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Contemporary Psychoanalysis and the Legacy of the Third ReichReview - Contemporary Psychoanalysis and the Legacy of the Third Reich
History, Memory, Tradition
by Emily A. Kuriloff
Routledge, 2013
Review by Sharon Packer, MD
Oct 15th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 42)

A few years ago, at a book reading, Rabbi Jonathan of Woodstock asked me, a psychiatrist, a question. Traditionally, congregants ask probing questions (shailas) of rabbis, rather than the other way around--but Rabbi Jonathan's question was brilliant. His question haunts me to this day.

Rabbi Jonathan asked, "How could the [Jewish] psychoanalysts who escaped the Holocaust concentrate on treating their patients, when they must have been so consumed by their own emotions, their own memories, their own pain?"

I could not answer the rabbi's question, but Emily Kuriloff would have had much to say, had she been present. In fact, Kuriloff produced an entire book that offers answers for related questions.  This book is a must-read for scholars and serious students from many different disciplines.

          The author of Contemporary Psychoanalysis and the Legacy of the Third Reich: history, memory, tradition is a practicing psychologist and a training analyst. She speaks in the language of psychoanalysis, using technical terms in her text, yet writing in a way that becomes accessible to all. Those who are already conversant with some of the topics touched on in this book will find a kaleidoscope of associations awaiting them. This book functions like Proust's proverbial Madeleine, jarring a wealth of memories, just as the subtitle states.

Kuriloff tackles new territory, and adds unusual approaches to complement her extensive library-based research. Kuriloff interviews the progeny of leading post-Freudian or neo-Freudian psychoanalytic figures. She speaks with the historian-son of the late Heinz Kohut. She tracks down Mariann Kris, an analyst herself and widow of Ernst Kris, the art historian who joined Freud's early circle to become an analyst.  Kuriloff connects with the estranged daughter of the contentious Melanie Klein. Melissa Schmideberg is also an analyst. The still-embittered Schmideberg compares the analysts to "Goebbels," the Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda who held a Ph.D. in German romantic drama.

This unexpected allusion—as well as Kuriloff's interview technique—evokes images of a recent documentary film, Hitler's Children (dir: Chanoch Ze'evi, 2011). There, the Israeli filmmaker interviews children of Reich leaders such as Heinrich Himmler, Hans Frank, Hermann Göring and Rudolf Höss, to learn about their lives today, and how they were impacted by the legacy left by their parents. However, Kuriloff's objects of study are polar opposite of Ze'evi's, for she interviews survivors and refugees of Nazis, rather than Nazi relatives.

There is some mention of better-documented Nazi collaboration or sympathizing. Kuriloff informs us of Jung's willingness to accept the chair of the General Medical Society for Psychotherapy, after the Nazis' expelled the standing Jewish chair and all other Jewish members. There is more attention to Jung's mid-life trajectory than found in most general discussions of psychoanalysis. 

Kuriloff devotes a chapter to currently practicing American (and Israeli) analysts whose parents were either "survivors" or "escapees" from the Shoah [Holocaust]. She mentions activist-analyst Jack Drescher, MD. Most impressively, Kuriloff documents conversations with Otto Kernberg himself, who witnessed the Nazis' arrival in Vienna when he was eleven.

Kernberg describes his Austrian-Jewish family's exile to Chile, and his eventual arrival at the Menninger Institute in Kansas. He explains how his experiences shaped his views of ego psychology, the fragmentation of the self, and his unique approaches to borderline personality disorder. Kernberg speaks of his mother, who was forced to wash the streets of Vienna as a Nazi official taunted her. This tale reminds us of Freud's recollection his father's experiences with a German officer, who knocked the hat off his father's head—yet his father avoided confrontation (and potentially worse assault) when he simply picked up his hat and said nothing. (Freud did not live long enough to learn that his four sisters died in concentration camps, but he finally decided to emigrate after his daughter Anna was arrested and interrogated by Nazis.)

Responding to the Kernberg interviews, and to other evidence that she unearthed, Kuriloff concludes that most of the émigré analysts repressed traumatic memories and dismissed the relevance of adult trauma, focusing to exclusion on early childhood traumas. Concern about trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which are so important today, are relatively recent revisions.  

Kernberg's story stands in marked contrast to the tale told about Heinz Kohut, whose psychoanalytic formulations cover similar ground as Kernberg's but come to different conclusions. According to the younger Kohut, a historian and an academic, Werther--and other icons of German Kultur—were objects of worship in the highly assimilated Kohut household. Like the anti-Semitic Nazis themselves, who glorified German Romanticism and virtually deified Werther, the Kohuts and their like-minded peers eschewed their Jewish identity. They appear to have been as repulsed by their ancestral culture and religion as the German overlords who murdered one third of their co-religionists. Ironically, this adoration of the adopted German Kultur reminds us of the ancient Hebrew tribes who began worshipping the Baal and other idols of their neighbors soon after they arrived in the land of Canaan.

