Olga Umansky, MLIS, is a librarian and archivist of the Hanns Sachs Library at BPSI. Her remarks below originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of the library newsletter, which can be read here.

Sabina Spielrein in the 1930s. Photograph from the web site of International Association for Spielrein Studies

Klara Naszkowska, PhD, a Fulbright and Visiting Scholar at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University has recently contacted the BPSI Archives to research our collection of interviews with Jewish women émigré psychoanalysts who came to the United States in 1930s. As a chair of the International Association for Spielrein Studies, Dr. Naszkowska is organizing the “Sabina Spielrein and the Early Female Pioneers of Psychoanalysis” conference in Warsaw, Poland, now rescheduled for April 15-17, 2022. The first part of the conference will be held online in April 2021, in collaboration with Union Theological Seminary in New York. The Association holds an impressive collection of resources, papers, and photographs depicting tragic life and work of Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942), a Russian-Jewish psychoanalyst and pediatrician with at least thirty publications in German, French and Russian.

One of BPSI’s last live gatherings before the Covid-19 pandemic, was a dramatic reading of “What Does Woman Want”, a play written by Susan Quinn and Sarah Berry-Tschinkel. The reading celebrated four women in Freud’s intimate circle: Sabina Spielrein, Anna Freud, Lou Andreas-Salome, and Marie Bonaparte. Based largely on correspondence and diaries, the performance included Sabina’s interchanges with Freud and a gut-wrenching story of her murder by an SS death squad in the Zmievskaya Balka (“Snake Ravine”) near Rostov-on-Don.

Mostly remembered for her role in the Freud and Jung love triangle, Sabina Spielrein is often overlooked as a forebear of child analysis. Even though her Contributions to Understanding a Child’s Mind paper was published as early as 1913, the significance of her scientific work was minimized for decades. She influenced Freud’s theory of the interplay between sex and death drives formulated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. She shaped Jean Piaget’s views on childhood language development in the early 1920s, and contributed to the formation of the views of Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria, two Soviet psychologists she had met in the notorious Moscow Psychoanalytic Orphanage–Laboratory “Detski Dom”. In 1923, Sabina was appointed to train teachers in this strange boarding school intended for 25 true orphans, aged 2-7, mixed with 25 children of the Soviet elite, including a young son of Joseph Stalin. The school was shut down in 1924. Sabina’s family struggled during Stalin’s Great Purge, (her three brothers were executed in 1938), yet she miraculously survived the 1930s in her native Rostov-on-Don. She raised two daughters and worked as a pediatrician at the local walk-in clinic until the German invasion. Very little is known about the last period of her life. The loss of contact with her European colleagues, followed by her tragic death, resulted in her work descending into obscurity until the late 1970s when her archives started resurfacing in Geneva. Sabina Spielrein’s legacy has undergone a fuller assessment in the last 20 years thanks to recent publications about her by Adrienne Harris, Cooper-White, Michael Plastow, Sabine Richebaecher, John Launer, Klara Naszkowska, and to the work of the International Association for Spielrein Studies.

Sabina Spielrein’s House in Rostov-on-Don and the Holocaust Memorial in Zmievskaya Balka, Russia

Five years ago, a plaque with her name was placed on Sabina’s family house in Rostov-on-Don. One of the apartments held a memorial exhibit featuring Sabina’s portraits painted by a local contemporary artist. The tenement house at 83 Pushkinskaia street (shown on the picture here) was built by Sabina’s parents in 1897. In addition to the Spielrein family apartments, it quartered her mother’s dental clinic. Other notable tenants included the Belgian consulate and the Turkish consul. The building was nationalized and turned into communal apartments after the Russian revolution of 1917, but the Spielreins were able to keep a small room under the front stairs. To commemorate her 135th birthday on Nov 10 in 2020, the apartment of her childhood was planning to officially open as the Sabina Spielrein Memorial Museum (Rostov archivists recently found her birth certificate and established her corrected birthday date). The museum staff managed to find odd pieces of Spielrein’s dinnerware scattered among the neighbors. There are plans for guided school visits and “a psychological lab” in Sabina’s memory. Her world acclaim inspires local historians to continue researching the Holocaust in Rostov-on-Don. What is considered to have been the largest extermination of Jews on the territory of Russia, is, sadly, the worst documented one. The exact date of Sabina’s murder is not known, but the first massacres in Zmievskaya Balka began in August 11-14, 1942. The site of Sabina’s death has become a scene of a recent controversy. In 2004, a plaque referring to “more than 27,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis” was added to a typical Soviet-era monument that had not mentioned the killing of Jews (shown on the picture here). A few years later, however, the local government reverted to a more generic plaque, acknowledging the murder of “peaceful citizens of Rostov-on-Don and Soviet prisoners-of-war”. In 2014, a compromise plaque, commemorating “27,000 civilians of many nationalities” and also mentioning “a mass extermination of Jews”, was installed. The world-wide effort to gather names and stories about those who died alongside Sabina Spielrein and her young daughters is still ongoing.


Olga Umansky can be contacted by email here.


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