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The Nazi Who Saved Sigmund Freud

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Overlook Press
Overlook Press

Sigmund Freud was 82 years old and suffering from cancer of the jaw when he fled to London from Vienna in 1938. Freedom gave him a final burst of creative energy and in the last 18 months of his life he finished a book, Moses and Monotheism, which he had hesitated over for years and compiled a summary of his life's work, An Outline of Psychoanalysis. When asked about his productivity at the time, he was known to give a rather curious response: "Thank the Fuhrer."

After Hitler came to power, many Jews saw the writing on the wall and left Germany. Einstein, for example, did so almost at once. But Freud steadfastly refused, even though many friends warned him that the Nazis were bound to take over Austria. When they finally did in March 1938, Freud still would not consider leaving. He only changed his mind on March 22nd when the Gestapo arrested his beloved daughter Anna. Gripped with fear, Freud frantically paced up and down his apartment chain-smoking cigars--and he did not even know of the pills she had taken with her so that she could commit suicide if tortured.

In the end, Anna was allowed to return home as a result of intense pressure from two close friends of Freud--Princess Marie Bonaparte, Napoleon's great grandniece and William Bullitt, the American ambassador to France. These connections, however, would not have been enough to persuade the Nazis to let Freud leave. Here, he had an improbable stroke of luck. The Nazis imposed a Komissar to run every Jewish business in Austria just as they had done in Germany. The Komissar's job was to fleece Jews of as much money as they could. By sheer fluke, the Nazis appointed as Freud's Komissar Dr. Anton Sauerwald, a forty-four year-old chemist whose hobbies included bomb making and gardening. It was Freud's good fortune that Sauerwald's professor had been one of Freud's friends.

As an academic, Sauerwald felt he had to read Freud's books so that he could perform his Nazi duties properly. Recognizing Freud's brilliance, slowly the Nazi chemist became convinced that he should help Freud. He hid damning evidence that the analyst had secret bank accounts in a number of European countries. Then he helped Freud and sixteen members of his family get exit visas. These cost a great deal of money which Freud did not have, but his helpful Komissar arranged for the sale of some of Freud's antiquities to foot the bill. Even more remarkable, Sauerwald got the Gestapo to pay for transporting many of Freud's books and the famous analytic couch to London. They are now in the Freud Museum in Hampstead.

On the day of his escape, the Gestapo would not let Freud board the train for Paris until he provided a statement that absolved them of any blame. "I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone," Freud wrote. The Nazis did not see the irony.

Freud loved London and often told his friends he thanked Hitler for making it necessary for him to leave. Sauerwald stayed in touch and then came to London himself to see the old man; Freud promptly complained about English doctors and asked him to get his Vienna doctor to come to treat him. As the doctor was a Nazi he didn't need an exit visa, and Sauerwald offered to drive him to London. The doctor operated on Freud the day after he arrived--an operation Freud believed gave him another year of life.

One might have expected the Freud family to be very grateful to Sauerwald, but sadly they were not. After the war, one of Freud's nephews, Harry who was an American officer tracked Sauerwald down and had him arrested. Sauerwald was charged with war crimes, specifically of robbing the Freud family of its assets.

Sauerwald's trial lasted longer than those at Nuremberg. He spent months sick in jail before he ever set foot in the court. From his cell Sauerwald appealed to the Freud family for help, but Anna Freud was ambivalent. She hesitated because her brother Martin hated Sauerwald, ironically, because he had been helpful when Martin was rash enough to criticise the Nazis openly.

Eventually, however, Anna wrote a letter detailing how Sauerwald had saved her father. But even then, she did not actually sign it. After my book, The Escape of Sigmund Freud, came out in England, I was contacted by Anna Freud's last secretary, Gina Le Bon. She had never heard of Sauerwald even though she worked for Anna for some 20 years. He had been airbrushed out of Freudian history.

Sauerwald saved 16 Jews in all. He failed to obtain exit visas for four of Freud's sisters, and they all died in concentration camps. Anton Sauerwald is an unsung hero who deserves far better than he received. Perhaps when Freud was thanking the Fuhrer, he had another Nazi in mind.

David Cohen is a writer, filmmaker, and psychologist. He is the author of Freud on Coke and Psychologists on Psychology, as well as biographies of the therapists Carl Rogers and John B. Watson, the founder of behaviourism. His films include The Pleasure Principle and Dead Cool, which he wrote and directed. His latest book, The Escape of Sigmund Freud [Overlook Press, $27.95], is out this month.