Why didn’t Sigmund Freud leave Vienna any sooner? He, who pioneered and/or popularized the idea that humanity was ruled by a capacity for love (eros) and an equal capacity for aggression, cruelty, murder, even genocide (thanatos); he, who knew what had been happening to his Jewish colleagues in Germany and on his very own street in Vienna. Nevertheless, the great man delayed, denied, refused to depart his beloved Vienna, the city of his dreams – and of his pioneering dream interpretations.

What rooted him to the spot? Can we learn anything about why Jews overstay our welcome or why we believe that – if assimilated enough – we will be spared the wrath of antisemites?

Freud was a genius, but greatness does not necessarily protect an intellectual from the most common prejudices. 

We know that Freud was criticized for his views about women, but I must insist that his views were also complex, contradictory, and subject to change over time. He also had important and long-lasting mentoring relationships with many female psychoanalysts, including his own daughter Anna. In fact, Freud got along much better with the women in his circle than he did with his male followers, with whom he broke. Freud was their Rabbi and their father-figure, and he exiled his intellectual sons, one by one.

Great men also have psychological blind spots. His wife, Martha, was the granddaughter of Isaac Bernays, the chief rabbi of Hamburg. She wanted to keep kosher and to light Sabbath candles, but Freud would not allow her to do so. He did not want a Jewish wedding – but Martha did, and she quietly found a way to have one.

Although Freud never denied being Jewish, he was tormented by his relationship to his own father, Jakob, and to his father’s Judaism.

Freud, the son, was a defiantly secular, assimilated Viennese Jew and he had to psychologically ‘kill” his father in order to survive intellectually and socially by rejecting his father’s Judaism (that is, he “killed” what was most precious to his father). Perhaps he turned this personal drama into a universal reality with his theory of the Oedipus Complex.

What Freud misses entirely (and this is shocking), is the true history of father-son relationships. However, I am in Freud’s debt and in order to explain what I mean, I must use the Master’s psycho-analytic tools.

It is not sons who kill fathers; it is quite the other way round. Historically, fathers literally had the power of life and death over their children; before Jewish monotheism arose, fathers sacrificed them to gods. Therefore, sons longed for their fathers’ love and protection. 

Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, drove away many of his intellectual “sons” if they dared to disagree with him – or threatened to outshine him. In doing so, he was, in life, disproving or challenging his own ideas about the Oedipus Complex.

Freud went further. He opposed all religions, including Christianity, whose followers believed that the Jews had murdered their God and therefore deserved to die. Boldly, Freud outraged religious Christians by claiming that such antisemitism was really due to an unconscious castration anxiety occasioned by Jewish male circumcision.

Freud goes even further when, in Totem and Taboo, he suggests that primitive men killed their fathers in order to have sex with their mothers – but the son-murderers regretted it bitterly, so much so that they began to worship their murdered father. He goes even further in Moses and Monotheism.  First, he insists that the Biblical Moses was really an Egyptian, not a Jew.

Humbly, I must oppose this interpretation, which is not based on Scripture or in any of the major commentaries. Perhaps the fact that Freud himself was literally rescued by Christians, not by Jews, suggests that at some level, Freud may not have believed that Jews were capable of rescuing themselves; that Moses, the great liberator of the Hebrew slaves, who was born and raised as an Egyptian Prince, was really not a Jew and, moreover, had learned his monotheism from a former Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaten, and not from his father’s or his people’s God.

In short, Freud was psychologically killing the father of Judaism, Moses. And, also implying that Jews cannot rescue themselves or be rescued by other Jews. He imposed his own life’s realities onto his reading of Judaism.

Freud was rescued by both the money and the connections of Christian followers, many of whom were former patients such as Princess Marie Bonaparte; American diplomat and journalist, William C. Bullitt; HD (Hilda Doolittle); Dorothy Burlingham, an American Tiffany heiress; and by Dr. Anton Sauerwald, the Viennese Nazi who was officially in charge of extorting Freud’s assets and in charge of Freud’s ability to leave Vienna. This is a remarkable story and one well told by David Cohen in The Escape of Sigmund Freud and by Andrew Nagorski in Saving Freud. The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom.

Let’s return to my original question about why Freud did not leave Vienna much sooner.

An intellectual pioneer may not always be able to act on what he knows. What did he know? Freud knew what was happening to Jews, including Jewish psychoanalysts in Germany. Influential friends and eyewitnesses told him.

As of 1933, the fabric of civility towards Jews and others was being shredded on the streets of Nazi Germany. In their books, Nagorski and Cohen document how Storm Troopers began “casually” beating Americans and Jews on the street, often accompanied by a band. Eric Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin chronicles how Germans became acclimated to it. Apparently, the American media was pressured not to write about any of this lest German banks default on their American loans.

