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The Freudian Became a Catholic

Karl Stern, Canadian psychiatrist and writer, was in his day a famous Catholic convert. Why has he been forgotten?

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Four years ago, on a January afternoon while Montreal was in the middle of another subarctic deep freeze, I boarded a plane for Munich. Hours before, as the wheels of the taxi spun on the ice and careened toward departures, I realized that I only had one book, Karl Stern’s 1951 memoir The Pillar of Fire, for my flight. I’d found a first edition at a used bookstore, where it cost me the equivalent of two baguettes. It was signed by Stern with a blue fountain pen and addressed in that elegant, unmistakeably European cursive script to a colleague at Montreal’s Saint Mary’s hospital, where he had been psychiatrist-in-chief.

I hadn’t planned on reading it. I’d been reading around Stern, in footnotes and bibliographies, for close to a decade. Every so often, I’d meet an elderly person who remembered him as a Jewish doctor. Others said he was a novelist. Or, a German pianist. My neighbor, a Francophone nun in her eighties, thought he might have been a psychoanalyst for priests. No one ever seemed to be talking about the same man.

I’d discovered a quotation from The Pillar of Fire in an article about Montreal history by a local scholar, Sherry Simon. Stern, it turns out, was a Bavarian-Jewish refugee, and he recalled looking down at his adoptive city from the mountain at its center. “From the top of Mount Royal,” he writes after his arrival in 1939, “you can almost directly perceive currents of European history of the last few centuries in a petrified form.” I could imagine him at the summit in a continental greatcoat, looking like one of those rootless European émigrés who fill the pages of W.G. Sebald’s novels. Stern would have peered down at the cold-water flats rented by Jewish immigrants on Mordecai Richler’s Saint Urbain street. Then, the French Catholic working-class quartiers further east. He may have turned toward the Anglo-Scottish demesnes in posh Westmount, attempting to situate himself amid the frictions embedded in the cultural genome of this island metropolis. “Thus, the city is parcellated,” he wrote of Montreal’s English, Irish, Jews, French, Catholics, and Protestants, “and everywhere there are frontiers of distrust.”

Who was Stern? Internet searches had turned up little. My plan was, during a European holiday, to donate The Pillar of Fire to Munich’s Jewish museum. It only seemed right: to give it to a place dedicated to a people many of whom scattered to Montreal, London, and Washington Heights, but only if they didn’t perish in Bergen-Belsen or Dachau. I had skimmed the first section and knew that Stern had adored Munich, where he had studied medicine. “With the exception of Paris,” he writes with an ardor usually reserved for descriptions of lovers or great works of art, “there has never been a town which had so much individual expression, so little of the artifact and so much natural growth.”

Later I would discover that Stern’s memoir, his novel, and assorted essays on music, medicine, and religion had made him a quasi-celebrity. Back in 1939, his young family settled in a jerry-built row house near the mental hospital where he worked on Montreal’s outskirts. A decade later, he would become one of Canada’s founding fathers of psychiatry. He would write best-sellers like The Pillar of Fire, reprinted 17 times in paperback and translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, and German. His 1961 study on psychology and religion, The Third Revolution, would spark correspondence with Carl Jung. The Flight From Woman (1965), a philosophical treatise on modern society’s polarization of the sexes and its de-feminization, would make him a common name in women’s magazines. He corresponded with leading rabbis, poets, and writers—Robert Lowell, Ivan Illich, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton—and other religious luminaries of his day. Along with Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori, he would join UNESCO’s Committee of Experts on German Questions. Graham Greene was his houseguest. American Catholic activist Dorothy Day was a close friend. He would be profiled in Time and write for the New York Times.

The Munich museum expressed gratitude for my donation, although they’d never heard of him.

***

How did Karl Stern become so forgettable? Little has been written about him since the decades following his death in 1975. The list of heavyweight European intellectuals who fled to North America—the Arendts and Adornos, Horkheimers and Fromms—is so long. Is it any wonder that so many others, especially north of the border, have fallen through the cracks?

On the plane to Munich, I read The Pillar of Fire from beginning to end. It is breathtaking. As a historical document, it is nothing less than essential, a pre- and post-1933 doctor’s version of Joseph Roth’s What I Saw, a Who’s Who of Jewish-German life. It possesses that tinge of self-effacement that readers may find endearing and that builds confidence in the narrator’s authority. But by the time we landed and I had closed his book, I understood why Stern may have been easier to forget.

