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Review: The Escape Of Sigmund Freud

Freud’s perilous path to Hampstead

    By David Cohen
    JR Books, £18.99

    How fortunate that Freud's famous couch is a museum piece, no longer in professional service. Patients of the great Sigmund's successors could be mightily distracted by the secret of how this Persian-rugged antique came out of Nazified Austria to rest (along with 20 suitcases, Freud's personal library and a thousand objets d'art ) at 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead.

    David Cohen's masterly book reveals how, in 1938, the aged father of psychoanalysis fled Vienna thanks to the very Nazi commissar assigned to seize Freud's papers and assets.

    The Freud family had not always demonstrated the strongest sense of survival: Cohen (a psychologist as well as a writer and filmmaker) details the suicides of two nieces, the drowning of a nephew and the tragic deaths of Freud's daughter Sophie, 27, and a delicate young nephew.

    Remaining behind in Vienna, Freud's three sisters were all murdered in the camps. So how did the 82-year-old Freud, battling oral cancer and long failing to face his own denial about the Nazi threat - his fantasy was that the Austrians were so disorderly they would fail to implement Hitler's orders - summon the strength, will and vital papers to rattle out of Germany on the Orient Express accompanied by his wife Martha, daughter Anna, and the faithful family maid?

    Cohen even reveals that the Freud eggs were soft boiled

    When previously encouraged to get out of Vienna while he could - and go anywhere - Freud had protested that Palestine lacked the certainty of hot baths and America had nothing to recommend it but tobacco.

    But Anna's terrifying, brief arrest by the Gestapo proved a turning point: "Wouldn't it be better if we all killed ourselves?" she worried afterwards. Her beloved Papa would have none of it: "Why? Because they would like us to?"

    Commissar Anton Sauerwald certainly did not like them to: Cohen sees this 35-year-old highly cultured chemist (and bomb-maker) as one of the unsung righteous who concealed from superiors his discovery of Freud's secret bank accounts, procured vital exit visas and somehow smuggled the precious books from Freud's own publishing house to safekeeping in the Austrian National Library.

    By a bizarre, post-war twist of fate, Sauerwald was charged with war crimes, eventually to be bailed out by carefully worded evidence from Anna Freud.

    Cohen reveals that some part of the Freud archive remains mystifyingly closed in the Library of Congress for another 10 to 40 years; yet he has seemingly left no available letter or dusty document unexplored in his research.

    The resulting work uncovers fascinating Freudian secrets and truths, meshing great scholarship with analytical aperçus and page-turning detective drama.

    The heavy stamp of jackboot history (formerly assimilated, Freud became increasingly Jewish as persecution grew) is leavened by delicious personal details - the exquisite tailoring of Freud's suits, his affection for his pet chow dog, Jofi, and even the soft-boiled egg Freud ate for breakfast.

    Resettled in Hampstead for the last 15 months of his life, Freud wrote one more short book and was backed (in vain) for British citizenship by H G Wells and a parliamentary proposal.

    Cohen sees this rejection as a sign of pre-war antisemitism fuelled by the arrival of 60,000 European refugees. Freud died in Maresfield Gardens as he had lived, loved and worked - a brilliantly complex Viennese.

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