It is difficult for us to believe that Freud was ever a young man. We are so conditioned by the photographs of the patriarchal bearded figure with his eyes gazing solemnly and disapprovingly at the world and by his letters which so frequently predict an imminent death that we tend to think of him as eternally old.

But young he once was, young, high-spirited, and delighting in the vagaries of life. “Isn’t life one of the strangest things in the world?” he demanded suddenly and impulsively of his young Romanian friend Eduard Silberstein when they were both fifteen. With the publication of the letters of Freud to Silberstein, written between 1871 and 1881, we discover an entirely different Freud, although in his relations with Silberstein we catch glimpses of the implacable streak in his character that was to become so prominent in later years.

The correspondence has been translated elegantly by A.J. Pomerans, who has managed to capture the insouciant tone of a playful friendship. The editing by Walter Boehlich, however, is disappointing. One of the more interesting features of Freud’s correspondence with Jung and Fliess is the respective accounts by William McGuire and Jeffrey Masson of how the letters came to light. But all we learn from Boehlich about the Silberstein correspondence is that it was deposited in the Library of Congress in the late Seventies by “the esteemed Kurt R. Eissler,” the New York psychoanalyst who was then in charge of the Freud archives. I shall return to Boehlich’s unsatisfactory treatment of crucial missing letters.

Freud and Silberstein probably first met when both were fourteen in 1869 at a spa near Freiberg where their mothers were taking the cure. In 1871 Silberstein’s father, a well-to-do banker in Braila, sent him to Vienna where he and Freud attended the same high school. They wrote to each other when Silberstein returned home for the holidays. A close friendship sprang up between them almost immediately. Freud’s letters express an adolescent longing to pour out his ambitions and fears to a single, intimate friend. When separated from Silberstein, Freud was little inclined to make other friends. Their letters provided a way to create a deeper bond between them. Freud confessed to being bored by his contemporaries; no one could fill Silberstein’s place, although Freud had “enemies by the dozen and of all shapes and sizes” (December 11, 1874). What time he had, he admitted, “I should prefer to spend it with you alone. I suspect we have enough to tell each other to dispense with a third for an audience.”

In a much later letter of 1884 Freud gave his fiancée, Martha Bernays, a long account of his early friendship with Silberstein, whom he had seen that very day and whom he found “as devoted to me as ever.”

We became friends at a time when one doesn’t look upon friendship as a support or an asset, but when one needs a friend with whom to share things.

They spent almost every waking hour together, taking “secret walks.” They learned Spanish and worked out a secret Spanish code, borrowing the names of dogs in one of Cervantes’s tales with which to address each other, Silberstein becoming Berganza, Freud Cipión. In retrospect, Freud admitted to Martha that he later realized that Silberstein “did not like soaring very high; he remained in the human domain; his outlook, his reading, his humor, all were bourgeois and somewhat prosaic.” At the time, however, he frequently told Silberstein that he was attracted to the poet in him.

Silberstein and Freud were the entire faculty of the Academia Castellana (or Española)—“the two sole luminaries of the A.E.”—and they addressed each other as “Your Honor.” Girls were known as “principles,” and European cities were designated as Spanish counterparts. (Madrid stood for Berlin, Seville for Vienna.)

Since we do not have Silberstein’s side of the correspondence, it is difficult to imagine what he was like. Since Freud later had an entirely different view of him, dismissing him as not very interesting, it is possible that the young man we know from the letters is in some sense a figment of Freud’s imagination. For example, Silberstein apparently took a strong interest in politics and wrote to Freud about political questions. But Freud writes that he can’t comprehend Silberstein’s interest in politics and has nothing to say about it. The correspondence starts out as if it is between equals, but a subtle shift takes place as Freud attempts to be more dominant. Silberstein’s father, unlike the impecunious Jacob Freud, was able to send his son to whatever university the boy chose. Freud gave vent to his own fantasies when he urged him to attend “beautiful Heidelberg” or “merry old Göttingen”—even a Swiss university such as Berne or Zurich—but Silberstein asserted his independence by enrolling, without consulting Freud, at Leipzig, which his friend considered “dreary.” Freud, for his part, entered medical school in Vienna in 1873.


Some of Freud’s biographers have tried to make much of his crush on Gisela Fluss, the daughter of a family known both to the Freud and the Silberstein households. At the time she was only twelve and Freud fifteen, and we know little about her feelings toward him or what passed between them. Far more interesting is Freud’s admiration for her mother’s intelligence and his frank comparison of her with his own and Silberstein’s mothers. Frau Fluss was a woman who had come from a relatively humble family, yet she had read widely, was knowledgeable about politics, was adored by her children, and acted as a partner in her husband’s business affairs. Freud wrote to Silberstein that he had never before encountered such a superior woman:

Other mothers—and why disguise the fact that our own are among them? We shan’t love them the less for it—care only for the physical well-being of their sons; when it comes to their intellectual development the control is out of their hands. Frau Fluss knows no sphere that is beyond her influence. And you should see the love of the children for the parents and the eagerness with which the servants do her bidding.

