How a Nazi saved Sigmund Freud

In an extract from his new book, David Cohen uncovers the extraordinary story of the psychoanalyst’s escape from the Holocaust


January 28, 2010
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Sigmund Freud and  his daughter Anna arrive in Paris after fleeing Vienna in June 1938.

Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna arrive in Paris after fleeing Vienna in June 1938.

Vienna, 25 July 1947: Anton Sauerwald looked very haggard for a man of 44. His doctor, Karl Szekely, had written many times to the court to explain that his patient was suffering from tuberculosis and the proceedings should be delayed. Sauerwald had spent a month in hospital. However, Judge Schachermayr would have no more delays.

For most of the war Sauerwald had been an officer in the Luftwaffe, not a pilot but a technical expert. In March 1945 he was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp at Bad Heilbrunn run by the Americans, but in June he was released and returned to Vienna.

He was an extremely well-educated man. When he was 24 years old, he published four learned papers in the Monatshefte für Chemie (Chemical Monthly), one of the leading journals in the world in the field of chemistry. He had a doctorate from the University of Vienna, where his professor was a distinguished organic chemist, Josef Herzig. Sauerwald always liked and respected “Herr Professor Herzig”.

Once back in Vienna, Sauerwald could not find his wife, Mariane. While he was searching for her, someone else was looking for him. Harry Freud, Sigmund’s nephew, was an officer in the American army and he insisted that Sauerwald must be tracked down. Harry believed that Sauerwald had robbed his family and destroyed the family business, the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag or publishing house that his grandfather had started in 1919. He forced his way into the Sauerwalds’s old flat to seek out documents that would prove the man’s guilt. No one would stop an American officer.

At the end of October 1945, at Harry Freud’s insistence, Sauerwald was arrested and the police started to investigate every aspect of his past. This completely normal man was charged with war crimes and was sent to be tried in the new Volksgericht, or People’s Court, which was set up as soon as Germany surrendered in June 1945. The People’s Court trials were not as high profile as those at Nuremberg, but the Allies were still keen on proper legal processes. They wanted to show that the Nazis had been defeated by civilised people who followed rules. As a result, everything took a great deal of time. In fact, at 18 months, Sauerwald’s trial lasted longer than anyone’s at Nuremberg.

The prosecution case was simple. From the moment they took power in Germany in 1933, the Nazis passed decrees to limit the personal and financial freedom of Jews. All Jewish holdings of over 5,000 Reichsmarks had to be declared. The Nazi Party paper Der Angriff (The Attack) made it clear that “all Jewish assets are assumed to have been improperly acquired”. The Nazis appointed a trustee or Truehandler to every Jewish business. The Truehandler was supposed to ensure that these improperly acquired Jewish assets were used for the greater glory of the Nazi project.

As soon as he was appointed Truehandler to the Freud family, on March 15 1938, Sauerwald controlled not only their assets but in effect their destiny. The prosecution claimed he had abused his position to seize money as well as assets including manuscripts, artworks, books and much else of value.

When the proceedings started, the court had asked Sauerwald whether he pleaded guilty or not guilty. “Not guilty,” he had replied.

The Anschluss

On March 12 1938, German troops marched across the border into Austria and met no opposition. Freud listened to the radio, which gave an hour-by-hour commentary. There was no resistance. German troops were astonished by the warmth with which they were welcomed. Freud wrote to his friend Arnold Zweig: “The people in their worship of antisemitism are entirely at one with their brothers in the Reich.”

A man held a pistol to Freud’s son’s head. ‘Why not shoot him,’ he shouted

Freud had to cope with the Anschluss in terrible physical pain. According to his doctor Max Schur, three weeks earlier he had had an operation. On March 21 Freud wrote that he had “to cancel my work for 12 days and I lay with pain and hot-water bottles on the couch that is meant for others”. He seems to have found it hard to believe what was happening. He had rejected the advice of many friends who had urged him to leave Vienna.

The day after the Nazis marched into Vienna, Freud’s son Martin went to his office at 7 Berggasse, which was also the office of the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag. He destroyed documents concerning secret bank accounts including some belonging to his famous father. His shredding was interrupted when a gang strutted into his office. Mobs were roaming the city and targeting Jews. A haggard-looking man took out a pistol and pressed it against Martin’s head. “Why not shoot him and be finished with him?” he shouted. But in the end a Nazi officer arrived and let Martin go.

