Max and Mirra, Edo and Enam

The true story of Max Eitingon is still being written.  A member of Sigmund Freud’s inner circle and financial supporter of the psychoanalytic movement, he founded the Palestine Psychoanalytic Society in 1933, thereby birthing Freudian psychoanalysis in the state of Israel.  He has long been suspected of being a Soviet agent.  In a 1988 essay in the New York Times which spilled over into the New York Review of Books he was accused, not for the first or the last time, of being one of “Stalin’s killerati,” alleged to have been involved in the kidnappings and assassinations of various enemies of the Soviet regime.  It was in fact an Eitingon cousin, an enthusiastic Stalinist killer named Leonid, who helped plan the murder of Leon Trotsky.  Time and additional research have added provocative new details concerning Max and his family’s involvement with the Soviets, sometimes confirming and sometimes complicating the picture.

Max Eitingon was born in Mogilev, White Russia in 1881.  His father, Chaim, was a furrier who would create a family fortune in the wholesale fur trade, with business branches in Russia, Europe, and the United States.  Due to antisemitic repression, the family was expelled from Moscow when Max was ten, moving first to Buczacz in Galicia, and soon after to Leipzig, Germany.  Eran J. Rolnik, in Freud in Zion: Psychoanalysis and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity, a monograph about the development of psychoanalysis in Israel, describes Eitingon’s background as follows:

Although a stutter prevented him from completing his secondary education, Max Eitingon beacme proficient in seven languages and developed an interest in philosophy, literature, and art.  His cultured upbringing made him a connoisseur of many artistic fields, and his ample private means gave him the opportunity to cultivate his tastes. He studied for a year at the University of Leipzig and was eventually able to enrol in medical school at the universities of Heidelberg, Marburg, and finally in Zürich, where he graduated and remained until 1908 as a junior resident working under the supervision of Eugen Bleuler, Carl Jung, and Karl Abraham in the Burghölzli psychiatric clinic.

In 1907 Eitingon went to pay his respects to Freud.  He was the first visitor from Germany to participate in the Wednesday meetings of Freud’s Vienna circle.  Freud liked Eitingon.  They conducted an extensive correspondence, and Freud even hoped that Eitingon might marry his daughter Anna.  Eitingon’s financial resources were certainly no strike against him.  Eitingon was also the first of Freud’s disciples to undergo a training analysis with him, conducted as they walked around Vienna.  In 1920, he founded the Berlin Psychoanalytic Polyclinic, and the clinical training procedure he developed there for new analysts, the “Eitingon Method,” has become standard in the psychoanalytic movement ever since.  When the Nazis came to power, Eitingon joined the flood of Jewish refugees to leave Germany.  Although he first visited Palestine as early as 1910, his decision to settle there rather than the United States or elsewhere in Europe took Freud by surprise.


In September 1937, a White Russian general went missing from Paris. Abducted by Soviet agents, he was shipped off to Moscow, tortured, and executed.  The spy responsible for the kidnapping, another exiled Russian military officer, also vanished from sight, abandoning his wife, the singer Nadezhda Plevitskaya, in his flight from France.  The police investigation that followed convulsed the press, and later became the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s story “The Assistant Producer” and the 2004 Eric Rohmer film “Triple Agent.”  During the trial, Plevitskaya mentioned Eitingon as a long-time financial supporter.  In fact, just a few days before the kidnapping, Eitingon and Eitingon’s wife Mirra, who had been staying in Paris, left by train for Italy.  Plevitskaya and her husband saw them off at the station.

Some of this episode has been excavated in The Eitingons: A Twentieth-Century Story by Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books and a great niece of Max’s cousin and brother-in-law Motty Eitingon, who ran the New York branch of the family’s fur business.  Wilmers’ book is heavy on details, yet amid her bemused patter about family lore, Communism, and Nazism, it is difficult to discern what she thinks are the real stakes of the story she tells.  Her tone-deafness regarding Palestine and Zionism especially limits the book’s usefulness as an analysis of Max’s life.  “Once settled [in Palestine],” Wilmers writes, “he seems to have done every Jewish thing,” her way of registering that Eitingon participated in the cultural life of the country.  Nevertheless, the book is an important source of insider data about the family.

