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Intimate letter revealing Sigmund Freud's softer side up for sale

AP Photo/Patty Nieberg

By Patty Nieberg
A handwritten letter by Sigmund Freud, which shows a rare sentimental side to the 20th-century thinker as well as insight into the life of a prominent Jewish refugee amid the advance of the Nazis, is set to go on sale in Jerusalem.

The letter, written in German and dated June 21 1938, was sent several weeks after Freud fled the Nazis in his native Austria and moved to London.

In it, he writes to philanthropist Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, a friend and patient from back home, sympathising with her over a personal tragedy and appearing to seek glimpses of life back in Vienna under Nazi rule.

The letter shows a softer side of Freud, a trait that is not commonly attributed to the father of psychoanalysis, according to Joel Whitebook, author of the book Freud: An Intellectual Biography, and director of the psychoanalytic studies programme at New York's Columbia University.

"People often portray Freud as this cerebral, intellectual guy. But he was very, very sensitive to his environment and aesthetics," Mr Whitebook said.

In the letter, Freud comforts Stonborough-Wittgenstein after her ex-husband had taken his own life and inquires about her state of mind.

"I can well imagine in what painful and conflicted mental state the event placed you. Are your circumstances now going to change? Will you remain in Vienna? I would like to ask you much more," he wrote.

With this emotional subject, he signs off warmly: "I hope to hear from you soon, with my deepest sympathy, Freud."

The unusual and informal dynamic between the two as friends and doctor-patient was common and "part of the Viennese scene", according to Mr Whitebook.

The letter is "evidence of how closely knit" the Jewish community, the cultural world and the scientific world were at the time, he added.

Stonborough-Wittgenstein was the daughter of Karl Wittgenstein, an iron and mining magnate, and one of the wealthiest men in Austria.

Although members of the Wittgenstein family converted to Christianity, they had Jewish ancestry, subjecting them to Nazi Germany's racial laws.

However, their financial resources, elite status in society and conversion to Christianity were enough to protect them from Nazi persecution.

They were still part of the "prominent Jews in the German speaking world", Mr Whitebook said.

Freud, who was Jewish, was renowned at the time but did not have the status to placate the Nazis and ensure his safety.

By 1933, his books had started to be publicly burned and his daughter Anna was arrested by the Gestapo.

The family managed to flee with the help of Anton Severwald, a high-ranking Nazi officer who was a fan of Freud's work.

The Freud family left Austria on June 4 1938, crossing into France and settling in England, where Freud wrote his letter.

"The letter was already censored so he cannot really write what he thinks about the Nazis," said Meron Eren, co-owner of Kedem Auction House, which is conducting the sale.

Instead, Freud used a sense of humour to compare London's Primrose Hill Park to his summer holiday spot in Grinzing, drily joking that Nazi official Josef Buerkel "would have now become the next-door neighbour".

Buerkel was the new governor after helping to carry out the annexation of Austria for Nazi Germany in March 1938 and became a resident of the Vienna suburb.

"That is kind of his way to say that things look different in Vienna now," Eren said.

Although Freud reluctantly left Vienna, Mr Whitebook said he was "treated like a rock star" in his new life in London.

His work was widely popular and well known, which was not the case in his conservative life in Vienna.

Freud had an antiquities collection from the Ancient East and Asia, including amulets, one of which Stonborough-Wittgenstein presumably gave him before he left.

"The amulet has so far proven its worth. The journey was easy, the reception in England was flatteringly pleasant, the weather is surprisingly nice and the house my architect son has chosen for us as a temporary home is comfortable," Freud wrote.

The letter came towards the end of Freud's life.

When he was finally established in London, Freud was 83 years old and sick with cancer.

He lived about one more year until his death on September 23 1939.

The letter was bought by an Israeli collector at auction in Europe and is now being resold in Jerusalem.

It will be up for auction on December 3, with bidding to start at 6,000 dollars (£4,600).

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