He went back to his parents apartment at 19 Berggasse to find there had also been an incident there. As the Freud’s maid, Paula Fichtl, described it, a number of Gestapo men turned up. Freud’s wife Martha was calm. She told them that in her house they did not let guests stand up while they waited, so would they please sit down. She then graciously told the Gestapo that they had some cash in the house.

“Help yourselves, gentlemen,” Martha said.

The cash came to the not inconsiderable sum of 6,000 schillings. Freud then walked into the room looking worried, but said nothing. The “gentlemen of the SS” took the money and, bizarrely, provided a formal receipt.

Freud said to his wife as he saw the Nazis take the 6,000 schillings: “Dear me, I have never taken so much for a single visit.”

Even more frightening, the Gestapo men took the passports of all the family. The Freud family now had no official papers in a city where anyone could be stopped at any time and asked to prove who they were. Many of those who could not produce papers were arrested.

On March 13, the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society met. Freud reached into his knowledge of Jewish history for the right story to keep up their morale. 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.”

Sauerwald the “good” Nazi

As the Truehandler, Sauerwald’s task was to find Jews guilty of something so that more pressure could be put on them to hand over more money. Nothing in his history up to 1938 suggests that he was particularly moral, let alone that he had any sympathy for Jews, but he did know how to work and pay attention to details. Sauerwald examined the records of the Freud family and of the Verlag; he read the letters people had sent to all members of the family. It did not take him long to realise that Freud had been sending money out of the country for years. Martin had not succeeded in destroying every record.

Sauerwald also discovered that Freud’s publishing house owed money to its suppliers. Jews were not allowed to leave Austria until they and the companies they owned had paid all their debts. Freud would need to find considerable sums of money to pay what the Verlag owed as well as the flight tax for himself and his family.

Sauerwald’s behaviour is puzzling. He was abusive at the first meetings of the Verlag, but he then became far less hostile. No one could understand why. After the war he explained his first impressions of Freud. It was clear to him that Freud was in an “emotionally fragile condition”, a very sick old man. Sauerwald insisted that he tried to be “sympathetic to his condition” and, perhaps with a trace of vanity, that he behaved to him like a good doctor would. “I tried to find the necessary calming words for him and his family,” he claimed. “I decided I would make sure he did not suffer any more shocks.”

But there may have been a more academic reason for Sauerwald becoming less hostile. He had always been quite conscientious and it was now his job to administer the Verlag. The first sensible thing to do was to read the books it had published.

The books had an extraordinary impact on him, an impact Sauerwald knew he must not let his Nazi superiors suspect. Freud loved Conan Doyle, who had made his detective Sherlock Holmes say that, when you have eliminated the impossible, the improbable must explain what happened. It was improbable that Sauerwald would help Freud. It is improbable that the only reason Sauerwald’s attitude changed was reading Freud. It is, however, probable that Sauerwald decided Freud was worth helping, for at least two reasons: he was a world figure and he was a friend of Sauerwald’s revered professor, Josef Herzig. But it was also clear that Freud had money abroad, as did his influential friends. There is a note appended to the court proceedings after the war that Sauerwald had estimated Freud’s worth at between 2 and 3 million schillings, a considerable fortune.

After having read Freud’s books, Sauerwald did not disclose to his superiors that Freud had many secret bank accounts abroad. Instead, he took the evidence back to his own apartment, where he had a locked box for important documents. If the Gestapo found out, Sauerwald could say that he had brought the documents back to study them.

Persuading Freud

Ironically, Freud only agreed to try to leave Vienna after Anna, his beloved daughter, had been arrested by the Gestapo. He was relieved beyond words when Anna finally returned home safely late on March 22. In the next few days, he prepared a list for the British consul in Vienna of those he wanted to accompany him to England.

The list was long: Sigmund Freud, aged 82; Martha Freud, aged 77; Minna Bernays, sister-in-law, aged 73; Anna Freud, daughter, aged 42; Martin Freud, son, aged 48; Esti Freud,wife of Martin, aged 41; Walter Freud, son of Martin, aged 16; Sophie Freud, daughter of Martin, aged 14; Enkel Ernst Halberstadt, grandson, aged 24; Mathilde Freud, daughter, aged 50; Robert Hollitscher, husband of Mathilde, aged 62; Max Schur, Freud’s personal doctor, aged 39; Schur’s wife, Helen, aged 26; Schur’s two small children; Paula Fichtl, housekeeper, aged 36; Mitzi, the other maid to the Freud household, aged around 30.

A key role was also played by Ernest Jones, a Welsh analyst who became Freud’s official biographer. He worked tirelessly over the next three months to effect the escape.

