The life and journey of David Guttman, world's foremost logotherapist

Like Frankl, David Guttmann has published many books. The latest is Finding Meaning in Life, at Midlife and Beyond – Wisdom and Spirit from Logotherapy.

 Professor Emeritus David Guttmann (photo credit: Courtesy David Guttmann)
Professor Emeritus David Guttmann
(photo credit: Courtesy David Guttmann)

Professor David Guttmann is a well-known logotherapist in Israel and beyond. A specialist in social work and education, he entered the field of logotherapy through his close friendship with renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, whose book Man’s Search for Meaning has influenced many thousands of people worldwide. Logotherapy is a therapeutic approach that helps people find personal meaning in life. It is a form of psychotherapy that is focused on the future and on one’s ability to endure hardship and suffering through a search for purpose.

David Guttmann (who was given the name of Andrew at birth) was born in 1932 in Devavanya, a small town in Hungary. He was one of three children – two sisters and himself. The family had a small bakery and conditorei [pastry shop], but this was forced to close when the Germans arrived in Hungary. Jews were obliged to wear the Yellow Star. Guttmann, who had been able to attend school, was summarily expelled on account of the Yellow Star. His father was forced into a labor unit and transported to the Russian front, where his “job” was to seek and collect land mines. He was never seen again; but before he left his family, he managed to send them two challot. This, together with the memory of him, was the family’s sole inheritance.

On March 19, 1944, German tanks, artillery and motorized infantry entered Budapest, and the night bombing of the city began. In October, governor Miklos Horty announced on the State Radio that Hungary would cease military activities, believing that by so doing, the country would be free of the German occupation. But in fact, Horty was forced to resign and cede control of Hungary to Ferenc Szalasi, infamous leader of the fascist, pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party.

In October 1944, the ghetto in Budapest was established. Jews were forced to move there and hand over all their valuables, on pain of death. Dead bodies were already lying in the street. Guttmann’s mother, who had sewn her wedding ring into the hem of her skirt, was persuaded to hand it over at the pleas of her daughter.

Existence in the ghetto was a nightmare. Several families had to share a single room. There was no lighting, no living space, no food, no freedom, no running water, no heating, and no hope. The weather was freezing, with temperatures falling below 20٥ centigrade. People froze to death. But one positive aspect of the cold was that it helped prevent the outbreak of disease.

 The ‘Exodus,’ which was forced into the port of Haifa and taken over by the British. (credit: WIKIPEDIA)
The ‘Exodus,’ which was forced into the port of Haifa and taken over by the British. (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

On one occasion, Guttmann saw a carrot lying in the street. He bent to pick it up, then noticed that a German soldier was watching, sub-machine gun aimed at him. Convinced that he was about to die, Guttmann looked up at the soldier and smiled. To his amazement, the soldier smiled back and waved him on. That was an episode Guttmann would never forget.

Adolf Eichmann was sent to oversee the annihilation of Jews in Hungary. Over 700,000 Jews had been incarcerated in the Budapest ghetto, but more than half were killed within a year, mainly by being gassed in Auschwitz. It was Eichmann’s ultimate intention to destroy the ghetto, probably by burning it, with all those left still inside.

People from several countries attempted to work against the annihilation of Jews in Hungary. For example, Karoly Szabo, an employee of the Swedish embassy in Budapest, managed to rescue 36 kidnapped employees from the embassy building, which had been occupied by the Arrow Cross Party. It was Szabo’s intention to save the ghetto in 1945. He attempted to convince Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, by means of favors and information, to counter Eichmann’s plans to destroy the ghetto. However, Wallenberg disappeared, and to this day no one knows what happened to him.

Switzerland also worked to try to save the Jews in Hungary. On one occasion, members of the Swiss Red Cross wanted to take children to a safe house in Budapest. Guttmann’s mother did not want to let her children go but was persuaded by the Red Cross to take David and his sisters with them. They were taken to the safe house, but after only a day there the youngest sister, who wanted to go back to her mother, began to cry. The Guttmannn children managed to leave the place during the night and walked back to the ghetto in the darkness and freezing cold. When they arrived there, the guard at the gate let them in, saying, “You must be mad to return here.” Later, it became known that on the following night, thugs of the Arrow Cross party, which was violently fascistic and antisemitic, had broken into the safe house and marched the occupants to the frozen Danube River, where they were all murdered. The Guttmann siblings felt that fate had played its part and saved their lives.

On October 29, 1944, the Soviet and Romanian armies commenced an attack against Nazi Germany and their allies in Hungary. It was the most difficult and complicated offensive ever carried out by the Soviet army in Central Europe. In December, the siege of Budapest began. Ferocity of the fighting increased, but by January it was understood that the war was coming to an end. On February 13, 1945, the city fell to the allies. The Soviets claimed that the Germans and the Hungarians had lost 49,000 soldiers, that 110,000 were captured, and 269 tanks were destroyed.

When the Russians finally liberated Budapest, they rescued the remaining members of the ghetto. Fear of the Russians was even greater than fear of the Germans, but a Russian soldier who entered the ghetto offered pieces of black bread to the people there and said, “Nyet Nyemestov” (No Germans”). However, food was still unavailable. Guttmann, despite objections from his mother, joined others in cutting flesh from a dead horse lying in the street.

Surviving the Holocaust and making the voyage to the Land of Israel

In May 1945, Guttmann and his sisters were moved to a children’s home run by the Zionist group of Gordonia Maccabi Hatzair, and supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which intended to save as many Jewish children as they could.

For the first time since the war had started, the children had pleasant accommodation, good food and clean clothing. They started learning Hebrew, and there were daily activities. Guttmann began to move away from his previously religious upbringing, and, in the absence of his father, refused to be bar mitzvah.

