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Atomic Bombshell

New research uncovers a link between Freud’s inner circle and the Soviet atomic bomb

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Clockwise from top right: Mirra in Stanislavsky’s world premiere of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird, 1908; Yuli Khariton with a replica of the first Soviet A-bomb; Mirra Birens; Max Eitingon, wearing the ring he received from Sigmund Freud as a member of the psychoanalytic “secret committee” and emulating Freud’s perpetual cigar. (Collage Tablet Magazine.)

This new and moving human aspect of the affair helped to stir the interest of Glenda Abramson, the Oxford professor who edits Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, when we submitted an essay on our preliminary findings. As scholarly journal publications take time “in the pipeline,” and we were now consumed in further exploring the story, the present article is a progress report on our research—and we hope readers will forgive the almost forensic detail that has become our stock in trade.

Some of the new evidence we have found is directly connected with our reassessment of the “espionage” debate. One example is the prominence of figures connected with the psychoanalytic movement in the Soviet establishment during the peak years of Max’s activity in Berlin. We knew that Soviet Russia’s first envoy to Germany, Adolf Yoffe, was a patient and student of Alfred Adler while the latter was still a member of Freud’s circle. His successor, Viktor Kopp, was the vice-president of the Soviet Psychoanalytic Association (which enjoyed official aegis as long as their mentor, Freud’s admirer Trotsky, was in power). Our hypothesis that these professional acquaintances provided Max—and the Eitingons’ family enterprise—with a direct link to Moscow has now been borne out, offering a fascinating window into the links between two revolutionary movements of the 1920s—Soviet communism and psychoanalysis.

The former commissar for finances of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet republic, Jenö Varga, was an early supporter, then a member, of the Hungarian Psychoanalytic Association. After the defeat of the Hungarian revolution, Varga was interned in Austria, and upon his release he attended seminars in Freud’s Vienna residence before being transferred to Russia. In 1923, after being posted to the Russian commercial mission in Berlin, he resumed his connection with Freud’s circle via Eitingon’s Institute. Freud’s Secret Committee was soon notified (in a document recently published by the Freudian scholar Christfried Tögel) that Varga would “enable correspondence with Moscow by courier,” a connection that was then next to impossible by other means. It might be argued that this link was used for psychoanalytic business alone; we doubt it.

A lot of what we’ve discovered rounds out the Eitingons’ characters and their place at center stage of cultural as well as political history, ostensibly apart from the issue of Soviet intelligence. But more often than not, their double lives are intertwined. Take, for instance, Mirra’s first marriage. We originally knew about it only from the 1943 Yiddish memoirs of the author and playwright Osip Dymov, who launched Mirra’s stage career. An affair between them was widely rumored and became a scandal in 1907 St. Petersburg when her second husband, Boris Khariton, fired four pistol rounds at Dymov (though a distinguished journalist, Khariton was not a marksman: He missed all four times). The incident provided the plot for Dymov’s best-known play, Nju, and later a major silent film. Describing it, he wrote that “the young lady who played such a serious role in my destiny” had, before wedding Khariton, fled a marriage to a scion of the Brodsky dynasty—the sugar magnates of imperial Russia—to whom she had borne a son. But Dymov didn’t actually name Mirra (to protect her reputation, as he explained), and there was no other evidence of this marriage and child.

So, imagine our delight when a few weeks ago we found conclusive proof that this child, Viktor Brodsky, was a high-school student in Baku in 1913 and in affectionate contact with his mother, who was by then already in Berlin. Freud heard at some point that Mirra had had two children, the first of whom was killed by the Bolsheviks. But Freud also heard that her second son, whom we now know was Yuli Khariton, was “in Siberia,” and untraceable—which was incorrect and possibly resulted from the Eitingon’s own efforts to obscure their link.

We’re now trying to establish Viktor’s fate, which besides adding to the drama might have a lot to do with the espionage inquiry. Recently, we discovered that a Jewish “artist” named Viktor Brodsky, of the right age, who gave his birthplace as Yekaterinodar—Mirra’s hometown—arrived at Ellis Island in 1923, with a group of defeated “white” Russians who had escaped to Constantinople. There were only a few hundred Jews in Yekaterinodar at the time, and for two to be born the same year with the same name seems highly unlikely. He then changed his surname to Piatakoff—the name of a prominent Bolshevik, and hardly a convenient name to assume at random when applying for naturalization, which he successfully did. Viktor Piatakoff, who  described himself as a textile designer in New York, lived to age 92—just like his apparent half-brother Yuli Khariton. But that’s all we’ve been able to find out about Viktor so far. If Tablet readers can help, we’ll be much obliged.

Another facet that we have just begun to explore is the Eitingons’ close friendship with Arnold Zweig, the German-Jewish writer who found refuge in Palestine but then returned to East Germany in 1949. Zweig, whose finances were precarious until he began to receive royalties from Moscow, often enjoyed the Eitingons’ hospitality and published glowing eulogies of both of them. His last novel, set in the Middle East during World War II, Traum ist teuer (“dreaming is costly”—never translated into English), features a saintly psychiatrist, Manfred Jacobs, who is an obvious lionization of Max Eitingon, as well as a pampered Mrs. Jacobs who resembles the negative stereotype of Mirra.

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gwhepner says:

An interesting article, but I wonder why the authors make no reference to May-Kay Wilmers’s book “The Eitingons.” Among the fascinating details in the life of Max Eitingon that Wilmers reports is his alleged role in the abduction in Paris of a White Russian general whose extraordinary name was Charles Adolphe Faux-Pas


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Atomic Bombshell

New research uncovers a link between Freud’s inner circle and the Soviet atomic bomb