In London, Jones went to see his cousin Wilfred Trotter, a well-known doctor. Trotter gave him a letter of introduction to Sir William Bragg, the president of the Royal Society. Bragg asked Jones: “Do you really think the Germans are so unkind to the Jews?”

Jones could assure him of their “unkindness”. Jews were being beaten up in the streets by mobs, he told Bragg. At his best, Jones was a terrier and he did not leave the offices of the Royal Society until he got a letter from Bragg inviting Freud to Britain.

Jones walked then across St James’s Park to the Home Office to see a man with whom he had an unlikely bond, the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare. The two men had gone figure skating together. Hoare felt he needed to be careful because there was a lot of opposition to letting too many Jews come to Britain. Jones again insisted. He finally got Hoare to issue an entry visa immediately for all the Freud family, as well as for Fichtl and the maid, Mitzi. But Freud also had to get exit visas.

As he wondered whether or not to sign the papers for Freud’s exit visa, Sauerwald got a new order from Berlin. The Freuds were to be moved out of their apartment and the premises used to house a new Race Institute; it would study why the Aryan race was superior. That was an insult too far and it seems to have tilted the balance. Sauerwald finally signed the papers saying that there was no impediment to Freud leaving.

Max Schur said that no one could understand why Sauerwald had saved the Freuds and thought that reading Freud’s books had changed Sauerwald’s attitude. Schur eventually gave a more rounded explanation. Freud’s brother, Alexander, met Sauerwald and asked him directly what his motives had been. It is impossible to be sure whether the speech Schur said Sauerwald then made is accurate word for word, but he reports that Sauerwald told Alexander Freud: “The Führer of course knows best and realises that the Fatherland is in a state of siege. The Jews, due to their internationalist leanings and their tendency towards individualistic behaviour, cannot form a reliable element of the population. Thus they have to be eliminated. This does not mean, however, that an individual should not be permitted to alleviate individual hardship in selected cases.”

Stress and Leaving

There was a final bureaucratic hitch, precisely as Freud had dreaded. The Gestapo insisted on a reference, as they did not want to be accused of brutality towards a famous man. They asked Freud to confirm that he had been treated properly. They did not see, or pretended not to see, the irony of his reply. “I most warmly recommend the Gestapo to everybody,” he wrote.

The best account of the day they left comes from Paula Fichtl, who noted small, ordinary details. Breakfast was served as normal. Freud had his usual soft-boiled egg and Anna suggested he sip a vermouth, one of his favourite drinks. No one talked much.

At midday, Paula ordered two taxis to take them and the 20 suitcases to the Westbahnhof. As she was about to leave the apartment she loved for the last time, she saw some dust on the sofa and whisked it off. New tenants would be coming and she did not want anyone to complain it had been left dirty. The taxis came at 2pm. Freud kept his new chow, Lun, on his lap as they drove to the station.

Freud, Martha, Anna, Dr Josephine Stross, Paula Fichtl and the maid were to join the Orient Express, which was coming from Istanbul. So many others had left or died, Freud observed, that they needed only two compartments. The last word Freud wrote in Vienna is now in the collection at Manchester University. He scribbled a postcard to his nephew Sam, who lived in Britain, saying they were leaving and that he hoped finally to meet him after a gap of 30 years. At 3.25 the train pulled out of the Westbahnhof. Although Freud did not know it, the group was not alone. William Bullitt — the American ambassador in Paris who was a friend and ex-patient of Freud — had insisted that the American Consulate in Vienna send a man to watch over Freud and his family; he was under strict instructions to intervene if there were any problems.

At 2.45am on June 4, the Orient Express reached the border between Germany and France. All Jews who were getting out feared trouble at the last minute. Freud and Martha were very tired; Anna had to handle the officials. They looked at the passports and the exit visas in complete silence and then walked out of the compartment. After the Nazis had marched down the corridor to the next carriage, the conductor came to see the Freuds. “I wish I could come with you,” Paula Fichtl remembers him saying.

As they crossed the Rhine, the relief was huge. Freud wrote in his diary: “After the Rhine Bridge we were free.” Anna brought out the vermouth and they toasted their escape.

The moment Freud crossed the border, the change in him was remarkable. He shook off the stress of the previous three months and was ready to concentrate on work. Though this is an area that has been rather overlooked, the productivity of the last 15 months of his life would turn out to be remarkable.

As for Sauerwald, he was finally released after Anna Freud wrote to say that he had indeed helped the family but by then he had spent 18 months in detention. He eventually went to live in the Tyrol and died in Innsbruck in 1970.

Last updated: 10:37am, January 28 2010