The children holidayed near Lake Balaton, where Guttmann learned to swim and play soccer, and joined other boys in stealing fruit from a neighbor’s garden.

In December 1945, the family boarded a train at the Southern station of Budapest and traveled to the Austro-Hungarian border, making sure that no one else entered their carriage.

Vienna, which had been almost completely destroyed, was then divided into four zones – American, British, French, and Russian. The city of which Guttmann’s mother had spoken about, the city of Stefan Zweig, Franz Werfel, Beethoven and Mozart, was no longer there.

The 250 children of the group set up by the Joint [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] had to wait for the trip to Palestine to take place. They celebrated a Passover Seder in Bayerisch Gmain. There were visits to Bechtesgaden and Eagle’s Nest, where Hitler had his house, but the prospect of Palestine was always on their minds.

When the time to move on came, the children, their caretakers, and Guttmann’s mother traveled in American trucks to a Mediterranean port where 4,500 people boarded an old refurbished ship. Bowing to British pressure, the French authorities refused a pilot ship to assist the ship out of the harbor, but the captain, a member of the Hagana, took the matter into his own hands. The long-awaited voyage to Palestine began, and the ship sailed eastward.

It was now July 1947, several months prior to the vote at the United Nations that declared the partition of the British Mandate into a Jewish and an Arab state. There were British aircraft in the sky, and British Royal Navy destroyers tracking the ship.

The captain called for people who could read and write Hebrew. Guttmann and a young friend responded. They were asked to write on a white cloth a sign that read:



This the boys did, adding another sign to it:

BEVIN, YOU ARE DOG! (Ernest Bevin was the architect of British Policy in Palestine. As secretary of foreign affairs in the British government at the time, he was the author of the White Paper which prevented the entrance of Jewish refugees from Europe into Palestine. He supported Arab nationalism and was widely known as a rabid antisemite.)

Sitting on deck, Guttmann suffered a second-degree sunburn on his back, and to this day he bears the scars.

When the Exodus reached the shores of Palestine, it was surrounded by British destroyers, which barred its landing. A fierce battle broke out between the passengers and British personnel, who forcibly transferred the Jewish refugees onto another ship – the Ocean Vigor – which then sailed to Germany. There, they were provided with food, clothing, and medical supplies, and were quartered in what was basically a concentration camp in Poppendorf and Am Stau.

In October 1947, Guttmann was called into an office, where he was given certificate number 2188, which he was told to always keep on hand:

The holder is a Maapil of Exodus 1947;

he/she was brought by force back to Germany from Haifa,

and is in exile on his way back to Eretz Israel.

Issued in exile camp Poppendorf

Date: 26.X.47.

Signature of the Camp Committee

The stamp on the certificate depicts a ship (the Exodus) breaking through a fence.

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted in favor of partition of Palestine into a Jewish and a Palestinian state, shortly after which the British mandate over Palestine came to an end.

Life in Israel and working in social work, logotherapy

Early in 1948 a decision was made to allow those children holding certificates to leave the camp; but within a couple of hours of doing so, they were transported to another concentration camp – Bergen Belsen – with its terrible Nazi history. They stayed there for several weeks until eventually they were transferred onto the ship Argentina, which docked in Alexandria in April 1948.

A month later, on April 12, 1948, Guttmann and the other children arrived in their new home, in Israel. On May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence. Two days later, five Arab nations launched an attack on the new state.

Although he arrived in Israel, Guttmann’s struggles were not over. These were no longer struggles for survival but to find himself and meaning in his life. He had to orient himself to a new country, a new culture, a new language. There were new problems, but he faced them with courage and intent. He lived and worked on a kibbutz but left to attend university and develop his own direction.

His first degree was in social work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, He then continued his studies toward a PhD at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He worked as a teacher and specialized in gerontology. Between 1987 and 1992, he was head of the School of Social Work at the University of Haifa. Having retired, he is now professor emeritus there.

During his sabbatical years, he worked with the heads of the Joint in Budapest to create social and cultural services for elderly survivors of the Holocaust in Hungary.

An important part of Guttmann’s life was his friendship with Viktor Frankl, who originated his theories on logotherapy and influenced Guttmann’s development and his own theories.

Frankl was born to a Jewish family in Vienna in 1905. Always interested in psychology, he began corresponding with Sigmund Freud when he was a teenager. He studied medicine at the University of Vienna but began to question the Freudian approach to psychoanalysis. He joined Alfred Adler’s circle of students but was expelled when he insisted that meaning was the central motivational force in people, and that earlier psychoanalytic theories neglected this.

After the Anschluss in Austria, Frankl and his family were transported to Terezìn, where his father died of starvation. They were transported to Bergen-Belsen, where Frankl’s wife died of typhus. Subsequently, the family was sent to Auschwitz, where his mother and children were murdered.

Following the war, in 1948 Frankl completed a PhD at Vienna University, producing his dissertation on the “Unconscious God,” which examines the relationship between psychology and religion, in which he advocated the use of Socratic dialogue to get in touch with one’s spiritual consciousness.

Frankl wrote many books. Man’s Search for Meaning has been published in many languages. The original, written in German – Ein Psychologue erlebt das Konzentrationslager – relates the experiences of a psychologist in the concentration camp.

Guttmann’s friendship with Frankl continued until the death of the latter in 1997. Guttmann and his life partner, Michal, continue their friendship with Frankl’s wife Elly.

In 1988, Guttmann organized for Frankl to celebrate his second bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and in 2015 he wrote a moving letter to his deceased friend from Dachau.

Like Frankl, David Guttmann has published many books. The latest is Finding Meaning in Life, at Midlife and Beyond – Wisdom and Spirit from Logotherapy.

Today, Guttmann and Michal live in Haifa, where Guttmann continues his work. He is among the foremost logotherapists in the world.  ■