Freud’s Forgotten Pupil: Woman Who Could Have Surpassed the Teacher

Professor Obendick from Dortmund wrote in his letter to a colleague from the Rostov State University: “I once again look at pictures I took since I came to Rostov. Bright September flowers in the Theatre Square and a fountain. There is a rainbow seen in tiny countless sprays of the fountain (it has become the symbol of the city’s life for me); I see small courtyards where domestic problems are mixed with romance; the boulevard in Pushkin street. Suddenly the name of Sabine Spielrein comes to my mind. Why don’t they hang a memorial plaque on the house number 83 in Pushkin street where Sabine Spielrein lived? The woman was Sigmund Freud’s pupil and the founder of psychoanalysis in Russia; she fell victim to fascists in the years of Holocaust. The city of Rostov must remember her and be proud of the fact that the woman lived there!”

The name of Sabine Spielrein is rather popular in the west; there are many books and films about the woman; scientific conferences in commemoration of Sabine Spielrein are often held there. A musical was staged in Broadway on the basis of the conjecture on relations between Spielrein, Jung and Freud. However, just few facts about the woman are known in Russia. Even in the Russian city of Rostov, where Sabine was born, studied and later perished, only several people, mostly psychologists and psychotherapists, know details of her private life and scientific activity.

The woman is still a mystery, even now. Although, it seemed that she never made any secret of her life; on the contrary, she always involved in it people whom she knew, relatives, friends, doctors, teachers.

Sabine Spielrein was born in 1885. Her father, Naum Spielrein worked as entomologist in Warsaw; when the family moved to Rostov, he took up commerce. Sabine’s mother Heva Spielrein (maiden name Lyublinskaya) was a dentist, but she dedicated her life to upbringing of her daughter and three sons. She had one more daughter Emilia, but she died of typhus at a very young age. The death seriously shattered Sabine’s psyche. Despite this fact, she left gymnasium with a gold medal in 1904 and in summer of the same year her parents sent Sabine to the Burghelzli mental hospital in Switzerland; the diagnose was mental hysteria.

Young and unknown doctor Carl Gustav Jung was the doctor in charge of Sabine’s case. Being keen on ideas of Sigmund Freud, he applied methods of the psychoanalyst from Vienna on Sabine for the first time. Jung described success of medical treatment of the young Russian girl with usage of these methods in letters to his friend and teacher. Jung didn’t conceal the fact that Sabine fell in love with him (it is frequent in medical practice when female patients attribute features of a hero, father or God on their doctors). He wrote, the girl “sincerely” told she wanted to give birth to his son whom she wanted to name Siegfried. However, Jung didn’t mention that the “request” of Frau Spielrein was carried out. The liaison between Sabine Spielrein and Carl Gustav Jung lasted for five years. It is believed that these relations turned out to be some kind of a catalyst that speeded up the breakup of relations between the pupil and the teacher. Freud wrote to Sabine later: “We will be happy to meet you even further if you wish to stay with us, but you must learn to discern the difference between friends and enemies (I mean Jung).”

The medical treatment went successfully. In a year Sabine felt perfectly well, and head physician of the clinic, famous psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler allowed the girl to leave for the Zurich University medical school for studies.

In 1911, Sabine wonderfully defended a thesis on the subject “On psychology of material on one schizophrenia case”. The same year, she delivered a report “Destruction as the cause of formation” at one of the popular Freud’s “Wednesday” sessions. It was that session when Sabine expressed the idea of a strong connection between Thanatos and Eros, the instinct of death and the instinct of generation prolongation.

At that time, Great Freud listened to the report of the young psychoanalyst indulgently and said the speech was “logically well-composed”. Only in several years, he himself expressed the dual theory of attractions; at that he didn’t refer to Spielrein’s report delivered in 1911, that anticipated Freud’s later ideas of attraction to death. In 1930, when Freud once again mentioned his former resistance to the theory of attractions, not a single word was said that criticism of that kind was given in response to Sabine Spielrein’s article.

