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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.)

Arnold Zweig engaged in overt pro-Soviet activity such as publishing a periodical, Orient, and—after the Nazi onslaught on the USSR—organizing the “V[ictory] League to support the Soviet Union’s Struggle against Fascism.” Max Eitingon—though already unwell and with barely a year yet to live—was enlisted to become the president of the Jerusalem chapter (the organization’s original charter was drafted by Martin Buber). Zweig also had clandestine links with the Moscow-based, paramilitary Nationalkommittee Freies Deutschland, and in later years confirmed that he had conducted such distinctly intelligence-related activities as spreading Soviet information materials among German POW’s in Egypt.

In Traum ist teuer, Zweig describes a hero of the Communist Greek resistance who seeks shelter in Palestine. A document in the files of the Haganah’s anti-Communist department connects the harboring of just such a fugitive with Hava Rund—the Jerusalem Party cadre who claimed to the Israeli writer Haim Be’er, after the 1988 Eitingon controversy, that she was the liaison to Eitingon for money transfers that he delivered to the party “from the day he arrived” in Palestine. And most remarkably, in another letter we found in Berlin, Arnold suggested to Mirra—in 1945, after Max’s death—that she might let rooms in their house to officials of a Soviet political mission that was about to open in Jerusalem. Nothing was publicly announced at the time about an intended Soviet office, and none ever opened; the Soviets in question would have come under cover. Zweig, then, was privy to confidential Soviet information and trusted Mirra with it.

An even more suggestive example of Max and Mirra’s place at the center of pre-Israeli intellectual life is their complex relationship with the writer and Nobel Prize laureate S.J. (Shai) Agnon, and especially his wife Esther (better known as “Estherlein” from their published letters). We couldn’t help noticing that after Max’s father Chaim Eitingon was expelled with other Jewish merchants from Moscow in 1891—a trauma that we believe left a lasting mark on his then 10-year-old son Max—he took up at least formal domicile in Buczacz, Galicia, and thus gained Austro-Hungarian citizenship for his family. They soon established themselves in Leipzig, but Max’s MD thesis in 1909 still identifies him “aus Buczacz.” Freud’s father also happened to hail from there, but the town’s most famous native and chronicler is Agnon. It soon transpired that his maternal grandfather was, like Chaim Eitingon, a fur trader who took Shai’s father into the business, and it’s pretty certain that this common trade explains the Eitingons’ choice of this particular shtetl, as well as an origin of Max’s acquaintance with the Agnons.

For a memorial volume on Max Eitingon, Agnon (who attended Max’s funeral) contributed a short story, “Another Tallith,” dedicated to Max’s Hebrew name, Reb Mordechai Halevy, which was also the name of Agnon’s father. It relates a dream, exemplifying Agnon’s interest in this angle of Freudianism. There’s a typescript of it in Eitingon’s papers, along with one of a rare, yet-unpublished fragment, also about a dream—which indicates that Max was shown the stories in his lifetime, probably by Esther, who used to type her husband’s manuscripts. Unlike Max, who gave Mirra liberty to pursue her interests, Agnon stifled Esther’s, and their marriage was rocky. According to the historian Avner Falk, she fled their home several times and sought Max’s professional help throughout his 10 years in Jerusalem.

A final, tragic note is also among our recent discoveries in Zweig’s papers. In 1947, four years after Max died, Mirra left Jerusalem to care for her ailing sister in Paris—ostensibly confirming the widespread version that the Eitingons had come to Palestine over her objections. We, however, had found several indications that her Zionism had always been at least as enthusiastic as his. This was now corroborated when it emerged that Mirra had already booked her return passage to Palestine, even though she now had no family or property there—but she died two days before the ship sailed. Unnamed friends (we suspect it was Princess Marie Bonaparte) flew her casket back to Jerusalem, where her burial, next to Max, was among the last Jewish funerals on the Mount of Olives before it was cut off by the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence.


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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

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