Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Book review: Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Counterclockwise from bottom left: Sigmund Freud, Stanley Hall, Carl Gustav Jung, Sándor Ferenczi, Ernest Jones, and Abraham Arden Brill. 1909. Wellcome Collection.

“A nation that produced Goethe could not possibly go to the bad.”
– Sigmund Freud, 1930

In March 1938, Austria became part of the Greater German Reich. Nazi antisemitism and the exclusion of Jews from society began at once. Dr. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the creator of psychoanalysis, could no longer deny what was happening in his beloved Vienna. Eighty-two years old and dying of intraoral cancer, he wanted to “die in freedom.”

In order to get us to Freud’s escape from Vienna, this highly readable book starts with a biography of Freud and a “biography” of psychoanalysis. Freud slowly attracted disciples, some of whom broke with him because of conflicts about theory (Carl Jung, Alfred Adler), and others who brought his psychoanalytic methods to other countries (Ernest Jones, Marie Bonaparte).

Along with Freud’s youngest daughter, Anna, a varied group of people helped Freud to escape. He had visited London as a young man. He was an anglophile, and he hated America. He could only envisage going to London to live. One of Freud’s early students, Dr. Ernest Jones (1879–1958), visited him in Vienna to confirm face-to-face his desire to leave Vienna. Jones, after many meetings with British government officials, met with the Home Secretary and got entry permits to the UK for the sixteen adults and six children who would come with Freud.

William Bullitt (1891–1967), US ambassador to France and a former patient of Freud, had lobbied for his colleague and protegé John Wiley to become the American ambassador to what was then Austria. Wiley used embassy personnel to watch over the Freud family in Vienna, and even on the Vienna-to-Paris train.

Marie Bonaparte (1882–1962), great-grandniece of Napoleon and princess (by marriage) of Denmark and Greece, was once a patient of Freud. He trained her in psychoanalysis and she became a lifelong friend. She managed to get some of Freud’s books, belongings, and money out of Vienna in diplomatic pouches. She considered Freud a “father figure,” and she paid the family’s exorbitant “flight tax” required to leave the country.

Freud and his family had entry permits, but now needed permission from the Nazis to leave the Reich. Wealthy Jewish families in the Third Reich had Nazi “trustees” appointed, who were to evaluate and confiscate the assets of the family and decide if they could leave the country. Anton Sauerwald, an Austrian Nazi, was the trustee for the Freuds. He had a doctorate in chemistry, and had studied under a professor whom he much admired at the University of Vienna. This professor was a close friend of Freud. Sauerwald eventually started reading some of Freud’s works, and had some of Freud’s books hidden in the Austrian National Library, where they escaped destruction and survived the war. In addition, he did not reveal to his bosses some of the assets the family had hidden in Switzerland, so that they would be available to the family once installed in London. He let them leave Vienna.

With the channel crossed from France, they arrived in London in June 1938. Freud, though weak and in pain, continued writing. He also saw a few patients a day until August 1939, when his fatigue and pain were unremitting. He died in September of that year, three weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland that started the Second World War.

Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom
Andrew Nagorski
Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2023

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

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