An exhibit at the Austen Riggs Center tells the story of the pioneering Jewish psychoanalysts who fled Vienna before its occupation by the Nazis
By Linda F. Burghardt / Special to the BJV
The neat white house at 48 Main Street in Stockbridge that brought joy to thousands of visitors when it housed the coveted collection of Norman Rockwell’s artwork is now providing enlightenment and knowledge through a historical exhibition that tells the breathtaking story of a group of persecuted psychoanalysts, including Sigmund Freud, who fled Vienna – with the Nazis at their heels – at the dawn of the Holocaust.
“Organized Escape: Psychoanalysts in Exile,” opened in Stockbridge on June 3 and will run through mid-October, free of charge to visitors, Thursdays to Saturdays, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The exhibit is the cornerstone of a unique collaboration between the Austen Riggs Center and the Freud Museum in Vienna, where the exhibit was originally created, garnering significant accolades in the months it has been shown there.
The Austen Riggs Center, founded over a century ago in 1919, is a therapeutic community and open psychiatric hospital and a thought leader in the fields of psychoanalytic research and education through its Erikson Institute, the division that brought the exhibit to the Berkshires.
“The emigre psychoanalysts from Vienna considerably enriched and shaped American psychoanalysis,” commented Jane Tillman, director of the Institute, “and this exhibit honors the concerted efforts of the psychoanalytic organizations that provided much-needed aid to those whose lives and professions were threatened by the Nazis.”
Alison Lotto, who curated the exhibit and serves as the librarian and archivist at the center, only a tenth of a mile away from the Old Corner House, where the exhibit is located, said, “We added a layer of American sensibility over the European-created exhibit and brought in some additional artifacts and objects from our own collection, so that we could enlarge and enhance the already excellent showing from Vienna for our visitors.”
The vivid displays showcase numerous photographs, historical artifacts, letters, diary entries, ship manifests, and selected biographies of the Viennese analysts whose lives became endangered literally overnight when the Nazis occupied Austria in March 1938. With the Anschluss, the official annexation of Austria to Germany, the Jews of the country that had once been the seat of an empire were suddenly exposed to danger on the streets, severe government oppression, radicalized attacks, and violent antisemitic demonstrations.
Their citizenship was revoked; weapons were confiscated; ownership of radios was no longer permitted. Their cars and phones were taken away; pets were forbidden. Professionals in nearly every position were dismissed from their jobs; businesses were taken over. Parents fought for the chance to save their children by sending them away to London on the Kindertransports, even knowing they might never see them again.
The practicing analysts of Vienna, the birthplace of psychoanalysis, were panicked. Like Freud, nearly all of the leaders of the newly developed field were Jewish, and thus newly and thoroughly endangered. All at once, the vicious antisemitic rules and regulations that had been enacted one by one since Hitler took power in Germany in 1933 suddenly became law in Austria as well, and the Jews were declared enemies of the Reich. The analysts were desperate to flee to save their lives; it was their only hope. But how? And to where?
All through the city, in offices, coffee houses, synagogues, and living rooms, people were gathering to figure out what to do. Couples who had just begun courting rushed to marry in the months after the Anschluss, hurrying to meet the July 31 deadline, the last day Jews were permitted to wed in Vienna. Though at first some had been skeptical and hoped the danger would pass, the violent and deadly state-sponsored pogrom against the Jews eight months after the Anschluss on Kristallnacht, raging through virtually every town and city in Austria and Germany, convinced even the doubters.
While individuals, couples, and families struggled to find a way out, some, like the psychoanalysts, had a lucky star to guide them. The Nazis targeted all Jews for destruction, but in addition, they threatened the intellectuals most firmly – the college professors, journalists, lawyers, judges, authors – and with an especially heavy hand, the followers of Sigmund Freud and his colleagues in this new and threatening profession.
For these psychoanalysts, a desperate call across the continent and over the Atlantic was sent out. In Vienna in 1938, one of the most prized possessions among the Jews was a Manhattan telephone book. Individuals would look up New Yorkers with the same last name as theirs and write them letters pleading for help. An affidavit. A sponsor. A letter of support. Anything to aid them as they struggled to find a way to flee. And a country that would take them.
