Commentary Magazine


Freud's Mother and Father:
A Memoir

Before embarking upon an account of my impressions of Sigmund Freud’s parents, who were my own maternal grandfather and grandmother, it might be well to give some account of myself.

My life from the age of six on has swung back and forth between the Old World and the New. It started when my father and mother left me and my younger sister Lucy behind in our native city of Vienna, while they, accompanied by our younger brother Edward, emigrated to the United States. There, Father hoped to find better conditions in which to establish himself. My sister was left with our aunt and uncle, and I in the care of our maternal grandparents, the father and mother of Sigmund Freud, my mother’s brother.

We were sent for a year later, and traveled to the United States under the protection of one of Mother’s sisters, Aunt Paula. Mother received regular news of her brothers and sisters. She would describe Vienna to us with a kind of nostalgia that endowed it with glamor. As a matter of fact, the first money that I ever earned—teaching in the New York public schools for several years—I spent on a trip to Europe. But even before that, Mother had taken all five of us children abroad to visit our grandparents on both sides—the Freuds and the Bernayses, and we had come to know our cousins, the children of Sigmund Freud and of my mother’s sisters.

During my first journey on my own, I spent weeks in the Freud home. Then the First World War separated us for four long years. When I returned to Vienna in 1921, it was like coming back to a second home. Again I stayed with the Freuds, and was proud to be permitted to translate three of my uncle’s papers into English; these were published in 1924 by the Hogarth Press in London, as part of the International Psychoanalytical Library. Then, when I married an Austrian economist, Dr. Victor Heller, Vienna became my home once more, which did not displease me.

Subsequently, I journeyed back to the United States several times to see my family and to renew my American citizenship, which I prized. And in 1938, with Hitler’s annexation of Austria, I returned to this country for good, accompanied by my husband.

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Sigmund Freud himself, as well as others, spoke about his father—in the Interpretation of Dreams, in his letters to Fliess, and in his autobiographical writings. It was my privilege as a child to be quite close for a time to this patriarchal figure, whose room I shared during the year that I remained in Vienna while my parents were establishing themselves in New York.

That was in 1892-93, when Sigmund Freud was living with his wife and four children in a modest apartment not far from my grandparents, with whom three grown daughters and their youngest son, just starting out with a newspaper, were still staying.

I cannot say who really supported this establishment. I do know that my grandfather was no longer working, but divided his time between reading the Talmud (in the original) at home, sitting in a coffee house, and walking in the parks. Occasionally, he took me with him, when the others were too busy to occupy themselves with me. Tall and broad, with a long beard, he was very kind and gentle, and humorous in the bargain—much more so than my grandmother, whom I really feared, though I admired her stateliness and the nice clothes she wore when she went out with her friends.

It seems to me, as I look back now, that Freud’s father lived somewhat aloof from the others in his family, reading a great deal—German and Hebrew (not Yiddish)—and seeing his own friends away from home. He would come home for meals, but took no real part in the general talk of the others. It was not a pious household, but I do remember one Seder at which I, as the youngest at the table, had to make the responses to the reading of the song about the sacrifice of the kid; I was greatly impressed by the way my grandfather recited the ritual, and the fact that he knew it by heart amazed me. I liked, too, to hear the stories he would tell about my mother, who, as eldest daughter, seemed to have been his pet; he held her up to me as an example to follow.

But what I think struck me most about my maternal grandfather was how, in the midst of this rather emotional household, with its three young women who sometimes did not get on well with one another, and their mother, who was usually troubled and anxious—probably with financial worries—he remained quiet and imperturbable, not indifferent, but not disturbed, never out of temper and never raising his voice. My grandmother, on the other hand, had a volatile temperament, would scold the maid as well as her daughters, and rush about the house.

It was not a very spacious apartment. As I have said, I had to share my grandfather’s bedroom; the three daughters, grown young women, shared one room with my grandmother, and the young son had a dark little room facing the court; while the maid, as was customary in Vienna at that time, slept on a folding cot that was opened up at night in the kitchen, I believe, while it stood in the hall under a cover in the daytime. I do not remember whether there was a bathroom in the place, but I know that I was usually washed by being stood in a basin and sponged down. The whole place was simpler and less comfortable in every way than my parents’ home had been and, of course, it was not home, in spite of the kindness of my three young aunts and grandfather. I greatly envied my sister, who had been left in the Sigmund Freud household, where there were three boys and a girl to play with. When I was brought there so that we might play together once in a while, I hated to go back to my grandparents’, where there were only grown-ups, among them my somewhat shrill and domineering grandmother.

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I cannot remember any special incident that might account for the prejudice that I had and continued to have all my life against my grandmother. She was a fine-looking woman, efficient, and capable in the household, lively and sociable, much visited by friends, and loved and honored by her children until her death at ninety-five. Was it because I already felt as a child that she preferred the male members of her brood to the female ones? I did not get to know her really until many, many years later, when I returned to Austria as a young girl and spent the summer with one of my married aunts in Ischl, the resort where my grandmother kept house with the single unmarried daughter who had been designated by the family to stay and look after her. She was still handsome and upstanding then, with a fine head of gray hair that was combed à la Pompadour every morning by a hairdresser.

She had many friends and acquaintances and spent the afternoons playing cards with them at the coffee and tea “stations,” as they were called, in the woods and villages around Ischl, then the summer residence of the Austrian emperor. My aunt, who did not play cards, would be forced to go with her, whether she liked it or not, and when I was around I would trot along, too, very unwillingly, for although I did not mind the walk, I hated just to sit around and watch the elderly ladies at their tarock or poker. I think my prejudice against cards was founded there and then.