Freud does not mention, as he did elsewhere, that his own mother was constantly complaining of ill health. (In fact, she lived until the age of ninety-five.)

Freud, unlike his friend, never seems to have seriously pursued girls of his own age. He teased Silberstein about his passing infatuations. “But then,” he rationalized, “a man cannot aspire to everything, and if I am going to continue feeling awkward in the company of ladies, I am all the more glad that you should feel at your ease with them” (January 17, 1875). So long as Silberstein indulged only in frivolous flirtations, Freud could tolerate them. However, when he seemed to have been deeply attracted to a young woman in the winter of 1875, Freud suddenly wrote him an urgent letter, wholly different in tone from anything that had preceded it. No more boyish pig-Latin, but a sermon from a moral superior (February 27, 1875), warning him of the consequences of his behavior:

A thinking man is his own legislator, confessor, and absolver. But a woman, let alone a girl, has no inherent ethical standard; she can act correctly only if she keeps within the bounds of convention, observing what society deems to be proper.

Freud seems to have been intensely jealous that his friend was attracted to a girl who “cannot even have enjoyed a proper education.” How could he stoop so low when he already had the friendship of the cultivated Cipión? Clearly, according to Freud, the girl had a calculating mother who was shrewdly manipulating Silberstein into marriage by sending her daughter to dancing classes and in other ways encouraging her to use her feminine wiles.

The infatuation apparently petered out and gradually Freud began to resume his old bantering tone, telling Silberstein about his professors, such as the charismatic professor of philosophy, Franz Brentano, and about his admiration of Feuerbach, “one whom I revere and admire above all other philosophers.” (In later years he would deny that he was indebted to any philosophers.) Indeed, when he was eighteen, a year after he decided to become a medical doctor, he urged Silberstein to study philosophy: “I should be sorry if you, the lawyer, were to neglect philosophy altogether while I, the godless medical man and empiricist, am attending two courses in philosophy….” He read voraciously and eclectically—Helmholtz, Carlyle, Richter, Alexandre Dumas. He hoped to go to Berlin to attend lectures by prominent scientists including Du Bois-Reymond, Helmholtz, and Virchow, but apparently this ambitious plan had to be abandoned because he could not afford it. There is no indication that Silberstein offered him intellectual stimulation in return, or that the two could talk together about the subjects that engaged Freud and Brentano. Freud wrote that while Brentano could not convince him of the existence of God, he was enormously impressed by the way in which “he abhors all glib phrases, all emotionality, and all intolerance of other views.” What seems to have impressed Freud most about the former priest was his ability to attract disciples to him.

In the summer of 1875 Freud changed his name from “Sigismund” to “Sigmund,” the name he was to use for the rest of his life. He did not write Silberstein about why he made this change, but Ronald Clark has suggested that it might have been because “Sigismund” was much used in anti-Semitic Viennese jokes.


Later that year Freud traveled to England to visit his older step-brothers. Freud was greatly impressed with England and told Silberstein that he would like to settle there:

If I wished to influence a large number of people instead of a small number of readers or fellow scientists, England would be just the place for that purpose. A respected man, supported by the press and the rich, could do wonders in alleviating physical ills, if only he were enough of an explorer to strike out on new therapeutic paths.

By the time he returned to Vienna at the end of the summer he had made a major decision: to devote his life to medical research. On the way to England he had stopped off in Leipzig where he had to borrow some money from Silberstein. He was mortified to have to put himself in his debt. Then on his return to Vienna he was shocked to learn that Silberstein had conversed in Spanish to another friend. He longed for a reunion so that their relationship could be reestablished on the old basis:

I really believe that we shall never be rid of each other; though we became friends by free choice, we are as attached to one another as if nature had put [us] on this earth as blood relations: I believe that we have come so far that one loves the very person of the other and not, as before, merely his good qualities, and I am afraid that were you, by an unworthy act, to prove quite different tomorrow from the image I keep of you I could still not cease to wish you well. That is a weakness and I have taken myself to task for it several times.

Freud already seems worried that Silberstein is somehow going to let him down.

Silberstein, who, in Freud’s eyes, threw away all the opportunities he himself would have seized, returned that same winter to Vienna to enter the faculty of law at the university. Freud meanwhile was beginning to be noticed as a brilliant researcher. In March 1876 he was sent to Trieste by Carl Claus, the director of the Institute of Comparative Anatomy where he had been studying, to investigate one of biology’s most puzzling problems—the existence of the male eel. Freud sent Silberstein long accounts of his difficulties in dissecting four hundred eels, accompanied by drawings, but he is more interesting when he discusses the first exotic city he had ever visited. Trieste, he told him, “is a very beautiful city and the beasts are very beautiful beasts.” He was intrigued and repelled by the way the women wore one lock of hair hanging over an eye. As the time to leave Trieste approached, on April 23 he makes an interesting observation about himself: “I cannot stick to any place or subject to the bitter end, regularly skip a lecture when the course is in its final stages,…and am almost eaten up with impatience whenever my stay anywhere is nearing its end.” This is a fascinating comment in view of his 1910 monograph on Leonardo da Vinci, whose inability to complete a work he identifies as a deep neurotic symptom.