While help for the psychoanalysts was unsuccessfully being sought from individual sponsors, in stepped a coalition of members of the international psychoanalytic community, like-minded professionals that made possible the unique collective escape that would ultimately save the lives of Freud and his colleagues in a daring group evacuation.
“How the finances were handled and how the sponsors were found is a terribly important part of the exhibit,” Lotto said. Through 1938 and into the spring of 1939, everyone in the group of 38 analysts and their families were rescued and living safely, mostly in the US, with a particularly large contingent settling in New York City. A handful found welcome in London and in a smattering of other cities around the world.
“The emigrees moved from despair to hope,” Lotto said, explaining that “the whole exhibit is a story of how they came out of danger and what their experience was on the way, and how they then found the courage and creativity to make new lives for themselves in their new homes.”
The meticulously researched exhibition that traces their descent into exile, as many of the emigrees viewed it, is immersive and impressive, exploring not only their forced migration but also the impact their leaving Vienna and resettling in the US and Great Britain had on the newly developing field of psychoanalysis and the larger world of mental health treatment in all its forms. How did psychoanalysis change in the decades following their emigration? How did the new practitioners in the US develop the field? What happened to those who stayed in Europe, and to the development of their practice? Answers to many of these questions come to light in the exhibit’s galleries.
By providing such a wealth of information, the exhibit lays bare the complexities of emigration to the US from Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938 and 1939 at the same time it examines the multi-layered cultural legacy of Freud and his colleagues. Lotto explained, “The psychoanalysts were in the best position to escape, yet it was still extremely hard. The whole field of psychoanalysis was in danger, not just the practitioners.”
Through expanding the historical story to include the experiences of current immigrants, the exhibit highlights the commonalities and differences between the ways each group managed, considering the cultural similarities, the professional relations, how the world has changed in the over eight decades since the Vienna escape, and the ways in which the stories overlap. Overall, the exhibit seems to say, danger is danger; asylum is asylum; and human hearts are human hearts.
In 1950, twelve years after the Viennese psychoanalysts became strangers in a new land, Anna Freud, who had escaped with her father, gathered the emigrees in Stockbridge for a joyous reunion at Austen Riggs. She called this the “First Congress on Child Analysis,” and demonstrated through lectures and testimony from the survivors that most had succeeded in finding professional fulfillment in exile, and many had gone on to create impressive careers for themselves.
Sadly, Sigmund Freud was not among those who gathered to share their success at the conference, having died in London not long after emigrating there. Within days of the Anschluss in March 1938, his home and workplace had been raided; a week later his daughter Anna was arrested and questioned by the Gestapo. Then in June, a mere three months later, Freud was able to leave Vienna with Anna and his wife Martha. But the end came for him after just 15 months, in September 1939. He was 83.
Adding to the exhibit, and deepening the gravity of it, are four hour-and-a-half-long digital roundtables that can be viewed at the exhibit itself and also remotely on Austen Riggs’ website at education.austenriggs.org, plus on the Freud Museum’s YouTube channel, which can be reached at freud-museum.at. The panels explore a wide range of issues relating to the psychoanalysts’ story: how their refugee experience enriched psychoanalysis in the Americas, the legacy they were able to leave behind, how they dealt with the loss of their culture and their future in Europe, what the genocide took away from psychoanalysis, and the impact of emigration on psychoanalytic practice.
“This is our first show since we had to shut down the exhibit space in 2019 due to Covid,” Lotto said. “We hope to offer something special here every summer. This is a new beginning, and we look forward to welcoming our neighbors and the many tourists who visit the Berkshires to ‘Organized Escape,’ so they can learn the fascinating history behind the emigrees’ story.”
Linda F. Burghardt Ph.D., is the scholar-in-residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in New York and a part-time resident of the Berkshires. She is the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Vienna.
Photo: The “First Congress on Child Analysis," hosted by Anna Freud in 1950 at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, MA.