was no small debate. These two Jews were debating the very meaning of human identity and Victor Frankl had been advocating a view extremely alien to the then-dominant Freudian outlook. In a word: A human being has a SOUL, what we Jews call a Neshamah.
Freud, like most medical schools, 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, creating psychotics, neurotics, and of course psychiatrists. [The difference? The neurotic build castles in the air; the psychotic lives in them, and the psychiatrist? – he collects the rent from both.]
Victor Frankl disagreed. He felt that Freud and his chevrah 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.” Of course, there are many things about our life we have no control over. But there is a dimension of the human self – the essence of human identity — which nothing and nobody can control. It is transcendent by its very “nature” – free, uninhibited, wholesome and deeply spiritual, never defined by life’s circumstances and limitations, but rather free to define them, to define their meaning and message.
A person – he taught — was not a son of his past, but the father of his future.
But in the University in the 40’s and 50’s they defined Frankl’s ideas as fanatic religiosity, raising up all the old, unscientific notions of conscience, religion and guilt. It was unpopular for students to attend his courses.
“The situation was horrible,” Frankl told Rabbi Biederman. “Rabiner Biederman!” Frankl said. He then added these shocking words: “I could survive the German death camps, but I could not survive the horrific derision of my colleagues at the university who would not stop taunting me and undermining my every iota of progress.” “The pressure against me was so severe, that I decided to give up. It was simply too much to bear emotionally. I was drained, exhausted, depressed. I fell into a melancholy. I was watching all of my life-work fade away right before my eyes. One day, sitting at home, I began drafting my resignation papers for my University job. In the battle between Freud and Frankl – Freud would be triumphant. Soul-less-ness would prove more powerful than soul-full-ness.”
“And then suddenly, as I am sitting in my home, depressed, defected, feeling down, in walks a beautiful woman. She gives me regards from a Chassidic master, Rabbi Schneerson from Brooklyn, New York. His message? ‘Don’t dare to give up. Don’t dare to despair. If you will continue your work with absolute determination, you will prevail.’ I could not believe my ears. Somebody in Brooklyn, no less a Chassidic Rebbe, knew about my predicament? And what is more – he cared about my predicament? And what is more – he sent someone to locate me in Vienna to shower me with courage and inspiration? I began to sob. I cried uncontrollably. I was so moved. I felt like a transformed man. That is exactly what I needed to hear. Someone believed in me, in my work, in my contributions, in my ideas about the infinite transcendence and potential of the human person and in my ability to prevail.”
“That very moment I knew that I would not surrender. I tore up my resignation papers. New vitality was blown into me. I was confident, secure, and motivated.” “Indeed,” Victor continues, “his words came true. A few months later, I was given a chair at the University.” And a short while later, Frankl’s magnum opus “Man’s Search for Meaning” was translated into English. It became not only an ongoing bestseller to this very day, but has been deemed as one of the 10 most influential books of the 20th century. The professor’s career began to soar. The once-scoffed-at professor became one of the most celebrated psychiatrists of a generation. “Man’s Search for Meaning” has been translated into 28 languages and has sold over 10 million copies during his life time. Frankl became a guest lecturer at 209 universities on all five continents, held 29 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, and received 19 national and international awards and medals for his work in psychotherapy.
His brand of therapy inspired thousands of other books, seminars, workshops, new-age and spiritual groups, which have all been based on Frankl’s ideas of the unique ability of the human to choose its path discover meaning in every experience. From Scot Peck’s “Road Less Traveled” to Steven Covey’s Seven Habits, and hundreds of other bestsellers during the last 30 years, all of them were students of Victor Frankl’s perspectives.
Victor Frankl concluded his story to Rabbi Beiderman in these words:
“איך וועל אים אייביק דאנקבאר זיין”
“I will forever be grateful to him,” to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
I Love Chabad
Not knowing who he was talking too, Frankl added: “A number of years ago Chabad established itself here in Vienna. I became a supporter. You too should support it. They are the best…” Rabbi Biederman finally understood why he was getting a check in the mail before each Yom Kippur. Their conversation was over.
Tefilin Each Day
But the story is not over. In 2003, Dr. Shimon Cown, a Lubavitch Australian expert on Frankl, went to visit his non-Jewish widow, Elenor, in Vienna. She took out a pair of tefilin and showed it to him. “My late husband would put these on each and every day,” she said to him. Then she took out a pair of tzitzis he made for himself to wear. At night in bed, Victor would recite the book of Tehilim (Psalms). You get it? On Yom Kippur nobody saw him in shul, but a day of tefilin he did not miss. When they asked in interviews whether he believed in G-d, he would usually not give a direct answer. But a day of tefilin he would not miss! What a Jew!
In 1973, an Israeli soldier lay in the hospital, depressed and dejected, saying that he feels like committing suicide. You see, he lost both his legs during the Yom Kippur war. He felt that without legs his future was hopeless. One day, his doctor walked into the room. The soldier was sitting upright, and looked relaxed and happy. The doctor looked at him, and saw that his eyes regained that passionate gaze. What happened? The doctor asked. The soldier pointed to his night table. He has just finished reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” and the stories about how certain Jews behaved in the death camps. He learnt of the capacity of the human being to choose to turn adversity into triumph by discovering the meaning in his life’s experiences. “This transformed me,” the soldier said.
This, friends, was the potential the Rebbe saw when he decided to send Margareta on a mission to Vienna. Imagine: One single message from a man in Brooklyn who cared literally transformed tens of millions of lives! And what was the message? Don’t despair. You will prevail. Because the Lubavitcher Rebbe was determined to get out to the world this message: we really do have a soul; the soul is the deepest and most real part of us; and that we will never be fully alive if we don’t access our souls. What is a soul? A soul is our inner identity, our raison d’être. The soul of music is the composer’s vision that energizes and gives life to the notes played in a musical composition. The actual notes are like the body expressing the vision and feeling of the soul within them. Each soul is the expression of G-d’s intention and vision in creating that particular being. The soul is the very fabric of our being—as conceived by G-d’s vision in wanting us to exist. Each of us is a unique musical note in a grand cosmic composition. It is incumbent upon us to discover our soul—our higher calling—and play its unique music.