Book review: David Cohen’s “The Escape of Sigmund Freud”

This book is not new. It first appeared in 2009 and went through several editions. The reason I became interested in it, was the recent lecture I attended. Its topic was the plight of elderly Jews in Nazi occupied Vienna, left behind by family members who managed to emigrate and escape.

The lecturer showed a picture and mentioned that the four women in it, were Sigmund Freud’s sisters. They all perished. She then mentioned something about Freud’s unknown neighbours, before continuing with the main topic: a different family history.

the-escape-of-sigmund-freud-by-david-cohenI tried to find out more about those unknown neighbours, but the only book I could find was the one by David Cohen. It tells the story how Sigmund Freud, a few family members, one of his doctors, one or two servants and a dog managed to emigrate from Vienna to London in 1938.

By then, it was already practically impossible to get out of Austria. The so-called Anschluss had already happened. One had to have a lot of money and extremely well-placed contacts to cut through the new rules and bureaucracy – and even then one might fail – if still having a chance to get out.

As Cohen makes clear at the very beginning, as well as including a list as one of the appendices in his book, many archives containing letters and other documents by or related to Sigmund Freud remain inaccessible. Yet he managed to locate a few new sources, use sources other biographers were not interested in, and talked with a few relations and others still alive.

What emerges is a picture many did not like when the book appeared. It starts with a description of the family Freud was born into and grew up. Part of the Freud extended family had already emigrated to England. The story continues as a biography of Freud and his own family.

Cohen managed to uncover the many suicides, disappearances, scandals, fraudster uncles of Freud and his wife, secret bank accounts in several European countries, and other mysteries within the (extended) family. David Cohen is also one of the few who believe Freud may have had an affair with his sister-in-law.

The last few chapters describe how Sigmund Freud and his close family and servants tried to survive in an occupied Vienna, where life became more and more restricted and dangerous for Jews. One has to agree with Cohen’s suspicion that Freud made matters worse for his own family and relatives, by remaining in denial for far too long. One of the events which finally trigger action, is the arrest of Anna Freud, though the Gestapo release her.

One of the mysteries the book does not solve, is how Freud managed to send his letters. David Cohen mentions how Freud manages to keep in touch with various relations and friends in England, Israel and elsewhere. From the lecture it became clear, that it was not just censorship but also actually getting letters posted, was a problem.

The people who finally managed to get Freud and his close circle out – though were unable to save his sisters – are a very odd bunch. Marie Bonaparte is one of them and the description of her, her treatment, one of her solutions she proposes to Freud make one blink not once, but several times.

However, the oddest helper of the Freud family is the former terrorist and Nazi supporter Anton Sauerwald. He ensures many books and papers are saved, is aware of the real family wealth, helps get the twenty or more suitcases and dog and the first group to escape. He even visits Freud in London and Anna Freud helps him during his trial for war crimes, shortly after the war has ended.

This book is more than the story of Freud’s escape. It can be read as a short biographical introduction to Freud, some of his patients, his works, his family and family life. It also goes into the various rows among psychologist and their schools and the last chapter gives a short overview of what happened to the main characters and psychiatry, after the war.

Yet not all mysteries are solved: “… The central mystery – why Sauerwald went out of his way to help Freud – is never resolved. Cohen realises that too many secrets are still concealed. The Library of Congress houses a huge correspondence between Freud, his patients, friends and family, as well as clinical notes. These are closed until 2020 or 2050, while eight are to be hidden “in perpetuity”. What can be so important about Freud’s life that it is denied to the public gaze?

The book is an easy and interesting read, though the pace is actually not fast and the focus not solely on the Freud’s escape to London. Now and again, sentences are repeated. Nevertheless, it gives an insight into Freud, his family and the plight of the Jews when the Nazis and their supporters gained power.

“The Escape of Sigmund Freud”, David Cohen, first published 2009, is still available as hard cover and kindle version.
Julia Pascal’s review of the same book.

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