A fictionalized telling of the life of Adolfina Freud, one of four sisters whom Sigmund Freud left behind to die in a Nazi concentration camp.
Country Focus: Macedonia (Makedonija in Macedonian
By Goce Smilevski
Translated by Christina E. Kramer
Originally published in Macedonian by Dijalong as Sestrata na Zigmund Frojd, 2011.
My edition: Penguin, 2012
About the author: A native Macedonian, Smilevski teaches at Ss. Cyril Methodius University’s Institute for Literature in the capital city of Skopje. Freud’s Sister won him the European Prize for Literature.
Note: Aside from its authorship, Freud’s Sister has nothing whatsoever to do with Macedonia. Contemporary, translated fiction set in Macedonia and written by a Macedonian has eluded me. I’ll re-post if I come across any.
In an opening note, Smilevski writes that historians know very little about Adolfina Freud—the youngest sister of Sigmund Freud—other than her doom. For Adolfina’s sake, I hope he got the rest of her story very, very wrong.
The novel opens 1938. Hitler has just occupied Austria, home to Sigmund Freud and his four sisters. Jews in Vienna face increasing anti-Semitism and violence. Freud’s international colleagues fear for the Jewish psychoanalyst’s life, and they convince him to depart for London. Freud arranges exit visas for himself, his wife, their children, his wife’s sister, two housekeepers, his doctor and his doctor’s family and his dog, but not his sisters, including his favorite, Adolfina. Left to the mercy of the Nazis, the women die in a concentration camp in 1942.
After these ghastly opening chapters, I thought the worst was over. I was wrong. Adolfina, the novel’s protagonist and first-person narrator, began her suffering decades before the gas chamber ended it. She grows up with her mother’s cruel mantra ringing her in ears: “It would have been better if I had not given birth to you.” She falls in love with a man who succumbs to severe depression. One of her friends dies of an illness. Another ends up in a “madhouse.” Crushed by her own personal tragedy, Adolfina becomes her roomie. (As long as the patient paid for room and board, they could stay in the madhouse regardless of their mental state.) Together they bear witness to the madness of the people within its walls, and engage the head of the hospital in discussions about the definition of madness and whether or not it can be cured.
Readers with some background in Sigmund Freud’s work may find deeper meaning in Freud’s Sister than readers unfamiliar with his beliefs (like me). The questions that I think the book poses include: Who decides who is mad? How can one stop madness? What sort of madness enveloped Freud when he willfully refused to save his sisters from the Nazis? These questions are particularly thorny considering the novel’s backdrop. Under Hitler, madness ruled.
I sat in my room and thought of my conversation with my brother. I thought of the humane sentiment he had expressed as we stood between the older Madonna with the crucified Jesus and the Madonna with the child Jesus: that the greatest aim the human race must strive for is to allow each person to live his life with the least possible suffering, and for each person to contribute to the realization of that ideal. On that February day in 1933, Sigmund truly believed this, but a different sequence of events was already in motion. Germany had a new leader, and our sisters had returned to Vienna. When the new German leader occupied Austria as well, my brother left for London with those whose lives he had chosen to spare; we, his sisters, were deported to first one camp, then to another. In those moments of suffering that my sisters and I lived through, his words that each person should strive for there to be the least possible suffering in this world sounded to me like ridicule.