Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Everybody knows Sigmund, but how many people know Anna?

Portrait of Anna Freud.

Anna Freud (1895-1982), the youngest of Sigmund’s six children, was a pioneering theoretician and renowned psychoanalyst in her own right best known for her work in the field of child psychology. A fundamental principle of her work was the then-novel idea that every child should be recognized as a person in his or her own right with specific needs, and that therapeutic alliances need to be created in response to each child as an individual. She also made fundamental contributions to the development of the theory of ego psychology, including how the consciousness functions in avoiding painful ideas, impulses, and actions.


Anna, who never married and never had children, completed her education at the Cottage Lyceum in Vienna in 1912, but she had not yet decided upon a career. Her interest in psychology is said to have begun when her father began psychoanalyzing her in 1918 – a move that he later rued and which is viewed by contemporary psychoanalysts with extreme incredulity at best and unmitigated horror at worst – and many experts maintain that he wrote about her (without specifically identifying her) in A Child Is Being Beaten (1919).

Photograph of Anna and Sigmund Freud (1929).

Anna became her father’s assistant, trained in psychoanalysis under him, and launched her own psychoanalytical children’s practice in 1923. By 1925, her professional reputation had grown to the point that she was teaching a seminar on the technique of child analysis at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Training Institute, which produced her first book, Introduction to the Technique of Child Analysis (1927). For the next seven years, she served as general secretary of the International Psychoanalytical Association, continued her child psychology practice, ran seminars, and tended to her father, who had become very ill. A year after becoming the director of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Training Institute in 1935, she published a seminal paper, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, in which she studied the “ways and means by which the ego wards off unpleasure and anxiety.” Departing from traditional orthodoxy regarding psychological drives, the work became a foundational work of ego psychology and established her reputation as a pioneering theoretician.

During the 1920s, Anna commenced volunteer work at the Baumgarten Home, which cared for Jewish children who were orphaned or made homeless during World War I. In 1937, she and a colleague founded a nursery school for children of the poor in Vienna where she conducted experiments regarding eating patterns that proved the children ate better and gained more weight when they had the freedom to choose their own food and that, over time, they developed nutritional balance on their own

Copy of Sigmund Freud’s March 22, 1938, diary entry. Bottom line reads “Anna is with the Gestapo.”

The school was soon forced to close, however, when the Nazis invaded Austria. Anna, seeing the handwriting on the wall for the Jews of Austria, suggested to her father that it might be better for them to simply kill themselves, but he replied, “Why? Because they would like us to?” and he refused to leave his Vienna home. Nonetheless, when Anna was arrested by the Gestapo on March 22, 1938, to interrogate her about her psychoanalytic publishing house and about an alleged group of Jewish terrorists, she secretly carried a lethal dose of poison to use were she to be tortured by the Nazis, but she was able to convince her questioners that she and her activities were entirely innocuous. Anna’s arrest finally convinced her father – almost too late – to flee Vienna, and she became one of the few Austrian Jews to successfully negotiate with the Nazi bureaucracy and to obtain a visa to leave with her very ill father to London. They arrived in London on June 6, 1938, and Sigmund died in London only a few weeks after the beginning of World War II.

Photo of Anna and Sigmund arriving in Paris after fleeing the Nazis en route to their new permanent home in London.

After the outbreak of the war, Anna established the Hampstead War Nursery, which provided foster care for over eighty children of single-parent families. She aimed to help the children form attachments by providing continuity of relationships with the helpers and by encouraging mothers to visit as often as possible, and she published important studies of children under stress. In arguably her most notable research during the war, the surprising results of her study showed that the children left in London to endure the Nazis’ incessant bombings fared better, and suffered less trauma, than the children who were sent away from their families to relative safety in the countryside. She concluded that “the physical injury is often not the harshest part of trauma; it’s the breakdown of relationships during and after.” Ironically, Anna said that “psychoanalysis has nothing to say about the Holocaust” because “psychoanalysis is about the inner world, about fantasy, not about the external world, not about what happens.”

Anna’s post-Holocaust life and work were shaped by her near escape from the Nazis and, in particular, by the murder of her four aunts that Sigmund had left behind when he was forced to flee to save his life and Anna’s. Many critics argue that her close identification with her father and her unconscious reproaches against him for “abandoning” his sisters in Vienna led to “survivor guilt” that affected her post-war work, particularly including her program at the Bulldogs Bank Home in Sussex, England, where she carefully observed six traumatized children who had been orphaned at Theresienstadt.

The children were infants who were only minimally cared for by a few of the other prisoners, who were largely concerned with their own survival and, as such, the children were of particular interest to Anna because they had received no adult input at a very young, but crucial, stage of their development; they had no opportunity to form any strong bonds with adults and were, in fact, aggressive and hostile toward adults. She observed that they exhibited striking solidarity with each other and devotion to each other and that they refused to be separated for any reason and at any time; as Anna later wrote, “The feelings of the six children toward each other show a warmth and spontaneity that are unheard of in ordinary relations between young contemporaries.” As such, it proved difficult to treat them as individuals, notwithstanding their having different needs.

