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Not a Fairy Tale

Children’s book illustrator Tom Seidmann-Freud—Sigmund Freud’s niece—led a short and tragic life, but her surreal, whimsical art endures

Marjorie Ingall
February 28, 2012

When I first saw vintage illustrations by Tom Seidmann-Freud—Sigmund Freud’s niece—on the book design blog 50 Watts, I was gobsmacked. They’re unnerving, surreal, modern-looking, dark, and dreamy. In them, I saw elements of Henry Darger’s creepy folk art, Barbara Lehman’s Caldecott Award-winning children’s book illustrations, and Aubrey Beardsley’s sinuous Art Nouveau flowers. If Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away got together under a flowering peyote cactus and made a baby, it might look like Tom Seidmann-Freud’s work. Book collector Will Schofield called Seidmann-Freud’s 1924 Buch Der Hasengeschichten (Book of Rabbit Stories) “whimsically apocalyptic,” which is a pretty good description of her most nuanced pieces.

Her life was brief, its ending tragic. And after her death, the Nazis attempted to destroy the art she had created. Thanks to her family’s efforts and those of art lovers in Europe and Israel, Seidmann-Freud’s art survived the Holocaust; today, new collectors and book lovers are falling in love with her work. But even as her art survived, her personal story was almost lost—even to her own descendants.

Seidmann-Freud’s life was as unusual as her art. She was born in Austria into an intellectual, elite, assimilated Jewish family in 1892. She grew up in Berlin and attended art school in London. Originally named Marta, she took the name Tom as a teenager. “She believed that if she would continue to carry a girl name, she would have much more difficulties to advance in the world of art,” her grandson Amnon Harari told me. “She just wanted to make sure gender would not be an obstacle.” Most sources (including the Tom Seidmann-Freud family website) say that Seidmann-Freud dressed in men’s clothing, but Harari says this isn’t so.

She hung out with Berlin’s avant-garde crowd, as well as with her family’s academic and Zionist friends. Zalman Shocken, S. Y. Agnon, and Gershom Sholem were part of her social circle. “She subsisted on cigarettes and her room was always full of smoke—a real bohemian woman,” Gershom Sholem said of her in his memoirs. When she began creating children’s books, Walter Benjamin favorably reviewed her work, which included Kleine Märchen (Little Fairy Tales, 1921), Die Fischreise (The Fish’s Travels, 1923), Buch der Hasengeschichten (Book of Rabbit Stories, 1924), and Buch der erfüllten Wünsche (Book of Fulfilled Wishes, 1929). Her book Das Zauberboot (The Magic Boat, 1929) featured movable parts and mechanical illustrations with interactive tabs and wheels; an American edition was produced in 1981. (Vintage copies go for big bucks on eBay.) Her style involved outlining folk-art-y, simple illustrations precisely in ink, then filling them in with watercolors. She frequently used stencils and paint together in a bright, lively technique called pochoir.

In 1920, she fell in love with a young journalist named Jakob (Yankel) Seidmann; they married the following year. In 1922, their daughter Angela was born. Around the same time, Tom and Yankel met the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik; Yankel had published some of his works. The three decided to embark on a new venture together, a publishing company called Ophir that would produce Hebrew books for children. It turned out to be a disaster.

Tom and Yankel poured money into Ophir (ironically, the name of a land full of gold in the Book of Kings), but Bialik didn’t do the same. He moved to Tel Aviv after writing only two of the five books in his contract, and apparently without putting up the agreed-upon sum to support the company. Yankel sent increasingly desperate letters to the poet, including this one from April 5, 1925 (reprinted in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, translated into Hebrew from Yiddish, then translated into English for Tablet by Liel Leibovitz):

The very honorable Mr. Bialik:

I received your letter of the 25th of Adar. That which I dared not imagine has happened. Even though I wrote to you about my distress, your heart has remained sealed to my words. According to the contract, you are supposed to invest in Ophir half the sum. Not only did you not invest, but you spent, Baruch Hashem, as I was investing my last dime. […] My wife and I did not earn a penny from Ophir. Where, then, is your integrity? I wrote to you that we had to get a loan and you did not even respond to my letter. I was always very patient about matters pertaining to Ophir, and now you are making up stories in order to withhold money that isn’t yours. I can’t believe that you would thusly spoil our relationship.

Broke, devastated, at wit’s end, Yankel committed suicide in 1929. His wife found his body swinging from the ceiling in their apartment. After that, Tom was gone, too. She stopped eating. She was institutionalized, but despite the ministrations of her famous uncle, she died four months later of starvation. Angela was 7.

“And this is why in my family we are not very fond of Bialik, despite him being the National Poet,” Amnon Harari told me drily. “Not in this family.”

Angela was adopted by Tom’s sister, Lily Freud, an actress, who was married to an actor named Arnold Marlé. (Marlé went on to roles in The New Adventures of Charlie Chan and The Avengers television shows.) Angela moved with them to Hamburg, then on to Prague in 1933, just as Hitler took control of Germany. “In 1939, my mother was 17 and a Zionist,” Harari said, “and she decided to go with Aliyat HaNoar to Israel.” Sigmund Freud wrote to her before she left: “My dear Angela: Best regards for your new life in the fatherland. You’re still young and your life is before you. Know that all can change for the better. Your Uncle Sigmund.”

Angela changed her name to Aviva, a Hebrew word meaning spring. (Perhaps it represented her own rebirth.) She became a nurse, got married, had children. And for years, those children knew little of their mother’s past. “I thought Lily and Arnold were my grandfather and grandmother until I was 18,” Harari said. “Only then did my mother tell me they weren’t my real grandparents. We had a lot of my grandmother’s books and paintings, and we knew she’d been a painter and storyteller and children’s book writer. So, when we met Lily when I was maybe 10, and we asked her to paint or draw for us, and she couldn’t, we thought it was because of her age; she was pretty old and shaky.”

Aviva didn’t talk about her past, but she hung on to her mother’s work. “She found this subject emotionally too difficult to deal with, but she kept everything,” said Harari. It’s fortunate that she did, because most of Seidmann-Freud’s books were destroyed by the Nazis during their grim purge of works by Jewish writers and artists.

After years of silence, Aviva finally began to share her story with her children. Amnon, now a retired Air Force General and head of the Israeli military’s space program, said, “My mother was a strong and optimistic lady, but no doubt [her past] was traumatic until the end of her life. She died in May 2011. In her last couple of years she had amnesia and barely recognized us. But when she was 85, she told me, ‘I don’t understand how they could leave me. How could they leave me, a child 7 years old, all alone in the world?’ ”

For whatever consolation it provides, Seidmann-Freud’s work isn’t forgotten. “The city of Tel Aviv published a small booklet of her paintings and Bialik’s songs, and every baby born in Tel Aviv gets the booklet from the municipality,” Harari told me. (Even after death, Seidmann-Freud’s artistic identity is linked with Bialik’s.) The rare Seidmann-Freud books that survived the Holocaust are much in demand by antiquarian booksellers and collectors. The family sells fine-art prints of some of her work on their website (built by Harari’s son Asaf). The rich and strange beauty of her work can’t erase the sorrow of her life, but it’s all her family has left.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.