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People | 14.12.2021

Speaking heart to heart

The world is suffering – that’s the new normal, according to Erika Freeman, 94, the New York psychoanalyst who escaped from Vienna as a child. Two years ago, just before the pandemic broke out, she returned to the city she had to leave as a 12-year-old. And she stayed.

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Publisher Uschi Pöttler-Fellner met Erika Freeman at the Hotel Imperial where she has been lodging since the outbreak of the pandemic. She says: “This is my revenge on Hitler.” After the annexation of Austria to the Third Reich, Hitler lodged at the Imperial when in Vienna. © Stefan Joham


Freeman born as Erika Padan in Vienna in 1927. Her mother Rachel was a Hebrew teacher, her father a foreign minister in the shadow cabinet of the Social Democrats. He was deported to Theresienstadt after the Nazis seized power. In 1940, two years after the Anschluss, Erika was sent alone to the United States, taken in by relatives and continued her schooling there. She wanted to save the world and so she became a psychoanalyst. Celebrities soon occupied the couch in her New York practice, though to this day she never speaks about her clients. Woody Allen, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe were in her circle of friends.

Freeman married the sculptor and painter Paul Freeman, who died at age 50. “A bold move,” she says. She was an advisor to Golda Meir and was also one of the first members of the International Women’s Forum, founded in 1982, one of very few networks of women in top positions. The feminist Betty Friedan was Freeman’s friend and soulmate. To this day, Erika Freeman is committed to promoting and supporting the concerns of women, and is a Board member of the International Women’s Forum Austria.

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© Sabine Hauswirth

“Mrs. Freeman, there is someone to see you in the lobby,” the nice lady at the reception of the Hotel Imperial calls. She has seen many visitors during her stay and is grateful for the competent assistance provided by the hotel – between lockdowns, that is.

Erika Freeman is always active, even during the lockdowns. “I’m doing quite well, thank you,” she says. “Look, I live in a nice hotel and I’m always glad to see you! The advantage of lockdowns is that I don’t have to see anyone I don’t want to see.“

Plus, she is “still on duty”. She had a telephone session with a patient, providing therapy across the continents. In the afternoon, another patient – in New York – is expecting her call.The work keeps her young and the past months have not changed her: “I’m vaccinated, I’m not afraid of Covid. Fear makes you stupid.”

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“Don’t forget – and don’t let worries get you down, either,” two of Erika Freeman’s approaches, here on the rooftop terrace of the Haus des Meeres. © Katharina Schiffl

Erika, you brought a book along to our conversation, what is it you’re reading?

Erika Freeman: Clever adages and quotes. Look, I’ll read a few: “Must doing good be painful?” and “When some people try to make life easier, they only make it more complicated” (laughs). That’s what it’s like, isn’t it? Wait, it says:“Life is easier when you don’t try too hard.” I like that one! (Laughs.)

But you’re the one who doesn’t make it easy for yourself!You are still a practising therapist, looking after your clients in Vienna and in the USA. Isn’t that rather exhausting?
Not at all. Why should I stop counselling people when I know more now than I did before? A life is supposed to have meaning and improve the world, the Jews call this “Tikun Olam” (the repair of the world, from the Hebrew). But I can’t help everyone. Some people just don’t want to be helped (laughs).

It is said you advise people not to worry about the future. Is that so?

Worrying doesn’t help, worrying is nonsense. When you worry, you expect something bad and that makes everything worse. Worrying is bad and will remain bad. It always pays to think about the future and to have a vision.Worrying does not make you smarter, it only makes you anxious. Positive thinking, however, will help you.Worrying is like a closed door that can never be opened.

You know, there are people who say, “You don’t understand anything because you don’t worry!” But no! It’s the other way ’round! It’s much better not to worry. Worrying robs you of your intelligence and sours your future. It actually makes you stupid!


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Famous personalities like Marlon Brando went in and out of Erika Freeman’s home. Some of them became close friends. © Bubu Djumic

Were you never worried, even when you were torn away from your sheltered childhood in Vienna? You were twelve years old when you waved goodbye to your mother at the Westbahnhof ...

No, because I didn’t know what to worry about. I only thought about tomorrow: “What will tomorrow bring and what can I do? I already knew what the Nazis would do. That wasn’t worry, that was a given. I thought about how to solve this problem. When I said goodbye to my mum, the thought crossed my mind that I might never be happy again. So I closed that door.

You actually wanted to go to Palestine, but there was no name on your exit permit. Then you travelled to the USA in a roundabout way ...

I never really wanted to go there and they didn’t want me there, either (smiles). The relatives who took me in didn’t know what to do with me. I studied English every day at home, just sat with my books open when my relatives wanted me to go out and play with the children in the street. Can you imagine? I was a well-behaved girl from Vienna – you didn’t meet boys out in the street to play! Why should I have gone out on the street in New York? My mum would not have approved.

I always wanted to be good to please her (points up). I was an independent child, even when I was still in Vienna. My mother went to the emigration office every evening to get a number, at night I was often alone because she had to wait in line for a long time. A woman once asked her: “How is your child? Does she cry a lot?” And my mother said,“She behaves well, she reads and she falls asleep alone.” I was a good child, I’m grateful for that, because she had a hard enough time.When I was on a train and then on a ship to America, I didn’t know that I would never see her again.


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© Arman Rastegar

Your mother, who survived denunciation, concentration camps and years of living underground in Vienna, died in the bombing of the Philipphof on Albertinaplatz in the last weeks of the war. Do you think of her often?

Every day. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her: my mum is always with me. She was an extraordinary woman – the first Hebrew teacher in Western Europe. She could be assertive, was very independent and studied Hebrew, which was unimaginable at that time. My grandmother was also extraordinary. You know, grandmothers are the most important people for a child! Why is that? Because they are love. Grandmothers are pure love. Children feel that very strongly. The mother has to keep everything going, she organizes and does things and makes things happen. The grandmother only has to love.

You have experienced so much hardship and yet you have always remained positive. Does your faith help you?

Look, even if no one else loves you, the good Lord does. I’m a religious person – my father wasn’t, but my mother was,sheranakosherhousehold.Sheoncecamehome with a few pieces of salami and said to me, “Taste it, it’s kosher!” And I thought to myself, if this religious person wants to tell me a lie and say that salami is kosher, then I’ll eat it just to please her. The Lord God forgives and He is there, just like tomorrow is always tomorrow. And if you can’t always see the Lord, then have a little patience. He is patient with us. That’s a “mutual agreement” and quite practical! (Laughs.)

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At the look! “Women of the Year” gala, Erika Freeman was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Danielle Spera delivered a moving tribute. © Philipp Lipiarski