Octogenarian Sigmund Freud was ailing from cancer and it was long past the time to leave Vienna. Hermann Göebbels and Joseph Himmler had set out to kill psychoanalysts, especially Jewish ones. Hermann Göering had their property and assets seized, which included Freud’s publishing company. Moreover, a month after the Nazis took over Austria on March 12, 1938, every business owned by Jews had a Nazi appointed to run it. The appointed “commissar” was a 35-year-old chemist, Anton Sauerwald.
“By the time he finally decided he could not live at 19 Berggasse anymore, Freud and his extended family were already living under a form of self-house arrest, his daughter Anna had been interrogated by the Gestapo, and the family’s assets were being confiscated. Freud could look out his window and watch Jewish shops being looted by ‘respectable’ Viennese; he could see Jews being beaten and shot dead by thugs.” So writes Bettina Berch for the Jewish Book Council. Why did he wait so long?
I hadn’t heard of The Escape of Sigmund Freud when it was released. I ran across it in my usual internet wanderings. The book, by David Cohen, was published by one of my favorite houses, Overlook Press. It sounds riveting.
Freud was an especial target but, as Debbie Hagan at Psych Central writes, “the Nazis couldn’t escape the fact that Freud was a well-connected, international figure, who they grudgingly had to respect. Freud did have friends throughout the world, such as William Bullitt, the American ambassador in Paris, and President Roosevelt, who telegrammed Hitler, warning him that any harm done to Freud would be considered a deplorable act. Still it didn’t stop Nazis from hanging swastikas on Freud’s stoop or the Gestapo from harassing him, claiming that he had not paid his taxes and his publishing company had outstanding debt. Thus, military police confiscated the family’s cash and passports. These actions reached a climax when the Gestapo arrested Freud’s daughter Anna, a noted analyst in her own right, which shook Freud into a stark reality: His life in Vienna was over.”
In Freud’s 1927 The Future of an Illusion, he concludes that all religious beliefs are “illusions and insusceptible of proof.” He notes that “civilization has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers,” but “the great mass of the uneducated and oppressed” were of more concern. Freud concluded with the “hope that in the future science will go beyond religion, and reason will replace faith in God.” Yet he could not have conceived of the Nazis, and what the “educated people and brain-workers” might have been brought to by their own thinking. And there might be a little more to the oppressed than he had suspected. In fact, he had become one of them.
On March 13, 1938, the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society met and Freud reached into his knowledge of Jewish history for the right story to give them hope. He told his friends: “After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Titus, Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai asked for permission to open a school at Jabneh for the study of the Torah. We are going to do the same. We are, after all, accustomed by our history and tradition, and some of us by our personal experience, to being persecuted.”
In the end, he was saved, not by intellectuals or grand thinking, but by bourgeois kindnesses– of friends, admirers, and a Nazi who, in the course of his relationship with Freud, developed an old-fashioned conscience and chose to look the other way as the Freuds escaped. That’s right, Anton Sauerwald himself. (Read his story here.)
“Thus, the Freud family (including his daughter, Anna, his wife, Martha, and their faithful housekeeper, Paula), fled to Britain. They toted along Freud’s famous couch, some of his books, and many objets d’art. Four of Freud’s sisters stayed behind. Even though Freud made many attempts to contact them, he never succeeded. Years after his death, researchers would discover that three had died in concentration camps. The fourth most likely died of malnutrition.”