In 1933, Freud’s books were burned in Germany along with those by those of H.G. Wells, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack London. Many Jews had begun to commit suicide.

Ruth “Aliav” Kluger, the only female member of the Mossad in the late 1930s, worked tirelessly on procuring funds for the “illegal ships” of aliya bet. She was a Jew rescuing other Jews. She shared her brother David’s eye-witness account of the book burnings in Berlin.

I was in Berlin in May of ’33. It was May tenth. All afternoon raiding parties of uniformed Nazis went into public libraries and to private libraries. They had long lists of books which Dr. Goebbels had decided were unfit for Nazi Germany. Most of them were by Jewish authors. These books were thrown out of doors and windows, into the street. There, more Nazi squads collected them, carried them off to add to the huge funeral pyre of books on Franz Joseph Platz between the State Opera House on the beautiful boulevard Unter den Linden, and the world-famous University of Berlin.

I stood there through the afternoon, watching as the pile grew higher… higher… higher than a house. And the mobs gathered around the mountain of books, howling, jeering… At nightfall they put torches to the books. University students mixed with the mob… danced around the bonfire… screaming, chanting.

Then Dr. Goebbels, the new Propaganda Minister of the new German nation, stood before a microphone. I remember his words very well. ‘Fellow students, German men and women, the age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended.

In Saving Freud, Nagorski suggests that Freud shielded himself from the reality of the Nazis’ rise to power by burying himself in his writing and in his psychoanalytic practice. His work “was also a way for him to escape facing the mounting evidence that his contemporary world was plunging into a nightmare.”

Freud knew. In a 1933 letter to Bonaparte, Freud wrote, “The world is turning into an enormous prison. Germany is the worst cell. What will happen in the Austrian cell is quite uncertain.”

Aliav Kluger and Peggy Mann in The Last Escape provide a summary of events:

The first year (1933) Hitler came to power, all Jews in the civil service were fired. Jewish teachers (were) fired. Jewish actors, singers, directors, producers – the whole entertainment industry, judenrein.

The second year (1934), Jews excluded from journalism. From radio. From the stock exchange. From farming. Jews forbidden to practice law. Medicine. Forbidden to apply to a university. Forbidden. Verboten. The sickness spreading.

The third year, 1935, the Nuremberg Laws – making every Jew an official outcast. Subject to all German laws. But with no legal rights at all.

By the fourth year, 1936, half the Jews in Germany – unemployed. And the signs in 1937…Hanging above hotel doorways… in shop windows… at the entrance to public parks. No Jews Allowed. Even above the kindergartens, signs: ‘Jewish scum.’ …in some towns a Jew couldn’t buy milk for his children, food, or medicine.

Freud knew that German-Jewish psychoanalysts were being fired and replaced by Christian psychoanalysts. By 1936, Matthias Goering (Hermann Goering’s cousin) became the leader of the German General Medical Society for Psychotherapy. Jewish psychoanalysts were denounced, and their property seized; this included Freud’s publishing company.

Early in 1937, Freud’s close friend and former analysand, Lou-Andreas Salome, died. “The Gestapo ransacked her house and destroyed many of her books, especially those written by Jews.” 

According to Freud’s faithful physician, Max Schur: “It would seem that Freud, who had uncovered the force of the aggressive drive in the individual, could not believe that this force could be unleashed in an entire nation.” But one look at the streets of Vienna in March of 1938 should have shattered all doubt.

As relayed by Nagorski, journalist and war correspondent William Shirer 

was stunned by the scenes he witnessed in Vienna even before Hitler’s troops reached that city. Emerging from the subway at Karlsplatz, he found himself ‘swept along in a shouting, hysterical Nazi mob…The faces! I had seen them before at Nuremberg—the fanatical eyes, the gaping mouths, the hysteria…Young toughs were heaving paving blocks into the windows of Jewish shops. The crowd roared with delight.

Freud knew, but he would not make plans to leave, not even when swastikas were hung on his building; not even when Nazi goons extorted money from his wife in their home; not even when his books and publishing house were seized; not even when a man who resembled Freud was beaten up nearby.

Theodor Herzl was also an assimilated Viennese Jew. Based on what he saw when he covered the Dreyfus case in Paris in 1894, Herzl envisioned the need for a Jewish state – not in Uganda but in Israel, the Holy Land, which the Romans had dubbed “Palestine.” Herzl was a Zionist but not a religious Jew. Freud was neither a religious Jew nor a Zionist; he did not see Israel as his homeland or as the homeland for his many Jewish intellectual friends. 

Freud finally decided to leave Vienna only after the Gestapo arrested his daughter Anna, his “Antigone,” his helpmeet, his caretaker, his heir, who was also a psychoanalyst. The Gestapo kept her all day. She returned home late at night. Immediately thereafter, Freud “prepared a list for the British Consul in Vienna of those he wished to accompany him.”

