My Uncle Freud: A Famous Family (Part 1)


February 03, 2013 21:38 EDT

Julián Chappa talks to the great nephew of Sigmund Freud. A glimpse at the Freud family and its legacy. This is the first of a two-part series.

How I met Freud…

In 2009, I lived in Barcelona. I was talking to another Argentine editor and friend, who still lives there, when I mentioned that I was looking for a good psychologist. She responded by expounding on the virtues of her own psychologist. The next day my friend sent me an e-mail with the psychologist's contact information. It only contained a phone number and a very ostentatious name: Joseph Knobel Freud.

My first instinct was to think it was a prank, but I knew my friend was not one for such jokes. I decided to call her, just to make sure:

“Ana, it’s Julián. How are you?”

“I’m doing well, how about you?”

“I’m intrigued. You sent me your psychologist’s contact information, but I don’t get it.”

“What don’t you get?”

“His name. He has a really weird name, but his last name…”

“What’s up with his last name?”

“Well, it’s Freud!”

“Yes, it’s Freud.”

“Like Freud? I mean, is it spelled the same as Sigmund Freud?”

“Of course. Just as I wrote it.”

“But…is he just putting on airs? I don’t get it.”

“No. This guy is actually Freud’s relative. The famous Freud.”

“A relative of the psychoanalysis Freud?”

“Yes. Sigmund’s…”

“I can’t believe it!”

“He’s something like a great-nephew.”

“And he’s a psychologist!”

“No. He’s a psychoanalyst. Not the same thing.”

Three years after I’d met him and underwent therapy with him, I had the opportunity to interview Joseph Knobel Freud in Buenos Aires. On the August, 23, 2012, I had a loose and fascinating two-hour chat at a café where we reconstructed the history of Sigmund and the Freud family.

Julián Chappa: What was Freud’s family like? 

Joseph Knobel Freud: Sigmund was the only one who went to university. His sisters went to high school, but because they were women, they didn’t go to college. All the cousins (who were first cousins) grew up like siblings. Both Freud families lived together: Sigmund’s father and his brother. They lived together because his father was a rabbi, and it was customary back then. They had a large house in Příbor, a small town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Czech Republic). A lot of Freud’s relatives lived there. My grandfather’s brothers, for example, didn’t study either. My grandfather didn’t study until he got to Argentina, and he had grown up – by “grown up” I mean thirteen years old. They also had to work in the field. They had to sow potatoes. Seven- and eight-year-olds had to tend the fields too.

Chappa: Did the fact that Sigmund went to university give him a different status?

Freud: Yes. Freud was his mother’s favorite. He was much older than his brothers (even though they weren’t his actual brothers, but rather first cousins). But they were all raised together. There was a great age difference between Sigmund and the rest. My grandfather remembers being eight years old and playing ball with Sigmund. He looked up to him like an idol, as an 8-year-old child playing ball with his 20-year-old cousin would. He viewed him like a hero. Especially because he had gone to university, and studied medicine, while the rest had not.

Chappa: Was the fact that Sigmund was allowed to study a result of him being male?

Freud: Yes. It does have to do with the fact that he was a man, but it also has to do with a whole other story. When he was young, Sigmund had a little brother named Julius who died when he was three. I think I remember when Julius died, at that time kids would die from anything. Instead of getting depressed and losing interest in everything, Julius’ mother turned toward her other son, Sigmund. Some psychoanalysts and historians say that Freud’s idea of the Oedipus complex had a lot to do with this story: his mother turned toward him because she had lost her other male son who was very close in age. Turning toward Sigmund meant giving him the chance to study so that when he was thirteen — which is the coming of age for Jews — he could start developing culturally. They studied philosophy, the Bible and the Talmud. They were all Kaballists and they knew the Kabala very well — among other things that are still studied today, like the relationship between psychology and Kabala. A very interesting thing that wasn’t dealt with much.

Chappa: So Julius’ death was actually pivotal in Freud’s life and in the history of psychoanalysis?

Freud: Exactly. The historians of psychoanalysis place that on a fundamental level. Freud mentions it in a book called My Self-Analysis because he discovered that having such an overwhelming mother created a certain neurosis in him. Freud didn’t hide it.

