Rescuing Freud

November 30, 2022 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

With 20/20 historical hindsight, it can be unbearable to read stories of European Jews in the 1930s who turned down opportunities to flee Europe.  If only we could reach back in time and insist that they start packing. Tragically, they didn’t know then what we know now about the danger, destruction, and death that lay ahead.

Even Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who profoundly understood human cruelty and savagery, utterly misread the tenor of his time. He dithered and delayed over leaving his beloved Vienna. But for faithful friends and supporters, he would never have escaped to England. This is the remarkable story told in Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom by Andrew Nagorski. The author of several books on World War II, Nagorski also served as Newsweek bureau chief in multiple European cities.

A Man of Vienna

In January 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Sigmund Freud was 76 years old. He had lived nearly his entire life in Vienna. Here, he invented the term “psychoanalysis”; developed his groundbreaking theories and practices; treated his patients; wrote his books, essays, and lectures; hosted the legendary Wednesday night meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society; and, with his wife Martha, raised six children.

In Germany, the Nazis publicly burned Freud’s books and condemned psychoanalysis as a “Jewish science.” Still, Freud naively dismissed warnings that German anti-Jewish violence could spread to Austria: “Our people [Austrians] are not quite so brutal.”


Five years later, on March 15, 1938, Adolf Hitler appeared on the balcony of Vienna’s imperial palace to announce the Anschluss, the incorporation of Austria into the Third Reich. The Anschluss immediately triggered savage violence against Jews and their property.

When Nazis stormed into the Freud home, Martha Freud and her daughter Anna managed to defuse the situation. They greeted the intruders politely, invited them to stow their rifles in the umbrella stand, and offered them all the cash in the house. The Nazis took the money, ominously promising to return.

At the nearby International Psychoanalytic Press, the publishing house for the works of Freud and his colleagues, Freud’s son, Martin, fended off armed thugs and managed to flush down the toilet documents that the Nazis could have used against his father. Despite these terrifying Nazi raids, Martin wrote, his father still hoped “to ride out the storm,” expecting “that a normal rhythm would be restored.”

Freud’s attitude changed when the Gestapo took Anna from his house to interrogate her. While anxiously awaiting Anna’s release, Freud realized that he must get his family out of Austria.  Immediately, Freud’s “rescue squad,” as Nagorski calls it, sprang into action.

Freud’s rescuers included Princess Marie Bonaparte, a great-grandniece of Emperor Napoleon, Welsh physician Ernest Jones, and American diplomat William Bullitt.  Wielding their considerable political and social clout, these people went to heroic lengths to bring Freud and his family to England. In the meantime, Bullitt made sure that American diplomatic vehicles, conspicuously adorned with the American flag, were parked outside Freud’s Vienna home.

The most vital, if unlikely, member of Freud’s rescue squad was a Nazi bureaucrat, Anton Sauerwald. He was responsible for certifying that Freud had fulfilled his tax obligations, had no funds in foreign countries, and was thus eligible to emigrate. In fact, Freud had funds in Switzerland, but for reasons that can only be guessed at – admiration for Freud? – Sauerwald kept that crucial fact secret.

In England, Freud lived out his final days in peace. Anna Freud became an influential figure in the field of child psychology. Mercifully, Freud never learned that his four sisters, who had remained in Vienna, died in concentration camps.