Ah, so one leaves when it is very clear, practically imminent, that one’s beloved children are about to be tortured and murdered. One does not necessarily leave for oneself.

Anna herself gives us another, more obvious reason that Freud did not want to leave, which she discussed with the American child psychiatrist Robert Coles. 

The answer was quite simple. My father was quite sick, he was in pain a lot of the time; he was nearing the end of his life—over eighty, with cancer. And he could not imagine any ‘new life’ elsewhere. What he knew was that there were only a few grains of sand left in the clock—and that would be that.

Freud suffered from cancer of the jaw and the mouth. He had needed many surgical interventions. He wore an ill-fitting prosthesis and had difficulty eating. He also had difficulty sleeping and walking. But Freud also loved his office, his artwork, his routine, his favorite Viennese parks.

Understandably, Jews – whether anti-religious or ultra-religious – but who are old and infirm, set in their ways, and without certain futures elsewhere, always found it difficult to flee. Add to that, how sadistically difficult the Nazis made it for Jews to get all the necessary paperwork; and how hard it was for them to find a country willing to accept them, especially if they were poor and might become a public burden. And then add to that the sheer terror the Nazis unleashed, the kind which could freeze and paralyze any person.

If the well-connected and world-famous Freud did not leave until it was almost too late in June 1938, and if he did so only with the enormous assistance, both financial and diplomatic, of his close Christian friends and followers, imagine how little most Jews could do to rescue themselves. Many were poor to begin; some wealthier Jews were able to get out early, but many were also impoverished overnight.

It is clear that Jews have always been very reluctant to leave their homes, cities, villages, jobs, friends, schools, mother tongues, cemeteries, and synagogues until it is almost too late; that uprooting oneself if one is not quite rich is hard to do. If leaving one’s familiar place in the universe means living at a more impoverished level, having to obtain, in a new language, one’s academic degrees and professional licenses again; and if it means starting over from scratch in a new country where one may have few friends and no relativeswell, isn’t it easier to believe that things are “not that bad,” “it’s been worse,” and they’ll “soon get better?”

Long ago, when we were slaves in Egypt, we did not want to leave. And, once in the wild, wild wilderness, we even longed to return. 


We may not all be geniuses or have access to wealthy and influential friends, but surely, we must share some of Freud’s blind spots. What may we learn about the power of denial that might help us evaluate our behavior in our own times?

We have seen a quantum and horrifying rise in antisemitism/anti-Zionism in the 21st century, both in the Islamic world and in the West. There are too many instances to cite. However, the difference between today and eighty years ago is that we now have a Jewish state where we are welcome. This is a huge and miraculous game-changer.

In 2017, Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog advised the Israeli government to prepare for “waves” of immigrants from the West.

Jews are commanded to “choose life” and yet, we do not always do so. Rather, we do not always agree on which is the safest path to take; in fact, we strongly disagree. Some Jews minimize antisemitism, blame other Jews, refuse to understand that the cognitive war against us – which is greater now than at any time in history – has always led to genocidal bloodshed.

They insist: Not here. Not now. Not us. Perhaps they are right; perhaps they are dead wrong. But mainly, such American Jews, including many rabbis, have chosen this moment in time to criticize Israel.

Ruth “Aliav” Kluger tried hard to persuade educated, wealthy Jews to leave Germany, Austria, and Romania when they still could, but even she failed to persuade them to do so. Kluger remembers something that Ze’ev Jabotinsky said in Warsaw as he addressed the Jews of Europe: 

It is as if twelve million educated people were put in a carriage and the carriage was being pushed toward an abyss. How do such people behave? One is crying, one is smoking a cigarette, some are reading newspapers, someone is singing – but in vain will you look for one who will stand up, take the reins into his hands and move the carriage somewhere else. This is the mood. As if some big enemy came and chloroformed their minds.

Do we think that history can never repeat itself? Are we that sure?

Just as Freud had his reasons, I understand why American Jews are not leaving for Costa Rica or Israel. Many European Jews have done so and many European and American Jews who could afford to do so have bought second homes in Israel. True, Israel is under almost constant siege – but it is at-the-ready and well-equipped to defend itself, at least militarily if not in terms of the cognitive war against it.

But, since Israel is so central to Judaism, Jewish identity, and Jewish history, why do so many educated and assimilated American Jews savagely criticize Israel while supporting the Palestinians so passionately? Do they feel that such virtue-signaling will “save” them? Or redeem an imperfect Judaism? Is this similar to how secular, assimilated Jews once felt towards their ultra-religious brethren – whom they sometimes blamed for antisemitism? Is it now psychologically safer to target Israel than to take on the antisemites?