Born in 1906 to an assimilated merchant family in Cham, about 90 miles from the Bavarian capital, Stern is one of those rare figures who, by luck or preternatural talent—in his case both—survived some of the most dangerous episodes of European history. Between the wars, he joined the Jung-Jüdischer Wanderbund (Young Jewish Wanderers) that held meetings on Thierschstrasse, next to Hitler’s original headquarters. Like many young idealists, he dabbled with Marxism and then became a Zionist and part of the habonim. He attended the Orthodox Canal Synagogue on Herzog Rudolf street, where he met Martin Buber. He underwent analysis and trained to be a doctor with some of the 20th century’s most brilliant minds.

He exchanged letters with Thomas Mann. Struck up a deep friendship with Reha Freier, who founded the Youth Aliyah and saved thousands of Jewish children from deportation (“She was beautiful, of a simple Biblical beauty, someone right out of the Old Testament.”). A talented pianist, Stern played Bach’s chamber music in the salons of the well-to-do.

When Hitler came to power, another lucky break. His work at the German Research Institute for Psychiatry was paid for by a Rockefeller grant. He became the only Jewish physician in a non-Jewish institution in Nazi Germany allowed to work under the Aryan laws (until his sympathetic supervisor, Dr. Walther Spielmeyer, died in 1935). Soon he escaped to London, where he conducted important neurological research on dementia. Meanwhile, his brother Ludwig, a Zionist leader, was miraculously released from Buchenwald. His parents were also saved, but he lost extended family and many friends to the death camps.

Stern’s book is a backstage pass into the perverse inner machinations of life in Nazi Germany from which most Jews had already been banished to the harrowing margins. But this is a subfraction of his story’s central theme. The Pillar of Fire is also an account of Stern’s conversion from Judaism to Catholicism. From Munich’s Canal Synagogue on the eve of European Jewry’s destruction Stern is received, in 1943, on the Vigil of Saint Thomas of the Apostle, by Father Ethelbert Sambrooke into the Dorchester Street church of Montreal’s Franciscan Fathers.

His early spiritual awakening is guided by the unlikely figures of pious Bavarian housekeepers, many of whom, he explains, had an instinctual disdain for Hitler. “What do they want to do against the Jews?” asks Babette Klebl, the Catholic maid of family friends in Munich, about the Nazis. “It will end badly with these fellows because our Lord Himself was a Jew.”

In his memoir, Stern speaks with unbridled admiration about women like Klebl, and Kati Huber, the maid of his future wife, who are a balm for his restless intellect and exude “the odor of hard work, the righteousness of the Psalms and the peace of the Gospel.” They display a natural charity and “treasure of anonymous sanctity.” Their simple but mysterious faith is juxtaposed with the somewhat dreary Jewish reality of Stern’s childhood, the mediocrity of his first religious teachers, and the damp, smelly prayer-hall housed within a brewery in his hometown. Even his aunt Clara, of whom he usually writes fondly, can only express sarcasm about his bar mitzvah celebration, which ends with a cousin playing Wagner’s “Magic Fire” from The Valkyrie on the piano.

After many years of wrestling with spiritual questions like Jacob and the angel, Stern finally exchanges his tefillin for the rosary, Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. “We all go through … mental contortions before we have torn up our earthly roots,” Stern reflects on accepting Jesus Christ as saviour, “and let ourselves fall into space and into the great embrace.”

***

Stern’s fall into the great embrace catapulted his name beyond Montreal’s hospital wards and the leafy campus of McGill University’s medical school, into a postwar universe of broken souls yearning for spiritual comfort. Over 60 years later, Catholic readers still draw on his memoir for nourishing their faith. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a Jewish convert from New York who co-founded the National Association for the Repeal of the Abortion Laws, credited The Pillar of Fire as an inspiration behind his own turn toward Catholicism and the pro-life camp. “There was something indefinably serene about him,” he writes of Stern, who was also his professor at medical school. Stern’s memoir, Nathanson wrote, was “perhaps the most eloquent and persuasive document on the experience of religious conversion written in the modern age.”

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The Freudian Became a Catholic

Karl Stern, Canadian psychiatrist and writer, was in his day a famous Catholic convert. Why has he been forgotten?