Edmund Engelman: A Gift
by Jen Senft
Edmund Engelman photographed Sigmund Freud’s home and office weeks before the Freud family fled Nazi-occupiedViennain 1938. Freud was 82-years-old and died inLondona year and a half later.
I helped organize a silent photography auction at Guild Hall inEast Hampton,NYin 1999. Edmund Engelman, then 91-years-old, donated one of the photographs he took of Freud’s office. It was a dark and masculine room with overstuffed furniture and a horde of trinkets, furniture, sculptures, and rugs. His analyst’s chair was at the head of the famous couch.
I used to work as a psychotherapist. When I met Edmund Engelman I was Assistant to the President of Guild Hall.
I loved the photograph.
Other employees were jaded by Mr. Engelman’s work, as he lived in nearby Springs and had previously donated photographs from the same series to Guild Hall’s permanent collection. I, though, had never seen any before.
The day I met Edmund Engelman he had come to see his photograph hung for auction. He was with his wife, Irene. He spoke quietly and with a heavy Austrian accent. Though my Austrian and German ancestry are generations behind me, he felt and sounded familiar to me. But he was fragile and, at times, his wife had to tell me what he had said.
Mr. Engelman was pleased that I was interested in his work, excited to talk about his memories of photographing Freud’s home and office, and his role in it. He leaned on his wife and against the wall. He behaved as though I was asking questions that no one had in a long time. He was kind and sincere with an aura of eagerness as he bent toward me to tell me about his experiences with Freud, the German annexation ofAustria, and his own escape fromVienna. He talked longer than he was strong.
Mr. Engelman described sneaking into to Freud’s home with his photography equipment. The Gestapo were watching the Freuds, about to leaveVienna, and Mr. Engelman was not allowed to use flash bulbs so as not to alert anyone to his presence. He had been asked by August Aichhorn, the psychoanalyst, to take pictures before the Freud family left Vienna in order to document the location Freud had lived and worked for forty years: the place he created psychoanalysis, did all of his writing, saw all of his patients, and lived with his family.
Mr. Engelman spoke of arriving at Freud’s address as though he were telling a detective story: it was raining and dark, and he didn’t know if there would be enough light without flash. Time was limited. Nazis were on the lookout and all felt dangerous. When he arrived, swastikas hung from the Freuds’ door and roof.
He accomplished his task, and took the photographs. He also took portraits of Sigmund Freud and his family, which he had not expected to do.
Not long after, Edmund Engelman—Jewish, like Freud—also arranged to leaveVienna. His journey wasn’t an easy one and included illegal visas and imprisonment in a concentration camp. Eventually he arrived inNew York.
After the war ended, Mr. Engelman took an astonishing trip back toViennato retrieve the negatives he had to leave behind when he fled the occupation. Once inVienna, he learned that Anna Freud—Sigmund Freud’s daughter, the famous analyst—had them inLondon. He went toLondonwhere he saw Anna Freud and indeed got his negatives. Although Freud was no longer alive Mr. Engelman saw where he had lived while inLondon.
A few days after our conversation, the receptionist called me to the front desk. Edmund and Irene Engelman were there to see me. They handed me a wrapped gift: a copy of Mr. Engelman’s book, “Sigmund Freud Bergasse 19,Vienna,” which he had inscribed to me. The inscription is dated August, 1999. The book contains the photographs of Freud’s street, the family’s home and Freud’s office, and a memoir by Edmund Engelman.
I cherish this present more than any other. My present is more than the book; it is that our conversation meant enough to Mr. Engelman for him to give this gift to me. My gift is the conversation, their return to Guild Hall to ask for me, and the book on my bedroom shelf.