Sometimes the human mind seems inadequate to understand and explain the enormity of the Shoah, which may explain why Freud is so often invoked by writers of Holocaust literature, ranging from D. M. Thomas in “The White Hotel” to Primo Levi in “The Drowned and the Saved.” Perhaps that is why the young Macedonian novelist Goce Smilevski calls Freud to account, quite literally, in “Freud’s Sister” (Penguin Books: $16), a startling and daring work of fiction that tells a wholly overlooked story from the private history of the Freud family.
The kernel of truth at the heart of the fictional account is the fact that Freud was permitted to take six people with him when he left Vienna in 1938 after Austria was absorbed into the Third Reich. Although he chose to rescue his wife’s sister, his doctor, his housekeepers and his dog, he did not use any of the exit permits to bring out his four sisters who lived there, and they died in the camps along with countless other Jews with less famous names.
Smilevski’s book, which won the European Union Prize for Literature and has been translated into English by Christina E. Kramer, tells the story through the voice of Adolfina Freud, whom Freud called “the sweetest and best of my sisters.” The author himself announces his intention at the outset of the novel: “The well-known facts of Sigmund Freud’s life were like scenery,” he explains, “or like the walls of a labyrinth in which I wandered for years, trying to find the corridors where I could hear Adolfina’s voice so I could write it down, and in this way rescue in fiction one of the many lives forgotten by history.”
To hear Adolfina tell it, her brother was wholly oblivious to the peril of the Jews in Austria. “Look what Thomas Mann has written,” Freud says to Adolfina, showing her a newspaper clipping. “Marie and Paulina are more and more afraid,” she responds, referring to two of their sisters. “Afraid…of what?” Freud asks. Indeed, Freud appears flattered by Mann’s suggestion that Hitler’s inner motive in invading Vienna “was fundamentally directed at the old analyst who lived there — his true and authentic enemy….”
The author allows Freud to explain away his apparent indifference toward his siblings by showing us how he tragically underestimated the threat they faced in the Third Reich: “This is only temporary,” he insists. “We will return.” Once in London, Freud’s immediate family assured the sisters that “Sigmund’s friends were doing everything they could to help us get visas out of Austria, and then we would all be together in their house.” But the four sisters were not rescued, and they shared the sufferings of six million other Jewish men, women and children.
“Freud’s Sister” is rooted in the fate of Freud’s four sisters, whose descent into the lower circles of hell is seen through Adolfina’s discerning eyes. The futility of a famous last name is a constant theme in the novel; upon her arrival in the transit camp at Terezin, for example, Adolfina meets Ottla Kafka, sister of Franz, who displays a pair of precious family photographs: “My brother has been dead so long,” she tells Adolfina, “that is becoming harder and harder for me to remember his face.” At other moments in Adolfina’s life, we also encounter the sister of the artist Klimt, who is confined in a madhouse, and the grandson of the philosopher Goethe, who runs the place.
“You should look at even the most terrible things with at least a little irony,” Dr. Goethe admonishes the distressed Adolfina. “You know what my grandfather Johann said about irony: ‘It is that little grain of salt that alone renders the dish palatable.’” To which Adolfina replies: “But this is not lunch; it’s life.”
Smilevski plays with the reader’s expectations by allowing us to glimpse the fate of the Freud sisters by page 32 — Adolfina enters what she is told is a shower room at a death camp and “[a]lmost immediately there was an audible hissing sound” — but then abruptly sends us back in time and shows us the Freud siblings in childhood, an appropriate exercise in a novel about the family of the founder of psychoanalysis. Here is the heart and soul of “Freud’s Sister,” a book that is ultimately less a Holocaust novel than a celebration of the subtlety and complexity of what comprises every human life. The point is powerfully made in the final chapter, where we hear Adolfina’s words inside the gas chamber, a heart-breaking soliloquy about the real meaning of death: “I was entering into death,” she says, “and I promised myself that death is nothing other than forgetting.”
Often, the author uses the reconstructed scenes to illuminate some Freudian trope. Adolfina recalls the day when she entered her brother’s room and found him masturbating, an experience that marked the end of innocence for both of them. She observes that Freud imagined that a girl feels only envy when she sees the male sexual organ for the first time, but she offers a very different explanation: “When my brother communicated this to the world as absolute truth, he did not recall my pain that afternoon when he was thirteen years old, and I was seven, that pain and fear produced by the sight of the differences in our bodies, of the thought of growing up and separating from childhood, from the presentiment that my life and his life were not going to continue together and would march on separately toward death.”
But it is also true that the narrative, told in flashback, allows us to understand that every nameless victim of the gas chambers was a human being in full, who carried a full measure of memory and aspiration, fears and regrets to the very end of his or her life. Adolfina, for example, recalls the bitter words that fell from her mother’s lips in her early childhood — “It would have been better if I had not given birth to you” — and the little girl longed to die so that her mother would be forced to “grieve over my dead body.” Such moments restore a name, a face and a memory to an otherwise anonymous victim of German genocide.
“At the beginning of my life there was love and pain,” muses Adolfina, who is granted the magical gift of speaking from beyond the grave. “To the very end they went together, as balm to a wound, but sometimes the balm itself turned to a poison that inflamed the wound still more. And yet, no one loved me as she loved me. No one, not even my brother Sigmund.”
Adolfina is not only the eponymous character of “Freud’s Sister,” but also its heroine. Confined in Dr. Goethe’s asylum, Adolfina Freud and Kara Klimt are asked to define madness. “To be mad is the same as being in danger,” they say. “You try to call for help, but nothing comes out of your mouth…. Madness is a door without a knob.” Even as she describes her supposed madness, we see that she is gifted with acute perception, deep insight and a grand eloquence, all of which is on rich display through this remarkable book.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at email@example.com.