Sabine, a little energetic woman with dark curly hair would have made a wonderful career if she had stayed in Europe. As Bruno Bettelheim said, she would have been then among “the greatest pioneers of psychoanalysis”.

But in 1923, on recommendation of Sigmund Freud Sabine Spielrein left Germany where she had been living for 23 years and got back to Russia. For 1.5 years she lived in Moscow, then she moved to Rostov, where she lectured at the University and worked as a doctor.

August 11, 1942. Old residents of Rostov remember perfectly well that thousands of civilians were led along the central street of Rostov. Those were Rostov Jews. The escort led them toward Zmiyevskaya Balka (the Snake Gully), to the place where they were later shot together with hundreds of captured red Army soldiers. In accordance with different sources, there are 18-27 thousand people in that common grave, and each of them was with his own fate. Sabine Spielrein with her daughters Renata, 29, a talented cellist, and Eva, 14, who, as famous musician David Oistrakh foretold, cold have become a wonderful violinist, is also together with the shot people in the common grave.

It is said that in the years of the first occupation of Rostov, in 1941 Sabine Spielrein refused to leave the native city. She said: “I know Germans, they are a civilized nation. They are not capable of evil doings.” Such was her motive when she explained the decision not to leave Rostov to the second wife of her husband, pediatrician Pavel Sheftel. Before the war, the abandoned women understood perfectly well that each of them may be sent to the Soviet GULAG camps, that is why they agreed that the one who remains alive will bring up all children. (Pavel Sheftel died in 1937 of heart attack. Within the same period Sabine’s three brothers: Academician Isaak Spielrein, researcher of labor psychology in the Soviet Union, Emil Spielrein, dean of the biology department in the Rostov State University, and Ian Spielrein, dean of the electrotechnical department in the Moscow Energy institute, were killed in the torture chambers of the National Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD).

Scientist Movshovich studying history of the Rostov region wrote: “By the time of the second occupation of Rostov, Spielrein very likely had already no illusions concerning the possibility of combination of the civilized German nation with their cruel doings.” However, all the same she refused to save her daughters: a friend of Sabine’s offered to give forged documents to the girls in accordance with which they could be passed for Armenians. It is a mystery why Sabine Spielrein several times rejected methods of salvation.

Over 25 years ago, diaries of Sabine Spielrein dated with 1908-1912, letters she received from Jung and Freud were found in the basement of the Wilson Palace in Geneva (the Psychology Institute used to be there).

The documents were published for the first time by Italian psychoanalyst Aldo Carotenuto. He understood that the discovered materials would once again confirm the liaison between Jung and his patient, his subsequent pupil, that Freud was also involved there indirectly, Carotenuto (either out of gentleman’s solidarity, or because of his respect to the founder of psychoanalysis) supplied the letters with comments in accordance with which it looked so that the woman was guilty in the situation herself. He wrote: “Babe Sabine …behave so that Jung willy-nilly acted mean.”

So, it was already second time that Sabine Spielrein, even after her death, fell victim to the severe struggle for affirmation of positions in the psychoanalyst hierarchy.

Several years ago a work by Peter Kuter under the title Modern Psychology was published in Germany. The scientist depicted a genealogical tree of the psychoanalytical school and mentioned Sabine Spielrein among prominent scientists as well. Scientist Ulyanitsky from Rostov was astonished to see that when the book was translated into Russian in 1997 in St.Petersburg, the genealogical tree was cut off and Sabine dropped out of it.

As we see now, Sigmund Freud, following Sabine Spielrein, believed that negotiation is just a form of affirmation. He thought that in order to admit something, you must first reject it; in order to give birth to something, you must first die. Does it mean that Sabine Spielrein is not yet dead enough that her name is not included among prominent fathers of psychoanalysis?

In conclusion we would like to add that recently, on the initiative of the president of the South Russian Humanitarian Institute V.Pigulevsky and scientist Vlad Yermak studying the life and work of Sabine Spielrein, a memorial plaque was fixed on the house number 83, Pushkin street, in the Russian city of Rostov where the scientist lived in 1887-1904.

Nonna Mirzabekova Kultura

Translated by Maria Gousseva

Read the original in Russian:

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