The Viennese Psychoanalytic Society and its Executive Decision of March 13, 1938

Already formed in 1908, the Viennese Psychoanalytic Society (WPV) was the first psychoanalytic organization in the world. In 1910, it was officially established as an association. From the start, the WPV attracted social democrats and other individuals from the political left due to the cultural criticism inherent in psychoanalysis.

With the invasion of Austria by German troops on March 12, 1938, it seemed inevitable that the WPV would be dissolved, at least temporarily. Here in Berggasse, in the waiting room, a board meeting was called on March 13, chaired by Anna Freud. Two resolutions were passed and then communicated to Sigmund Freud. 1) All members are to leave the country as soon as possible; and 2) the seat of the Viennese Society is to be relocated to Freud’s future residence.

The political events did not strike the Viennese group without previous warning signs. After Hitler’s appointment as »Reichskanzler« [Chancellor of the Reich] in January 1933, many of the psychoanalysts residing in Germany were forced to leave the country. Already with the suspension of the Austrian parliament and the establishment of the authoritarian Austro-fascist regime, which started in March 1933, it was no longer possible for socialist-oriented psychoanalysts like Siegfried Bernfeld, Josef Karl Friedjung, Helene and Felix Deutsch, or Edith Buxbaum to stay in Vienna.

“When Freud entered, Anna told him of the board’s decision that the seat of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society would be wherever Freud would settle and of the intention of its members to leave Austria. Freud remarked. ‘After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by Titus, Rabbi Jochanan ben Sakkai asked for permission to open a school at Jabneh for the study of the Torah. We are going to do the same. We are, after all, used to persecution by our history, tradition, and some of us by personal experience ….”

Richard F. Sterba, 1982

Richard Sterba

Richard Sterba was born into a Catholic family in Vienna on May 6, 1898. Even before his Matura (school leaving examination), he was conscripted for military service; later he studied medicine and received a doctorate at the University of Vienna in 1923. In 1924, he began his training analysis with Eduard Hitschmann, in 1926 he married Editha von Radanovicz-Hartmann, who later also trained as a psychoanalyst. A full member of the WPV as of 1928, he started working as a training analyst in 1929.

After the »Anschluss,« only five WPV members were not subject to the Nuremberg Race Laws. To avoid being appointed to an official function as the only medical professional and non-Jew – which would seriously have handicapped his own emigration –, Sterba already left the country for Switzerland on March 16, 1938. Obtaining visas for the United States proved to be difficult: The American authorities regarded Editha, who was born in Budapest, as a Hungarian citizen, the quota for visas for Hungarians, however, was already met. In June 1938, Sterba travelled to London to ask Ernest Jones for his assistance. Jones and Anna advised emigration to Johannesburg, but the South African authorities denied them entry. Finally, Sterba was able to obtain an »affidavit of support« for his wife through the mediation of a former patient and thus they eventually emigrated to the USA. On February 2, 1939, the Sterba family with their two daughters Monika (5 years) and Verena (2 years) travelled to the States on the SS Normandie and settled in Detroit.

In 1940, Richard Sterba founded the Detroit Psychoanalytic Society, which he directed from 1946 to 1952. He organized it in the spirit of Freudian psychoanalysis – and as a »one-man-institute« according to his Detroit colleagues’ criticism. Internal tensions escalated, culminating in the institute’s dissolution in 1953. As a result, Richard and Editha Sterba lost their teaching licenses. When analytical training in Detroit was re-established in 1957 under the direction of the New York Psychoanalytic Society and with participation of former WPV members, the Sterbas were not involved. Later, Sterba continued to teach as a professor of psychiatry at the Wayne State University.

Sterba, who was an active psychoanalyst into advanced old age, died in Grosse Pointe, a suburb of Detroit, on October 24, 1989.


Registry form for Richard Sterba, “neurologist”, with entries on his wife Editha and daughters Monika and Verena (facsimile). The official deregistration only happened on November 11, 1939, with a note attached: “Departure for Switzerland after the change”.

WStLA [Vienna Municipal and Regional Archives]


Excerpt from Richard Sterba’s three-page typescript “When we have lost someone“, with handwritten corrections (facsimile). In it, he describes his last encounter with Sigmund Freud during the board meeting on March 13, 1938, and the latter’s words: “Then he said, just before he left us: ‘Hold fast to the truth.’”


The Ellis Island Passenger Manifests

Each manifest consists of two pages with a total of 37 fields for various data. The left page contains central data such as name, age, gender, marital status (fields 1-6), or place of birth (field 11) and last place of residence (field 15), but also information about reading, language, and writing skills (field 8). The right-hand side contains more in-depth information about the passenger: In addition to the planned length of stay (field 24) and destination, the next of kin or friend in the country of origin had to be indicated (fields 17-18), as well as who paid for the passage and whether the person entering the country had $50 or less (fields 20-21). Attitudes toward anarchy and polygamy were also inquired and any plans to overthrow the government also had to be indicated (fields 26-28). Height, weight, color of skin and hair, and physical and mental health were also recorded (fields 32-36). Source: The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation

Go back