My grandmother did not like us to go off by ourselves; at the time I thought that she was a most selfish old lady and altogether disapproved of her. And she no less of me. She could not take pride in a young girl who did not care to promenade in her best dress up and down the Esplanade while the band was playing; who preferred, instead, to spend her mornings in rough clothes, climbing round the rocks on the mountain paths, or sitting on hidden benches with her nose buried in some book that was surely not suitable for her. But she made no effort to discipline or change me; after all, was I not going back to New York in the fall, where such behavior might be proper? There was no mistaking her lack of interest in all that concerned me.

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My grandmother’s delight in card-playing persisted throughout her life. In her nineties, when she had grown feeble and was no longer able to go out, her partners would come to the house for a game. She would play dominoes with her young grandsons and even a great-grandson, and be very angry if they did not play with concentration, or if they “let her win,” as she said, out of deference to her age. She kept her interest in making a good appearance on appropriate occasions until almost the last year of her life. When there was a special invitation, as for instance to the celebration of my uncle Sigmund’s seventieth birthday in 1926 (when she was already ninety), she insisted that she be bought a new dress and hat to go to the Jause (coffee party) at his house. She had to be carried down the stairs from her own home and up the stairs to the Freuds’, but she did not mind that so long as she could be present to be honored and feted as the mother of her “golden son,” as she called her Sigmund.

She was charming and smiling when strangers were about, but I, at least, always felt that with familiars she was a tyrant, and a selfish one. Quite definitely, she had a strong personality and knew what she wanted, and the best evidence of that is the way she held her two sons and five daughters together, in spite of all the divergences and differences in their interests and their temperaments. And she had a sense of humor, being able to laugh at, and at times even ridicule, herself. I remember her saying to me, when I was supposed to choose some present for myself from her cabinet, where she kept a few treasured antiques: “After all, the best antique in my house is myself, and me you cannot take.” She was eighty-four at the time.

Among her other good qualities was the fact that she was not a complainer. You did not hear her bewail the privations and difficulties of the First World War; she did not groan about the weaknesses attendant on old age. Even when she broke her arm at eighty-five and had to give up her beloved crocheting and knitting, she did not waste time pitying herself, but praised the doctor, her children who had nursed her so patiently, and the friends who had come to help her pass the time.

Some of the more intimate of her son Sigmund’s student-patients made a point of paying their respects to her regularly, and she would tell them stories about her “golden son,” as well as about her “darling Alexander,” and her faithful and devoted daughters—more particularly, the next to the youngest of them, Dolfi, who had been chosen by her brothers to take care of their mother.

Whenever Dolfi went out my grandmother would stand at the window watching for her return, and not be content or easy until she saw her. There was a story in the family that when Dolfi was young she had had a chance to marry and found a family of her own, but had been dissuaded by her brothers, who preferred to have her there looking after their mother. As it was, when Grandmother at last died this poor aunt of mine, then not far from seventy herself, was completely broken and left without any real interest or purpose in life. Only later, when two of her widowed sisters came to live with her, one a refugee from Nazi Berlin, did her spirits pick up again.

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I think that one of the circumstances that helped reinforce my impression of my grandmother’s selfishness was the fact that she so successfully used her increasing deafness in order to avoid hearing what she did not want to hear—principally the report of any event that might require her to bestow an extra measure of sympathy or consolation upon some member of the family. She was over seventy by the time I noticed this, but still hale and hearty enough to stand up to such obligations had she wanted to. Thus, when a young granddaughter died tragically at the age of twenty-three, and she heard grief-stricken whispers all around her, she manifested no desire to learn their cause, nor was she expressly told of it. When the bereaved mother came to see her she never asked about the girl, nor did she inquire afterwards about her, though this granddaughter had visited her frequently in the past. Ten years later, however, she began to talk again about “poor Cecily,” revealing that she had been fully aware all along of what had happened. . . .

My grandmother’s sitting room on Sunday mornings was the weekly meeting place for her busy sons, her daughters and daughters-in-law, her grandchildren and their children. Even when convalescing from operations and illness, Professor Freud would always find time of a Sunday morning to pay his mother a visit and give her the pleasure of petting and making a fuss over him. When he could not come, her younger son, Alexander, with his son would be there to listen to all her troubles, and to those of his unmarried sister, too, and he would comfort them with promises of finding remedies. Though both brothers shared equally in the financial support of the female members of the family, one might say that Sigmund, the elder, was more the moral support, while Alexander, the younger, was more the practical one. Both were looked up to as the strong and successful males of the family.

When my grandmother was younger, there had been family reunions at Uncle Sigmund’s house one evening a week, but these were discontinued when she began to find it more difficult to climb the stairs. Aunt Martha often accompanied Uncle Sigmund on his Sunday morning visits, and when she did not, she and her sister, Minna Bernays, who was now living permanently with them, made a point of coming to see my grandmother some time during the week. Relations between Aunt Martha and my grandmother were unmarred as long as I can remember.

My grandmother died in the fall of 1930, after several weeks of great weakness, of no particular ailment aside from old age and a worn-out body. Up to the last four months, she had continued to make her will felt and had insisted that, instead of spending the summer in Vienna, she be taken to her beloved Ischl in the mountains as before. Everybody was against it: her sons, the doctor, her daughters. But she had her way. She had to be carried to the train on a stretcher, looked after in her sleeping-car compartment by her doctor, and taken to her country apartment in an ambulance. But once there, she rallied for a while and sat on her balcony, enjoying both the view of the mountains and the consciousness that she was Ischl’s oldest summer guest. Towards the end of summer, however, she grew weaker, and two weeks after her return to Vienna she fell into a coma and died peacefully.

With her going, the strong and vivid bond that held the family together was broken.

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About the Author




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