Kuriloff tells us a great deal, far too much to recount in a review. She mentions the rigidity of analysts who escaped Austria and Germany. They refused to entertain new ideas, and they revered those who had studied with Freud, or were members of his circle, or had been analyzed by them. They recounted their lineage, just as the Hebrew Bible methodically documents the lineage of the Children of Israel, tracing each generation back to the Patriarch Abraham. Kuriloff refers to their sanctification of the early psychoanalytic writings as a "talisman," and as a totem of sorts, which was used to bridge the gap between unexpected life experiences and their professional practices. To those who are familiar with the Jewish religion, it is immediately evident that these analysts treated early psychoanalytic theories that they rescued from Europe with the same sanctity that more traditional Jews reserved for Torah scrolls and the Talmud's oral commentary, and other ceremonial objects that could be salvaged.

In spite of these striking parallel processes—parallels that would intrigue any analyst—most of the analysts described by Kuriloff spurned the primitive practices--and habits and language-- of their co-religionists from the East, who were known as Ostjuden (lit.: Eastern Jews).

The distinction between Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) and German-speaking Jewish analysts is an intriguing one. Freud himself began life in the land of the Ostjuden and returned to visit Chasidic relatives who lived in the Eastern regions of Moravia. He remained conversant with the culture, even though he disavowed religious belief in general. German Jews were also aware of the Ostjuden, for Russian pogroms and poverty sent many Ostjuden westward, to resettle in Germany. These new arrivals were ostracized by more moneyed, educated and acculturated German Jewish elite. Ostjuden immigrants were the first to be expelled when the Nazis gained power, well before the Holocaust began.  

Even further east, in what was sometimes called "Russia-Poland," S. Ansky recorded folk tales about The Dybbuk. In the same years that psychoanalytic theories were formulated and refined, the sudden appearance of psychosis was ascribed to the succubus-like Dybbuk spirit. In 1914, Ansky turned his Dybbuk story about folk psychology, religious rites and shtetl (small town) life into a play. That play has lived many, many lives since, having been made into films, operas, ballets, and puppet shows.  Writer (and government-appointed rabbi) Sholem Aleichem labored in the same years as Sholem Ansky. Sholem Aleichem penned works that were so psychologically and sociologically astute that the Soviets retained his writings, explaining that he universalized human experience in his tales of the shtetl.  Sholem Aleichem is best remembered for Tevya (1914), which became Broadway's Fiddler on the Roof.

The Western European analysts that Kuriloff describes came from a culture that was far removed from the Yiddish-speaking worlds of Ansky and Aleichem. Few had recent roots in those traditions, and most scorned these folklorist approaches as bitterly as anti-Semites scorned Jews.  Freud's iconoclastic theories were denounced as "Jewish science" (as was Einstein's physics).  The sentimentalism that offered psychological salvation for Eastern Jews was not available to analysts.

Kuriloff devotes extra attention to the French Jewish analytic community, and to the leftist inclinations of intellectuals. Following the lead of Kernberg, she explains this intrigue when she tells us a bit about her own background, which combines French-Jewish and Eastern European ancestry.

In discussing France, Kuriloff alludes to Sartre, the existentialist philosopher who ignited endless debates via his Anti-Semite and Jew (1946). Sartre also championed "authenticity". The reader can easily envision Sartre's horror ("nausea", perhaps) at the thought of the Western Jewish analytic community's denial of their Jewish heritage and their acceptance of the anti-Semite's stereotypes of Ostjuden—at the same time that they treated patients who were conflicted about their own fractured identities.

To date, many have written about Freud's Jewish background and his attitude toward religion and race (or the so-called "Jewish race"). Biographer Ernst Jones (who was accused of anti-Semitic attitudes but who personally orchestrated the rescue of many Jewish analysts) minimized Freud's Jewish affiliations. Contrarily, the controversial Michael Bakan connects Freud's theories to Jewish mystical treatises. Henri Ellenberger, the esteemed author of Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry (1970) offers several explanations, including a link to the Catholic confessional, because Freud's Austrian-Catholic nanny took him with her to church. Richard Bernstein, Peter Gay, Sandor Gilman, Manny Rice, Ostow, Efron, Young-Breuhl, Frosch, Makari, and many more also offer important ideas, as does Lawrence J. Friedman's study of the Menninger family (1992).

Kuriloff has carved a new niche with her research. This book will evoke both learned responses and visceral reactions. I expect it to spawn many doctoral dissertations on the tangents that she touches upon. In one chapter, she quotes an African-American analyst about the self-hatred and denial of identity that consumed many émigré analysts who internalized the hostility of their host countries.  What a wonderful question that would have been for Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist and author of Black Skins, White Masks (1952), who inspired the Black Power and identity movement of the 1960s.


© 2013 Sharon Packer


Sharon Packer, MD is a psychiatrist who is in private practice in Soho (NYC) and Woodstock, NY. She is an Asst. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Her books include Dreams in Myth, Medicine and Movies (Praeger, 2002), Movies and the Modern Psyche (Praeger, 2007) and Superheroes and Superegos: The Minds behind the Masks (Praeger/ABC-Clio, 2010). In press or in production are Sinister Psychiatrists in Cinema (McFarland, 2012) and Evil in American Pop Culture (ABC-Clio, 2013, co-edited with J. Pennington, PhD.) She can be contacted at .



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