Silberstein was made a doctor of jurisprudence in 1879. He then settled in Braila but never practiced law, choosing instead to become a banker like his father and to marry a woman whom Freud later described to his fiancée as “a stupid rich girl.” The letters between the two young men ended abruptly in 1881. Freud later said that his own engagement to Martha Bernays in 1882 caused them to drift apart. At an emotional gathering on the eve of Silberstein’s departure from Vienna, Freud made a little speech in which he declared that Silberstein was taking his own youth away with him. And indeed this appears to have been the case. In entering adulthood, Freud appears to have shed the gaiety that is evident in his relations with his friend for the sobering reality of marriage, poverty, and thwarted ambition.

But the story of their relationship did not end there, even though their later correspondence has disappeared. The most startling new insight into Freud’s life is provided in an appendix, “Biographical Notes on Dr. Eduard Silberstein,” by his granddaughter Rosita Braunstein Vieyra. She reveals that some time after 1881, Silberstein fell deeply in love with and married Pauline Theiler, a native of Jassy, Silberstein’s birthplace. Apparently at some point Silberstein consulted Freud about his wife’s depressions and sent her to Vienna to be treated by his old friend, who was by then specializing in the treatment of hysterical patients. How long she was in treatment we have no way of knowing. (That Freud actually treated her we know from his own testimony in a statement he sent to Braila at the request of the local B’nai B’rith Lodge there in 1928.) Silberstein died in 1925.

We also now know that Pauline Silberstein fell to her death in the stairwell of Freud’s apartment building in Maria Theresienstrasse on May 14, 1891.1 This tragedy was corroborated by Anna Freud in 1982, when she invited Mrs. Vieyra to visit her shortly before her death. Whether the suicide occurred before Freud was to see her or after an interview with her remains unclear; nor do we know how long she had been in treatment with him. The editor, Boehlich, assumes confidently that she died without actually seeing Freud that day. Apparently relying on the newspaper account in the Neue Wiener Tageblatt, which did not mention names and was obviously a cover-up, Boehlich asserts that when Frau Silberstein arrived at Freud’s building, “she told her maid to wait downstairs and instead of going to the consulting rooms, threw herself to her death from the third floor (American fourth floor) without having seen Freud.” Boehlich supplies no evidence for his statement that she had not seen Freud that day. Nor does he tell us on which floor Freud practiced or make it clear that Freud, according to his own account, had in fact been treating the woman.2

Freud’s letters of this period have disappeared, and we may never know what actually happened. Possibly Freud felt embarrassed in his relations with Silberstein because he felt that he had somehow failed him. Yet there is no evidence that Silberstein was angry with him or held him responsible for his wife’s death. After 1881 we have only one letter from Freud to Silberstein, dated April 28, 1910. Apparently Silberstein had written the previous year congratulating him on his birthday, and Freud failed to reply. “Now life is running out,” Freud commented (he had reached the age of fifty-four). His mood was somber as he briefly explained that he had encountered many difficulties in his scientific life; and he “might now be a well-to-do man had I not preferred a large family.” Freud was now writing because Silberstein had suggested sending him some patients; and Freud replied loftily that he would “refer them to my many pupils, who will treat them as I will suggest, but I myself cannot take on anything more this season.” Apparently he could not risk another failure—he who had been his friend’s intellectual superior. But lest Silberstein consider him a defeated man, Freud assured him that he was the leader of a great movement in the interpretation of nervous diseases, a movement which was gaining widespread recognition, and that he had lectured in America the previous year. The letter is signed “Your old Freud.”

What had happened to the joking and high-spirited Freud of the early letters? When he became engaged to Martha, he tried, it would appear, to create a substitute for Silberstein. In his long letters to her, Freud used her simply as a sounding board; and the priggish pomposity with which he occasionally lectured his friend became more pronounced as he tried to influence his future wife by supervising her reading in a more authoritarian way than he had tried to guide Silberstein’s intellectual pursuits. When they married in 1886, the girl whom he was able to idealize in his letters to her turned out to be a rather petulant and boring Hausfrau. She bore him six children; and the worry of supporting them was constantly on his mind. The very intensity with which he entered into the largely epistolary friendship with Wilhelm Fliess was a reflection of his disappointment with the life he had made for himself and his need to seek the one idealized friend who could exist chiefly as a projection of himself. For Freud the ideal friend had to be able to give him constant reassurance. His grand passion for Fliess came to a disastrous end nearly six years before the last gloomy letter to Silberstein. Falling in love for Freud always seems to have meant disenchantment.

We do not know when Freud destroyed Silberstein’s letters. He never mentioned him again in any surviving document or memoir that I know of. He was no longer of any use to Freud and for this reason, we may suspect, he was expunged from history.

This Issue

January 17, 1991