Chappa: What was the society surrounding Freud like?

Freud: The Jews in Vienna at the end of the 19th century had contributed greatly to our culture, but they were still looked down upon because Vienna was also very anti-Semitic. Christians were very envious, especially of the cultural level of certain Jews. The Jews were starting to flourish in a culturally remarkable world — Kafka, Einstein. The Christians didn’t tolerate this well. Who stood out? It seems that this speaks of envy and racism, which could now be elsewhere (the Turks in Germany, the Bolivians in Argentina), but applied to a religion. So this all speaks of being unable to integrate differences. And above all it speaks of a human disgrace, envy: “I envy what the other has and I want to destroy it. Instead of living with it, I can’t tolerate it.” They can’t tolerate this narcissistic hurt that is produced in those who have more, who are taller, more intelligent, and more educated than us.

In Freud’s time this happened a lot. There was more persecution against the Jews when the Nazis took Austria. Freud didn’t want to leave Vienna; he wanted to die in Vienna. He was already very old and he’d had throat cancer for many years. He had fourteen larynx surgeries. He switched from the cigar to the pipe because of a doctor’s recommendation, but he never stopped smoking. It was later discovered that tobacco had nicotine, an addictive substance. Freud was already quite addicted. He was a cocaine addict, too, but he left that. Later, at the end of his life, he became a morphine addict. He allegedly would tell his doctor, Max Shur, to “go over” on the dose if he was in a lot of pain. That was how he died. It is not that I think this. It’s actually written in a book by Dr. Shur where he wrote that when the moment came, he “went over” with the dose, as requested by Freud. Freud was already 83-years-old. Even though he smoked a lot, he was a very healthy person because he never drank.

Chappa: What was Sigmund’s reaction to the Nazi invasion of Vienna?

Freud: My grandfather, Samuel, got mad at Sigmund when World War II started. My grandfather was already here in Argentina. His cousin was in Vienna and my grandfather wanted to save him. He thought Sigmund had enough power to save him. But this was not the case. He was not very influential. He did know Princess Marie Bonaparte, who got him out of Vienna and gave him money to get out of Austria. She had diplomatic weight because she was a princess. It was a pact they had made with the French government because she was a direct descendent of Napoleon and one of the first female psychoanalysts. She was Princess of France and had special rights, so she got Freud’s train to go through France without being stopped. The train went from Vienna to Paris and from Paris to London. Freud brought his entire office onto that train. He didn’t even leave an ornament, because this was one of his requests: either he took everything with him or he wouldn't go. All or nothing! This is why the London Freud Museum is more interesting than the one in Vienna. He took everything he had to London. In Vienna, there are only pictures.

Chappa: Is it true that all five of Sigmund’s sisters died in Auschwitz?

Freud: It’s true. Samuel, my grandfather, wrote to Sigmund from Buenos Aires asking him to do something about his cousins. (At this point Sigmund was still in Vienna, about to leave for London.) Sigmund replied that he couldn’t even do anything for his own sisters. And in fact all five of his sisters died in Auschwitz. Samuel didn’t really believe him — he asked how it was possible that someone so famous, who had gotten so far, could do nothing. Samuel thought that Sigmund really didn’t have any desire to help them. Because of this, Samuel was mad at Sigmund and at anything that had to do with psychoanalysis for years. Some of that stayed in the family. For example, Hector Freud, the architect who lives in Buenos Aires, is not very pleased to be Sigmund’s relative. He is completely indifferent. Sometimes it even bothers him because they look alike. When he was walking through Israel someone stopped him and asked, “are you related to Freud?” They look a lot alike. That happened to him a few times — once in New York and again in Tel Aviv. It is quite likely that Samuel, his father, passed on the idea that Sigmund was a son of a bitch who did not care about the family and was only interested in himself. Maybe some of that is true, if he was able to save every last ornament in his office but not one of his sisters. One has to think of what one would do in his place. I have four sisters. If I was given the choice of saving either my children or my siblings, what would I do? I don’t know. It’s an extreme situation. I hope it never happens to me. Freud chose to save his children.

*This interview was translated from Spanish to English by Maria Cristina Fernández Hall. The final part of "My Uncle Freud: A Famous Family" will be released in April 2013. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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