Leaving Today: the Freuds in Exile 1938

18 July 2018 to 30 September 2018

On Saturday 4 June 1938, Sigmund Freud, his wife, Martha, and their daughter Anna left Vienna forever.  On the same day, Freud sent a note to his friend, the writer, Arnold Zweig. In it he wrote, briefly, “Leaving today for 39 Elsworthy Road, London NW3 …”.

Freud’s note was simple, but behind it lay a complex and dangerous series of events and an urgent need to escape. Hitler’s annexation of Austria to Germany on 13 March had placed Austrian Jews in immediate danger. Within days, Freud’s apartment and publishing house had been raided. A week later, Anna was arrested and questioned by the Gestapo.

Now, after weeks of uncertainty, Freud, Martha and Anna boarded a train to take them across Europe to Paris, and from there to London and a new life. Other family members had escaped just weeks earlier, but many friends and relatives remained behind to uncertain fates.

Featuring original documents, letters and objects, many of which have never been on public display before, this major exhibition revealed the stories of Freud’s and his family’s escape and exile. Key items included the original documents required for Freud and his family to leave Austria and enter Britain, Freud’s personal correspondence – including with celebrated figures such as Albert Einstein and H.G. Wells – and personal belongings.


Detail from drawing by Baobab Centre artists, 2018

Through the experiences of Freud and his family threads a universal story of flight and exile. Britain remains a refuge for many fleeing persecution, torture, enslavement and murder. At the center of the exhibition were the voices of young people who attend the Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile through work they  created in collaboration with the artist Barnaby Barford. Each young person has come to Britain, unaccompanied, to seek refuge and safety.

The exhibition includes the first public display of Psychoanalyst by Marie-Louise von Motesiczky a generous gift from the Marie-Louise Motesiczky Foundation. The Museum is very pleased to add this painting from one of ‘Austria’s most important 20th-century painters’ to its collections.

Marie-Louise von Motesiczky herself had an interesting link to Sigmund Freud and the Freud family. Marie-Louise and her family moved in similar circles to the Freuds. Her grandmother Anna von Lieben was a patient of Sigmund Freud’s, as were other relatives, while her brother Karl pursued his own studies in psychoanalysis with Wilhelm Reich. Like the Freuds, Marie- Louise and her mother fled Austria immediately after the Anschluss in 1938. They arrived in England in 1940 where they spent the rest of their lives.

Highlights from the Exhibition

Leaving Today: Freuds in Exile

‘The Unspeakable & the Unspoken’ by Michael Molnar

“Leaving today,” Freud wrote on a postcard to a friend, the German writer Arnold Zweig, on 4th June 1938. Another note sent at the same time said, in English: “Leaving Vienna for good today.” On that day his and his family’s lives changed “for good” – they became refugees.

In Freud’s note diary the event is simply recorded without comment: “Departure 3.25 Orient Express”. The notes go on to record the subsequent stages of the journey – crossing the German frontier at the Kehl bridge; a stopover to visit a friend, the psychoanalyst Princess Marie Bonaparte, in Paris; the Channel crossing; arrival in London – all of this without commentary or opinion.
The reason is that these sporadic daily notes that Freud kept from 1929 up to his death in 1939 (he called them, his “Shortest Chronicle”) were little more than reminders to jog the writer’s memory – something between a logbook and an appointments diary. This record is made up largely of names and nouns. They neither emote nor plead; they simply bear witness.

Photograph of Martha Freud, Marie Bonaparte, William Bullitt and Sigmund Freud arriving at Gare de l’Est, Paris, 5 June 1938

Only five days after his arrival in England Freud wrote to a colleague of the emigrant’s pain at “the loss of the language in which one lived and thought…” Freud’s English was nearly perfect. Yet his sense of identity was rooted in the German language. In English he knew he could never be entirely himself.
To say a situation is “unspeakable” is a figure of speech. (Referring to a totalitarian system it can also be literally true – one is simply not allowed to speak.) To say it is “indescribable” is to acknowledge that language can be defeated.

Once in England he was soon approached by editors for his opinions. An article, claiming to be the first from his pen since his emigration, was published in Arthur Koestler’s journal, Die Zukunft, in November 1938. Entitled “A Comment on Anti-Semitism”, it is a curious production for it is almost entirely composed of a long précis, claiming to be a loose quotation from an author whose name Freud says he has forgotten.

An exhibition can show what is not said. It may bear witness on behalf of these – and other – refugees.

Extracted from ‘The Unspeakable & the Unspoken’ by Michael Molnar, in the exhibition catalogue.

Sigmund Freud’s study in Berggasse 19. Photographed by Edmund Engelman, 1938

Berggasse 19, photographed by Edmund Engelman

Edmund Engelman

In May 1938, as Freud and his family were about to leave Vienna forever, Anna Freud’s colleague, August Aichhorn, asked a young photographer, Edmund Engelman, to photograph the birthplace of psychoanalysis so that “a museum can be created when the storm of the years is over.”

Engelman systematically recorded the Freuds’ apartment and Freud’s waiting room, consulting room and study. Berggasse 19 was under surveillance by the Nazi authorities and Engelman photographed over three days without lights for fear of arousing suspicion. He used two cameras, a Rolleiflex and a Leica, a light meter and as many rolls of film as he could pack into his small case. He also photographed Sigmund, Martha and Anna Freud.

Engelman, who was Jewish, was forced to flee in late 1938, making his way through France and on to America where he settled. After the war, the negatives he had left with Aichhorn for safekeeping made their way to Anna Freud in London.

Leaving Today: the Freuds in Exile 1938

“… – a blessed, a happy country”: Life in England

A wave of public enthusiasm greeted Freud and his family, appreciation that Vienna had always withheld. Taxi drivers knew his house number, and post arrived addressed only to “Dr Freud, London”. The family settled quickly. Soon after arriving Anna gave public lectures, Mathilde opened a dress salon, and Martin started a new business. Martha shopped daily for food as she had always done.

“Is it possible ever to be anything but an immigrant in England?” Anna Freud

New customs were learned and adjustments – big and small – made. As Freud wrote, they now lived vertically! Ernst’s alterations to 20 Maresfield Gardens, his “re-erected Berggasse”, and Freud’s library and antiquities, conveyed something of the family’s lives in Vienna.

Ill-health overshadowed life in England. The prosthesis he had worn since his first operation for mouth cancer in 1923 was often unbearable, and numerous operations had left him weak and in pain. But each treatment gave him more time to work. He completed the study which had occupied his final years, Moses and Monotheism, and summarized his life’s work in An Outline of Psychoanalysis.

He tirelessly answered every letter and took on four patients. Distinguished figures visited, as well as family and friends, many of whom were also refugees. However, the illness of Martha’s sister, Minna, cast a shadow over the household, and happiness at being free was clouded by news from Vienna and fear for loved-ones there.

Martha and Sigmund under Ernst Freud’s loggia at 20 Maresfield Gardens, 1939. The loggia echoed the verandas of villas where the family had spent their summers in Austria.