Anna’s Bulldogs Bank Home work with the motherless young refugees marked a dramatic departure from her father’s emphasis on the id as the driver of much of human behavior. She wrote about the children’s ability to find substitute affection among their peers in An Experiment in Group Upbringing, and she is credited with establishing the importance of the ego and the concept of the defense mechanism.

Sigmund Freud had characterized himself as “a godless Jew” who, although he married an observant woman from an Orthodox Jewish family, forced her to abandon her faith, forsake her traditional practices, and sharply limit her contacts with her religious family and with Judaism, even going so far as to prohibit her fasting on Yom Kippur. In Man and Father (1909), a memoir about his life growing up in his father’s home, Freud’s eldest son, Martin, notes that Jewish texts were generally absent and otherwise says very little about the family’s Jewish practices.

As such, it is hardly surprising that in Anna’s early years, she had been generally ambivalent about Judaism, although she occasionally attended classes at a Reform synagogue on Shabbat. Asked how Jewish her childhood home had been, Anna quipped, “more than people think, and less than I remember.” While she didn’t observe Jewish practices and only very rarely attended synagogue services, she did celebrate some of the Jewish holidays on a secular and cultural level, including particularly Passover, which was one of the few continuing Jewish traditions of emancipated Jews who had left the ghetto and ceased to observe the commandments. The Seder was, indeed, one of the only Jewish ceremonies observed by Anna’s father; Sigmund knew Hebrew, so he read from the Haggadah and his wife knew the Haggadah by heart, but Anna, who was given a German education, apparently needed it translated into German.

However, Anna later developed a deep connection to her Jewish heritage; for example, in a letter to a friend, she summed it up by writing that “I feel a strong connection to my Jewishness, which I cannot explain.” Like her father, she believed in the importance of ethical principles and values and saw many of them as consistent with Judaism and, in particular, her later connection to Judaism was shaped by her experiences as a Jewish woman living in Europe during a time of increasing antisemitism and her escape from Vienna immediately before the Holocaust. Although Sigmund refused to directly link psychoanalysis with Judaism, Anna famously commented that Nazi ranting characterizing psychoanalysis as a “Jewish science” was the only accurate accusation they ever made.

While Anna began her life ambivalent about Zionism, she later became increasingly concerned about the Holocaust and the plight of European Jews, as discussed above, and she saw Zionism as a solution to the problem of Jewish statelessness and homelessness. In a 1947 correspondence to a friend, she expressed her excitement about the establishment of the State of Israel, stating that “Israel is the great political event of the century, and it is difficult for us to realize how important and how necessary it is for the Jewish people.” In a 1956 interview with Haaretz, she explained that “I have always been a supporter of the idea of a Jewish state. I believe that the Jewish people have a right to their own homeland and that they have earned the right through centuries of suffering and persecution.”

Anna was extremely interested in the fate of the psychoanalytic group established by Max Eitingon in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa (see discussion of psychoanalysis in Eretz Yisrael below), and he wrote to her of his journeys in the country, of his memorable excursions into the desert and at Petra, the intoxicating smells of blossoming citrus trees, and the delightful climate. He often sent crates of oranges or grapefruits back to Anna in Vienna, and she told him that “such grapefruits, unlike any sold in Vienna, even Papa devours with rapture, although he is forbidden to eat fruit.” Before visiting Eretz Yisrael, the idyllic descriptions of the land reverberated in her heart, with “psychoanalysis and oranges” and Jerusalem being the subject of her dreams. In a May 11, 1934, correspondence to Eitingon, she wrote, “Last night I had a vivid dream of Jerusalem. But it was a mixture of Vienna Forrest and Berchtesgaden – it seems that my imagination cannot reach any further than that.”

Anna made several trips to Israel, including a trip accompanying her father in 1934, where they met with various Zionist leaders, including Weizmann and Ben-Gurion, who deeply impressed her with their dedication to building a Jewish state and their commitment to building a society that was both Jewish and democratic. She toured the country, including many of the kibbutzim, which she considered to be important symbols of the Zionist idea. In a letter to her friend Marie Bonaparte during her first visit to Israel, she wrote that “I was deeply moved by the sight of the young country taking shape, where formerly there were had been nothing but desert and swamps. The people there are so full of enthusiasm and energy that one can’t help being infected by it.”

However, much like her father, her views on Zionism were nuanced. She spoke critically of Israel being born in violence and displacement, and she was particularly critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. In a 1973 interview with the Jerusalem Post, she stated that “I have always been in favor of a two-state solution, and I believe that Israel has a moral obligation to work towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict.” She was particularly interested in whether the future of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel would also affect the state of psychoanalysis, and whether the new ties to the land would cause the Berlin analysts in Eretz Yisrael to “suddenly become landowners or even farmers.”