I wonder: Will it be possible one hundred years from now for people to look back and wonder why so many American Jews chose to bash Israel – almost as a way of helping them deny, and in an effort to appease – the anti-Jewish/anti-Zionist dangers that surrounded them? Those dangers are considerable.

In 1991, I stood on a corner in Crown Heights in Brooklyn and watched a full-throated African-American pogrom against Orthodox Jews. It raged on. The mayor and the police did not stop it for days. I will never forget it.

In 2002, Netanyahu could not speak in Montreal at Concordia University because the large, pro-Palestine mob which opposed his speaking could not be controlled. Friends of mine were beaten in that chaos.

All during the 21st century, I was an eyewitness to the surging mobs, Islamist-style, anti-Israel demonstrations on the streets of New York City. Hoarse, non-stop screaming, chanting: “Kill the Jews.” “From the River to the Sea We will be Free.” “Israel is a Nazi Apartheid State.” “It Wasn’t OK in Nazi Germany, why is it OK in Palestine.” “UN Must Stop Muslim Holocaust in Gaza.” “Israel = Ku Klux Klan.” “Down With the State of Israel.” “Zionism No, the State of Israel Must Go.” “Globalize the Intifada.” “Zionism is Terrorism.” “We Don’t Want Two States, We Want All of It.” “If We Don’t Get Justice, They Don’t Get Peace.” 

In 2016, at an LGBTQ conference in Chicago, I watched the footage of a surging, enraged, LGBTQ mob on their way to silence, perhaps physically attack the gay Jewish and Israeli panelists. Gay filmmaker Michael Lucas viewed the protestors as similar to “Nazis, chanting vicious slogans, screaming epithets, their faces distorted in hatred.” The mob blocked those who wanted to hear the Israelis speak, while holding prisoner all those already inside the room.” 

We know that visibly-identifiable Jews, as well as Jews of every denomination at prayer have been attacked and murdered, right here in America. Most recently in Flatbush, Chicago, Crown Heights, Ft Worth/Colleyville, Jersey City, Monsey, Pittsburgh, Poway, Williamsburg, and more.

We know that Jewish centers and synagogues in America now require the same kind of security as Israeli consulates, embassies, and synagogues once did and still do—ever since the late 1970s, when Palestinian Arab terrorists began bombing them, hijacking planes, and shooting up airports.

We know that anti-racism textbooks in America barely, or rarely, include antisemitism as a form of racism. We know that Middle East Institutes and professors have been irrationally anti-Israel and operating in non-scholarly ways. We also know that college campuses have become alarmingly unfriendly to both Jewish and to pro-Israel Jewish students.

Just consider a sampling, including Berkeley, CUNY, George Washington University, The University of Illinois, Tufts, UC Davis, and University of Wisconsin. As it becomes more and more dangerous to be visibly Jewish and/or pro-Israel in America, in the media and especially on college campuses and at international human rights and anti-racism conferences, why do so many Jews continue to fixate on Israel’s alleged imperfections? Is this a way not to have to contemplate a greater danger?

What more must happen before American Jews decide that “enough is enough?” Before we band together to fight the cognitive war against the Jews here – or leave wherever “here” may be for a place that is far friendlier to Jews – including the Jewish homeland?

I was still on anti-Covid medication and unable to attend Rosh Hashana services at my Orthodox synagogue. But I wanted to join a service and hear the shofar and so I zoomed into another synagogue. I was shocked, horrified really, by two different sermons. On the first day, the rabbi criticized Israel in his sermon. On the second day, another rabbi denounced Ben Gurion.

Well, it could have been worse. Once, when I lived in Brooklyn, a rabbi had invited a representative of the Palestinian leadership to address her congregation on Yom Kippur. And recently, I was invited and then dis-invited as a lecturer by a synagogue that does not allow an Israeli flag to “desecrate” their premise and refuses to say a prayer for the State of Israel.

Why bring politics into a shul? Are we really so safe that we can afford to totally dismiss Amalek and focus on the imperfections of Israel and of “other” Jews?

And if Freud, a very smart man, could deny how endangered he had become, why assume that we are safe from minimizing or denying the dangers that surround us now?

Woman with pixie haircut stands in front of cloudy grey backdrop wearing a red and brown floral shirt

Dr. Phyllis Chesler is the author of 20 books, including the landmark feminist classics Women and Madness (1972), Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody (1986, 2011), Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002), and An American Bride in Kabul (2013), which won a National Jewish Book Award.

In 2003, she published The New Antisemitism (reissued in 2015), and in 2016, Living History: On the Front Lines for Israel and the Jews. She is a founding member of the Original Women of the Wall (1989).

Dr. Chesler spent 2021-2022 as part of a team which rescued women from Afghanistan.