Freud-Bernays, Martha (1861-1951)

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Martha Bernays was born on July 26, 1861, the second daughter of Berman Bernays (1826-1879), a merchant, and his wife Emmeline (née Philipp, 1930-1910). Isaac Bernays, Martha's paternal grandfather, was Chief Rabbi of Hamburg, and Berman continued the religious tradition. Emmeline Bernays was intelligent, resolute, well-educated, and shared Berman's Jewish orthodoxy. Martha obeyed her with true devotion. Berman moved to Vienna in 1869 as secretary to a well-known economist. Emmeline loved Hamburg and disliked the move. On December 9, 1879, Berman died suddenly of a heart attack. Martha became an intelligent young woman without intellectual pretensions, svelte, attractively pale, and gracious, and she had a warm personality that brought many male admirers.

Freud met Martha in April 1882; though previously uninvolved with women, he quickly fell in love. His great passion (it was nothing less) was more slowly returned by Martha, but with unwavering steadfastness, and they were soon engaged. The betrothal was secret at first, since Freud was without the means to support a wife. The engagement is well documented by Ernest Jones (1953), who was privileged to read, in their entirety, the love letters that almost daily passed between them. Jones declared that the vast set of letters "would be a not unworthy contribution to the great love literature of the world."

During the engagement (1882-1886) Freud was at times despairing, both because of his poverty and his agonizing attacks of jealousy, not only of men Martha knew, but even of her mother and brother. Martha, by contrast, was unchangingly certain of Freud's love. Freud's eldest sister Anna became engaged to Martha's brother, Eli, at Christmas 1882, and Freud and Martha then declared their own commitment. The hardest tribulation came in June, when Emmeline returned to her former home at Wandsbek, near Hamburg, and Martha, protesting, went with her. Freud had been obliged to give up research work, and was struggling to establish a private practice. Finally, their civil wedding, on September 13, 1886 at Wandsbek, was not recognised in Austria, where a Jewish marriage was obligatory, much to Freud's distaste. In spite of her upbringing, Martha joined Freud in his religious antipathy, and Jewish practices formed no part of their life together.

The honeymoon was largely spent in Holstein on the Baltic, and the bride, just 25, and the husband, 30, settled in Vienna at 8 Maria Theresienstrasse. Their first child, Mathilde, arrived on October 16, 1887. The marriage was remarkably happy, with no return of Freud's early, intermittent doubts of Martha's love. Martha was an excellent wife and mother; both were devoted parents. Two sons were born: Jean Martin (after Charcot) on December 6, 1889, and Oliver (after Cromwell) on February 19, 1891. More space was needed, and it was at 19 Bergasse that the three remaining children were born: Ernst (after Brücke) on April 6, 1892; Sophie on April 12, 1893; and Anna (after Freud's sister) on December 3, 1895. Josefine Cihlarz, a Catholic Kinderfrau, then looked after Anna, Sophie and Ernst. About a year later, Martha's sister Minna, whose fiancé had died, joined the family.

Minna differed from Martha in both looks and temperament: large as opposed to petite; a little imperious as opposed to retiring; outspoken as opposed to discrete. But they got on well enough, and ran the home with clear boundaries between responsibilities. Freud found Minna an intellectual companion who, unlike Martha, took an interest in his developing psychological theories. Martha made it her duty to facilitate Freud's professional work with a supportive daily routine, and their mutual devotion was unshakeable. Martha read widely and discussed with her husband the major works she read. They quoted poetry togetherby Goethe, Heine, Uhland and others. Martha, whose letters were sometimes in verse, kept up with current literature to the end of her life. She entertained well; and distinguished visitors included Thomas Mann, one of her favorite authors.

There were misfortunes in the family. Martha was severely ill in 1919, and in the following year Sophie's death from a similar illness was a bitter blow. Many years later the savage disruption of the Anschluss, on March 11, 1938, signalled the end of life in Vienna. Through the good offices of Marie Bonaparte and Ernest Jones the family able to move to London, and accorded diplomatic privileges. Eventually, Martha, Sigmund Freud, and Anna settled for good at 20 Maresfield Gardens. Dorothy Burlingham was unable to join for some time; Paula Fichtl, the maidservant, was first interned in the Isle of Man; and Minna was soon admitted to a nursing home.

Martha was efficient in the home even without Paula's help. She did the shopping daily, became well known to the local shopkeepers, and remained a hostess of considerable charm to the many visitors. Although Martha was deeply worried about Freud's health, it was Anna who nursed him, making his care a duty above all others. By March 1939 he began to deteriorate, and died on the 23 September, 1939.

In a response to Margarethe Nunberg's condolences, Martha said they would have to live without his goodness and wisdom (Young-Bruehl, 1988). In spite of all her children's love, and support from all over the world, her life, she said, had lost its sense and meaning.

Minna died in 1941, and Martha's sense of loneliness intensified. At the end of the war came the horrific news of the deaths of members of the Freud family in concentration camps, of which, hitherto, there had been no intimation. Bereaved relatives were accommodated and comforted at Maresfield Gardens.

In due course Martha became chronicler of the lives of herself and her husband, and as such, a unique resource for biographers, though family letters remained private. She wrote to friends worldwide, and composed short poems for family occasions. She stayed in charge of home and garden but, increasingly frail as she approached ninety, needed home nursing. She died on November 2, 1951.

Clifford Yorke

See also: Berggasse 19, Wien IX; Bernays, Minna; Freud, Anna; Freud, Ernst; Freud, Oliver; Judaism and psychoanalysis.


Jones, Ernest. (1957). Sigmund Freud. Life and work. London: Hogarth.

Young-Bruehl, Elizabeth. (1988). Anna Freud: A biography. New York: Summit Books.