Encounters with Sigmund Freud

Translated by Alejandro Landman and Norbert Porile

My first acquaintance with Freud occurred in Hamburg on Grindel Street. In my youth there lived in my neighborhood a widow surnamed Bernis, who was related to the Rabbi of Hamburg, who in those days was the legendary “Haham” Bernis. When this woman learned that I was going to give some lectures in Vienna, she asked me to bring her greetings to her son-in-law, Prof. Freud, who lived in that city. Until that time, 1898, I had never heard of Prof. Freud.

I gave one of the lectures to the humanist association “Vienna”. It dealt with the controversial drama “Yohanan” by Zoderman. This drama deals with the negative attributes of orthodox Jews from the viewpoint of their religious practices rather than with the antagonistic political attitudes towards them, which were already widespread at the time. In my lecture I criticized the position of modern Jews who tolerated such criticism, the negative attitudes that they displayed towards the Orthodox, and their indifference to the harassment of orthodox Jews.

Following my lecture we all sat down to a friendly meal. Freud acted as the host of this gathering. He expressed various thoughts about the subject of my talk and made several jokes related to religion. He suggested that many Jews resembled Yohanan the Convert: shaggy coats, unkempt hair, mysterious face. Freud preferred the man in the elegant tuxedo to the one dressed like a prophet. I thought to myself: how far has this man drifted from Jewish life that he can’t accept the oriental trappings of his ancestors? I was not surprised, however, as it was known that in these circles, in which Freud was the leader, rabbis were not welcome at lectures. This organization did not want to appear to be too religious in order to be able to participate in the activities of the more liberal circles of the land. However, we cannot think of them as being truly anti-religious. Thus, Freud undoubtedly had an encounter with the Rabbi of Vienna, although it was only on paper in the form of a cartoon that appeared in the most important humorous newspaper in Vienna. In this cartoon Freud appeared in the guise of Rabbi Gidman out on his daily walk. The legend below said “Guy de Monpassant” and this statement certainly did not convey an impression of “preaching in the desert”. I thanked Freud and gave him the greetings from Hamburg.

After working for several years in Vienna I once again attended a lecture to the above group. Freud was the lecturer and his topic was “Hamurabi, the ancient codifier”. Now I could understand why Freud was so successful in academic life. He did not issue pronouncements and spoke not dryly but in an interesting manner that really struck home. The audience at this lecture was small although Freud’s voice was best suited to this rather intimate setting. I had been told that Freud’s lectures in North America were not very successful because he spoke in a low voice. Most of the audience could not hear him and there were those who attributed this problem to an illness. I was happy to note that all these tales were not true.

Freud utilized a type of trick in the above lecture that was widely used at that time. He said: “I have just remembered that I forgot to bring from home the pictures of the Hamurabi tablets that I wanted to show you.” After the lecture I told him in a jocular manner: “You used the evidence of our Torah.” I didn’t find his approach to be reasonable. It was historically inaccurate as it elevated Hamurabi at the expense of Moses. On top of that, I said,“you forgot the pictures at home!”

Freud was at this time at the peak of his fame. He received many honors in America. “What do you know about Freud?” was the first question New York reporters asked visitors from Vienna. His theory was considered to be the most important discovery of the time, or at least the most important one made in Vienna. Nonetheless, the number of his American patients decreased substantially owing to the poor social conditions that developed first there and then in the rest of the world. Jokingly, but not happily, Freud spoke of the American millionaires who were coming to Vienna to shake his hand.

Some more time passed and I once again gave a lecture to the “Vienna” group, this time about the history of Jewish education. An interesting discussion took place at the reception which followed the lecture. Freud argued insistently that Jews had not made any significant contribution to knowledge. While stating that in medicine one certainly recognizes “the well known Mendelsohn, the friend of Lesing” he indicated that this was neither here nor there. The well known dermatologist, Prof. Shlema Arman, a colleague of Freud at the University, then took advantage of the deadly silence that followed Freud’s attack on Judaism to reply. I was not surprised by Freud’s attack since in certain circles in Vienna “Jews without any respect for their ancestors” amused themselves in self-destructive activities. Arman stated that while we Jews perhaps did not invent the generator or the auto, we did give to the world the “Tanach” and with it God. In my final summary I stated that I would go even further than Prof. Arman: I promised to gather proof that we Jews also invented the generator and the auto.

I kept my word and presented a carefully researched proof in a lecture entitled “Jews as inventors and discoverers”, which was partially published in the newspapers “Ost und West” and Algemeine Zeitung das Judentum”. In my lecture I spoke of Poper-Linkaus, inventor of the electric carriage, and of Sigfrid Marks, inventor of the first gasoline powered auto.

After several years Freud sent me his family tree and history and the preparation of this manuscript confirms the thoughts expressed here. I had no further contact with Freud until I visited Judge Julian Mak in New York. Mak’s family members were friends of Freud.

While Freud’s position on Judaism seemed pretty clear to me, I was surprised by the indications of his support of Zionism. I was further surprised when I learned that Freud was an honorary member of the Vilna organization for the preservation of Yiddish.

Freud's father moved to Vienna from the Galician town of Buchach. From Vienna he moved to Freishtad in Moravia. In Vienna, Freud’s father was a commission agent, that is, he traveled to make purchases on behalf of Viennese merchants. His famous son, who was well aware of his exalted status, joined in his old age an organization that supported the language of his native land.

Dr. M. Grinwald
(Based on an article published in Haaretz on September 21, 1941.)