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Sigmund Freud: Golden Child

from Program One


Despite his upbringing, sudden poverty and early scientific encounters lead Sigmund away from religion.

Narrator: The man who would become an atheist was raised in a world steeped in religious belief. His home was a small town where — like so many towns in the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe — a community of Jews lived among a majority of Catholics.

Freud: It is not easy to recall those early days. Only a few fragments reach into my memory, but one thing I am certain: deep within me, there continues to live the happy child from Freiberg, the son of a youthful mother, the boy who received from this air, from this soil, the first indelible impressions.

Narrator: The Freuds were a traditional Jewish family who lived in Freiberg — a distant outpost of the Austrian Empire. There Jacob Freud traded in the wool business. Twice a widower when he met Amalia, they were married and had their first son in 1856. The young mother doted on the boy she called her golden child.

Freud: I have found that people who know they are favored by their mother give evidence in their lives of an unshakable optimism which often seems like heroic attributes and brings actual success to their possessors.

Narrator: For Sigmund — as for everyone at that time — religion, education and family were woven together.

Freud: I was still a young boy when my father started to teach me to read using the Bible to instruct me in both German and the Hebrew of our ancestors.

Harold Blum: Freud had a very close relationship with his father. He was home instructed probably till almost the age of nine. And as he wrote later, Freud became very immersed in the Bible and in studies of the Bible. He identified with significant figures in the Bible. I'll just mention two that were very important. One was Joseph, who interpreted the Pharaoh's dreams, and Freud later became the interpreter of dreams. The other one was Moses, a very powerful identification with Moses. I think he saw himself as a kind of modern Moses bringing a new understanding to humanity.

Narrator: The young Sigmund felt the strong emotion of faith from his nursemaid — a devout Catholic.

Freud: My nanny was an elderly but clever woman from the town, who told me a great deal about God Almighty and Hell. She took me to church. When I got home, I would preach and tell my family what God Almighty does.

Ana-Maria Rizzuto: He lost the nanny abruptly. He was told that she was caught stealing, supposedly from him, a story that to me is not believable. Something else must have happened, but we don't know what. The story he was told is that she was sent to jail for ten months. He was quite desperate about her disappearance. He turned to his father as someone to help him and be with him replacing the companionship, affection, that the nurse had provided for him. However, catastrophe happened once more.

Freud: The branch of industry in which my father was concerned collapsed. He lost all his means and we were forced to leave Freiberg and move to Vienna.

Rizzuto: So they changed from this little town, in which they had a comfortable, good enough life, accepted, respected, to the ghetto of Vienna. And there the father was unable to earn a living. And from that moment on they had poverty.

Narrator: The one hope in this new, diminished life was their gifted son Sigmund. But his future presented a dilemma. Jacob Freud wanted to maintain his son's religious heritage — yet he also wanted him to succeed in the secular world outside the ghetto.

Sander Gilman: His father hired a tutor, and that tutor gave him some rudimentary lessons in biblical Hebrew, so he could read prayers. In retrospect, he sees this as a kind of a — part of his secularization, because the man who teaches him, a man named Hammerschlag, is, in point of fact, a secular Jew and Freud becomes a great friend of the family as he grows up.

Freud: A spark from the same fire which animated the spirit of the great Jewish seers and prophets burned in Hammerschlag. Religious instruction served him as a way of educating the young toward love of the humanities. He made Jewish history flow out far beyond the limitations of nationalism or dogma.

Narrator: Sigmund easily won admission to secondary school. There he would enter a whole new life.

Ismar Schorsch: The second half of the 19th century is distinguished by the war between science and religion. That was not always the case. Newton was a deeply religious man. Kepler said, "I think your thoughts, oh, God."

Blum: The more and more natural phenomenon were explained in a scientific way rather than supernaturally, the more religion felt threatened. And I heard one clergyman say that belief in miracles began to subside with the invention of the electric light bulb, that ... let there be light.

Narrator: The new teaching captivated his imagination.

Freud: I felt an overpowering need to understand something of the riddles of the world in which we live and perhaps, even to contribute something to their solution. I came to know all the fields of science. But to which of them would I choose to dedicate my life?