Six Degrees of Separation from Sigmund Freud
by Angie Littlefield
We reach a certain age when the idea of having only six degrees of separation from a famous historical person seems possible. It’s fun to try to connect with history, but before you try, let’s make the game a little harder: Every link needs to be a personal connection—meaning that each link in the chain has to have met the next link in person—and that famous person has to have been the subject of at least one book, article, or documentary. The prize goes to the person who has the fewest degrees of separation. I lay claim to contact in just two degrees with no less than the renowned Sigmund Freud.
My grandmother, Anna Skrainka, was born in 1899 in Moravia, then part of Austria-Hungary and now part of the Czech Republic. She moved to Vienna as a young girl. The family lived at 24 Taborstrasse, in the Jewish district called Leopoldstadt. Anna’s father, Josef, was a kosher butcher and the family lived well from the profits of his store. Pickled beef tongue was his specialty. Josef was the second son in a family with ten children and so did not receive the education reserved for the first-born son. His older brother, Dr. Saloman Leopold Skrainka, trained in Berlin and, in his first position, tended to visitors at the spa in Rosenau, which Sigmund Freud’s mother, Amalie Nathanson Freud, visited more than 20 times. Later, in Vienna, Dr. Skrainka was a general practitioner with a railroad-worker clientele. The Skrainkas at Taborstrasse and the Freuds at Bergstrasse lived one mile apart.
I do not claim Dr. Skrainka’s likely contact with Freud’s mother as my two degrees of separation to him, however. I sat upon my grandmother Anna’s knee, held her hand and kissed her. Despite enduring 18 months in a concentration camp, she died in an armchair in her apartment in Hamburg in 1976. I never once walked beside or touched my great-uncle, Dr. Saloman Skrainka. He was murdered in Auschwitz before I was born.
The very rooms in which my grandmother lived in Vienna offer my connection to Freud. The core of 24 Taborstrasse was the Braun-Radislowitz House, which the Catholic humanitarian Louise Braun-Radislowitz donated to serve as a bathhouse for the poor, scrofular children of Vienna. The Jan. 2, 1857, edition of the Austrian Newspaper for Practical Health, noted that, in one summer, 689 baths for children took place on the premises. That’s lots of tin tubs, scrub brushes, suds, and squirming.
In 1864 the City of Vienna Council agreed the bath house could be made over into the Leopoldstadt Secondary School. Sigmund Freud attended there from 1865 until his graduation in 1873. The school moved out in 1877. My grandmother did not move in for two decades, after the building had been renovated into stores and flats.
I base my claim to two degrees of separation to Freud on the fact that, for five years, teenage Sigmund Freud studied in the very same rooms that my grandmother later occupied—the second floor of 24 Taborstrasse. Imagine his wooden school desk where my grandmother’s wooden bed stood, her footsteps in the footprints he left. The walls sharing their secrets.
Now, naturally Freud and my grandmother did not actually touch or talk when he was a teenager studying at Taborstrasse. So, picture instead, a spring day in 1914, before the start of WWI. Fourteen-year-old Anna Skrainka has secretly wedged Freud’s recently published Totem and Taboo between her schoolbooks. As she runs from the front hall alcove, past the entrance to her father’s butcher shop store, she bumps into a kindly looking gentleman who has stopped to inspect the display cases. Anna has seen the white beard and dark glasses before. The suited gentleman stoops to pick up the books she dropped. He chuckles as he hands her Totem and Taboo, then he proceeds into the store.
“Hello, Herr Freud,” Josef Skrainka says. “The usual?”
Now, it’s your turn. Tell us your stories (on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/silversagemagazine/) about brushes with greatness. Imagination allowed!
Artwork: “People” by Mollicles420 (US) and “Winter” by https://www.deviantart.com/voorikvergeet (Netherlands).
Angie Littlefield is an author, curator, educator, and editor. She has written three books about Canadian artist Tom Thomson, the most recent of which is Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends. Her eclectic interests include curating art exhibits in Canada and Germany and working with children from Nunavut and Tristan da Cunha to produce their books. Her other books include Ilse Salberg: Weimar Photographer, Angelika Hoerle: Comet of Cologne Dadaists, and The Art of Dissent: Willy Fick. She co-created www.readingandremembrance.ca, a website with lesson packages for Ontario educators. Angie lives in Toronto, Canada.