When the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was inaugurated in 1925, Sigmund served as a member of the Board of Governors, in which capacity he introduced the revolutionary idea that the world’s first Chair of Psychoanalysis should be established at the University, but his proposal was rejected. The roots of the psychoanalytic movement in Eretz Yisrael began with Eitingon, who was born in Belarus and raised by a wealthy Orthodox family in Mohilev; he became the first psychoanalyst to undergo analysis and training by Sigmund, to whom he remained a passionate loyalist.

Eitingon established and underwrote the first psychoanalytic outpatient clinic in Berlin, which attracted young Jewish socialists from Eretz Yisrael sponsored by the Hashomer Hatzair movement, which sought to link their socialist ideology to Sigmund’s psychoanalytical teachings. There were then only two psychoanalysts in Eretz Yisrael: David Eder, who was also Chaim Weizmann’s adjutant, and Dorian Feigenbaum, who ran the only psychiatric hospital in Jerusalem. Eitingon had great love for the land of his forefathers, having never forgotten his visit to Eretz Yisrael in the summer of 1910 and, with the rise of Hitler in 1933, he made aliyah (over Sigmund’s strong opposition) and established Hachevra Ha-Psychoanalitit B’Eretz Yisrael in Jerusalem. This Palestine Psychoanalytic Society essentially became the successor to the Berlin Institute and marked an important turning point in the acceptance of psychoanalysis as an authorized form of mental health treatment. Among other supporters, Henrietta Szold, who led the effort to provide services for the Jewish children immigrants, invited the Society to serve as clinical consultant to Youth Aliya.

In a July 1976 Hebrew University ceremony honoring Anna, then 80 years old, she was awarded a scroll citing her contributions to the world of learning and science. In response, she made clear that she regarded the ceremony as a long-belated gesture to her father who, with Einstein, was one of the university’s first governors in 1925:

I proudly accept this honor in the name of my father, and with humility in my own name. I well remember the pleasure with which he first received the news and accepted the invitation to become one of the first governors. It was his hope that the Jewish university would be free forever of the prejudices which are apt to govern universities in the Western world.

As discussed above, Sigmund had hoped that the Hebrew University would institute a department of psychoanalysis and, in 1977, it finally inaugurated a Sigmund Freud Professorship. Anna was invited to speak but, unable to attend, she dispatched a paper in which she described the possible future directions of psychoanalysis and its potential place within a university setting:

During the era of its existence, psychoanalysis has entered into connection with various academic institutions, not always with satisfactory results. It has also, repeatedly, experienced rejection by them, been criticized for its methods being imprecise, its findings not open to proof by experiment, for being unscientific, even for being a “Jewish science.”

She concluded by addressing the issue of her father’s work being a “Jewish science,” stating that however much psychoanalysis may be dismissed for being unscientific or overly Jewish, she believed that the term was actually “a title of honor.”

The Israel Annals of Psychiatry, which later became the Israel Journal of Psychiatry, was founded by Heinz Zvi Winnik in April 1963. The 1978 issue, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of leading Russian psychoanalyst Moshe Wulff, opened with an introduction by Anna and a photograph of her, Sigmund and Wulff.

From the 1950s until the end of her life Anna Freud traveled regularly to the United States to lecture, to teach and to visit friends. During the 1970s she was concerned with the problems of working with emotionally deprived and socially disadvantaged children, and she studied deviations and delays in development.

Correspondence from Anna Freud is rare, and letters where she mentions her father are particularly treasured. In this May 8, 1975, letter, she writes to W. W. Rieber, organizer of a conference to be held at John Clay College:

Anna Freud’s correspondence regarding a book in her father’s library.

Thank you for your letter of May 1st and for your invitation to speak at the Conference sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences.

I am sorry to give you a negative answer, but it is not possible for me to be in New York at the time mentioned, nor can I give a paper on the subject you have in mind.

To answer your further question: yes, my father had the book by Dr Preyer in his library and gave it to me to read when I was a young teacher. But I do not think that his own work was influenced by Dr Preyer’s writing.

William Thierry Preyer (1841-1897) was an English-born physiologist who, inspired by Darwin, collected data in 1840 on the development of his children as if they were an unknown species. A founder of scientific child psychology and a pioneer in human development research, he is the author of The Soul of the Child (1882), to which Anna’s letter surely refers, a landmark book on developmental psychology written as a rigorous case study of his own daughter’s development, including observational records. This makes Anna’s comment that her father was not influenced by Preyer’s book all the more interesting, giving Sigmund’s own psychoanalysis of his daughter, as discussed above. Today, the “William Thierry Preyer Award” is issued by the European Society on Developmental Psychology for excellence in research of human development.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].