5 Lessons From 3 Books About Slave Labor Camps


Humans are capable of doing incredible things. They can create new forms of medicine and invent useful tools to make life easier. However, there is also a darker side to people. They are also capable of doing horrible things such acting inhumane and forcing people into slave labor camps. 

Having read three books about forced labor camps: “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn and “The Forgotten Highlander” by Alistair Urquhart–I’ve noticed similar themes and lessons among these books.

For those unfamiliar with these books, here is a quick summary:

"Man’s Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl:

Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist during World War II and was sent to four different concentration camps including the infamous Auschwitz. During his time in the camps, he observed prisoners and himself, to reflect on what made some people mentally tough and why some people survived while others died or committed suicide.

In the camps, he was forced to assess whether his own life still had any meaning. Prisoners worked over ten hours a day of physical labor in freezing temperatures with not much more than a shirt, pants, and slippers. Most days they were given only one bowl of soup and a piece of bread.

"The Gulag Archipelago" by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn:

Solzhenitsyn was a decorated captain in the Soviet Army during World War II, but in 1945, he was sent to prison for criticizing Stalin in private letters. While in prison, he observed the prisoners, guards, and everyone in between to discover how everyone played a role in contributing to the creation of Soviet prison camps.  

This book is a non-fictional account about the Soviet forced labor camps that led to the imprisonment, brutalization and very often murder of tens of millions of innocent Soviet citizens by their own Government. 


"The Forgotten Highlander" by Alistair Urquhart:

Born in Scotland, Alistair was drafted into the army during WWII and shipped to the British outpost of Singapore. The Japanese soon invaded the colony and the British soldiers became prisoners of war (POWs). As a POW, Alistair was forced into slave labor on the notorious “Death Railway”, working up to 18 hours a day and while being fed only one cup of rice a day.

He worked barefoot with barely any clothes and suffered from malaria, dysentery, and tropical ulcers (Google at your own discretion). He often worked seven days a week from dawn to dusk and experienced several beatings and even a sexual advancement from a guard–that he fought off. Miraculously, Alistair survived 750 days of labor in the jungle. 

Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned from reading these books:

5) Humans Can Survive In horrible Conditions

Like nearly all the camp inmates I was suffering from edema. My legs were so swollen and the skin on them so tightly stretched that I could scarcely bend my knees. I had to leave my shoes unlaced in order to make them fit my swollen feet. There would not have been space for socks even if I had had any. So my partly bare feet were always wet and my shoes always full of snow.
— “Man’s Search for Meaning” Pg 27

The quote above comes from Viktor Frankl as he explains life at a Nazi concentration camp. He suffered from edema, which caused his tissues to swell up and made moving around torture. His feet were uncovered as he walked through snow and didn’t have a pair of socks–not that he could wear them anyway because his shoes were already tight due to his swollen feet. With barely any clothes or gear, he and others were still forced to mine the frozen ground for ten or more hours a day. 

The only nutrition prisoners were given was a bowl of very watery soup once daily and a small piece of bread. Sometimes they were given special extra allowances consisting of a piece of cheese or a slice of poor quality sausage. 
Life wasn’t much better for Alistair Urquhart at the Japanese labor camps. He was given only a cup of rice and water for each meal. From constantly working in the jungle with no shoes, he developed tropical ulcers. There was a doctor in his camp but he didn’t have any medicine so the best advice he gave Urquhart was to put maggots on his foot to eat the dead skin. 

As crazy as it sounds, it’s true:

I left the medical hut, shaking my head, still wondering if I were being had. Letting maggots eat my skin did not sound particularly appetizing but I was willing to try anything. I knew I had to stop the rot that was devouring my legs.”
— “The Forgotten Highlander” Pg 171

And the craziest part is it actually worked. However, Urquhart said that even years later he would sometimes get the sensation of maggots eating his skin. An unfortunate side effect, but he did live to be 97 years old. 

Alistair Urquhart, author of "The Forgotten Highlander."

Alistair Urquhart, author of "The Forgotten Highlander."

4) Survival Requires The Right Mindset 

‘It’s easy for these men to give up and when they lose hope the fight just seeps right out of them. On countless occasions I have seen two men with the same symptoms and same physical state, and one will die and one will make it. I can only put that down to sheer willpower.’
— “The Forgotten Highlander” Pg 170 

Urquhart writes that he could tell which men would die by simply looking at their faces. Those with a lost gaze in their eyes didn't last long. It was in that moment that Urquhart made the decision that he would not stop fighting–even if it required him to put maggots on his feet to survive. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn learned a similar lesson. 

And the conclusion is: Survive to reach it! Survive! At any price!... This is the great fork of camp life. From this point the roads go to the right and to the left. One of them will rise and the other will descend. If you go to the right–you lose your life, and if you go to the left–you lose your conscience. 
— “The Gulag Archipelago” Pg 302

Solzhenitsyn notes that prisoners had to make a decision, do whatever it takes to survive or fall short and die. This didn’t mean kill other people to survive, but rather it was a change in mindset. 

In his book, Solzhenitsyn writes that prisoners were allowed to take baths–with only cold water–but then had to endure a trip back to camp in subzero temperatures. Yet, none of them got pneumonia, in fact, they didn’t even catch a cold. 

However, when one of those prisoners was finally released and he could live in a warm home and take warm baths, he got ill the first month. The mindset of surviving at any price was not there anymore. Changing one's mindset can have an incredible impact on the rest of the body. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of "The Gulag Archipelago."

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of "The Gulag Archipelago."

3) Slave Labor–You Get What You Pay For

We made constant attempts at sabotage. Men whispered orders to impair the construction of the bridge wherever possible. Some charged with making up concrete mixtures deliberately added too much sand or not enough, which would later have disastrous effects. 
— “The Forgotten Highlander” Pg 188

Evil leaders have been under the assumption that slave labor is a great way to accomplish projects at little to no costs, but this is far from the truth. As Urquhart writes in his book, the prisoners did everything in their power to delay or destroy the project. They even collected termites and white ants and deposited them into the grooves of the logs that were meant to hold up the bridge. As a result, construction projects were often delayed or if it were finished, the quality of the project was extremely poor and didn't last long.

A similar conclusion can be found in the Soviet labor camps.

All they were on the lookout for was ways to spoil their footgear–and not go out to work; how to wreck a crane, to buckle a wheel, to break a spade, to sink a pail–anything for a pretext to sit down and smoke. 
— “The Gulag Archipelago” Pg 293

Just as in the Japanese camps, workers would constantly find ways to sabotage the project so they didn’t have to work. Solzhenitsyn adds that the material was so poor, people could break bricks with their bare hands. 

The prisoners did everything possible to quietly foil the project so that they wouldn’t have to work–after all, they weren’t being paid to work so they didn’t have any incentive to do so.

The prisoners were also constantly stealing project materials. Solzhenitsyn concludes the chapter by writing that the labor camps were not only ineffective, but they ended up costing the country more than if they had simply paid workers a fair wage. 


2) Life Is Unfair

  • Viktor Frankl worked at a hospital as a psychiatrist, before being arrested and sent to four different concentration camps over the years.  
  • Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was a decorated captain in the Soviet Army during World War II before he was arrested and sent to a labor camp for criticizing Stalin in private letters. 
  • Alistair Urquhart was drafted into the army during WWII and shipped to the British outpost of Singapore before he was arrested by the Japanese and sent to one of their labor camps. 


None of these men were “evil” or actual criminals. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. None of them deserved to suffer in the labor camps. None of them should have worked 16 hours a day of physical labor on barely any food or water in horrific conditions.

Life is simply unfair at times. Viktor Frankl does, however, offer a piece of advice should anyone find themselves in a similar situation. He writes that everything can be taken from a person, except their attitude. 

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...It is this spiritual freedom–which cannot be taken away–that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
— “Man’s Search for Meaning” Pg 66
Viktor Frankl, author of "Man's Search for Meaning."

Viktor Frankl, author of "Man's Search for Meaning."

1) Man is Capable of being a Saint & a Swine

In the concentration camps...we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself, which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.
— “Man’s Search for Meaning” Pg 134

That is a heavy truth to swallow. Even in the concentration camps, Frankl noticed some prisoners gave their daily piece of bread to prisoners in dire need of nutrition. He also saw other miracles such as a Nazi doctor buying medical supplies with his own money and smuggling it back into camp to help the Jewish prisoners. 

Frankl ends the book by saying that man is capable of inventing the gas chambers of Auschwitz, but man is also the same being that entered those gas chambers with the Lord’s prayer on their lips. 

Solzhenitsyn came to a similar conclusion in his book.

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts.  
— “The Gulag Archipelago” Pg 312

Solzhenitsyn spent countless hours thinking in prison–when he wasn’t being forced to work, prisoners sat in their cells and had nothing but their hands and their mind–and came upon the realization that good and evil exists inside every person, but they must make the decision within themselves. 

Inside every person is the struggle between good and evil, and although it is impossible to expel evil from the word, the next best thing is to constrict it within each person. That is a responsibility that falls upon each and every one of us. 

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