A couple of years ago, journalists Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, now working on a biography of Eitingon’s wife Mirra, uncovered and assembled revelations enough for several potboilers.  Most of these concern Mirra, a trailblazing Russian actress involved in both Zionist and Communist intellectual circles, who had been married twice and given birth to two children before meeting Eitingon.  Her notorious affair with the author Osip Dymov, during her second marriage to the journalist Boris Khariton, became the basis for a hit play and silent film after Khariton fired a volley of bullets at Dymov, missing his target.  Yuli, Mirra’s son from her marriage to Khariton, later became one of Soviet Russia’s most important nuclear scientists, responsible for its development of the bomb.  Ginor and Remez conjecture that at least some of the assistance the Eitingons likely provided the Soviets was intended for Yuli’s protection.  While contact with his mother and father was severely curtailed by the Soviet regime, Yuli was, despite his Jewish background and his capitalist family connections, allowed to rise up in the hierarchy of Soviet nuclear science based on his merits, and he lived to the ripe age of 92.  The portrait of Mirra sketched thus far by Ginor and Remez suggests an extremely complex woman who lived with the agony of loss and a desperate desire to do what she could to protect her son.  It is also possible that the public perception of Eitingon being the ardent Zionist and Mirra being dragged along to Palestine was false, that she had more of a genuine love for Israel than did her enigmatic husband.  Certainly, Freud’s dismissal of Mirra as a shallow hedonist was far off the mark.  The forthcoming biography should be fascinating, and will no doubt require a new consideration of the Eitingons’ and other fellow travellers’ culpability in Soviet crimes as well as the motivations behind them.


As Ginor and Remez note, there is a further dimension to the Eitingon drama which is of interest to literary scholars, and that is Eitingon’s connection with the Nobel prizewinning Israeli author S. Y. Agnon.  For one thing, Buczacz, where Eitingon and his parents lived before settling in Leipzig, was Agnon’s birthplace, and it seems likely that their families knew one another.  For another, Agnon’s wife Esther underwent psychoanalysis with Eitingon, and the two couples were on friendly terms in Palestine.  Esther had a far more positive view of psychoanalysis than did her husband.  Indeed, her aunt, Frieda Reichmann, who later married Erich Fromm and moved to the United States, had run a kosher, sabbath-observant clinic in Heidelberg in the 1920s that sought to combine Freudianism with orthodox Judaism.  Agnon, on the other hand, while intimately familiar with the German Jewish intellectual world that produced psychoanalysis, always looked askance at Freudianism, seeing it as another modernist displacement of a proper Jewish relationship with the past.

The central manifestation of Agnon’s wry wariness concerning psychoanalysis has always seemed to me to be his story “Edo and Enam.”  By critical consensus the story is held to be Agnon’s most cryptic work.  Not that it resists interpretation, quite the opposite.  It arouses it.  The story is packed with symbols that seem to exude meaning, careens into potentially momentous allegories of God, Scripture, and the Jewish people, and is studded with all manner of textual riddles that beckon to be solved.  (For instance, all of the characters’ names begin with “G.”)  Some critics have even wondered if the whole story is not a joke at the earnest critic’s expense, a tar pit of apparent meaning in which the literary scholar can’t help but wade in and sink beneath the inky plenitude.  This is to say nothing of the suggestive and romantic settings in which the story takes place: a far-off desert land in which the descendants of the Biblical tribe of Gad reside, Jerusalem by moonlight, modern Vienna.  Or the fact that Agnon wrote the story while house-sitting for his friend, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem—and that the story’s narrator is similarly housesitting for couple in which the husband is named Gerhard, which was Scholem’s original German name.  The latest unpacking of some of the story’s possible layers of meaning is found in Ilana Pardes’ book, Agnon’s Moonstruck Lovers: The Song of Songs in Israeli Culture, which throws the scholar S. D. Goitein into the mix as another possible object of Agnon’s literary games.

At the same time, it has often been observed that, however mysterious are the various elements of “Edo and Enam,” its structure is about as classically straightforward as fiction gets.  “Edo and Enam” is a love triangle.  There is a husband, a wife, and the wife’s lover.  The fourth character is the narrator, a Nick Carraway who serves to witness and recount the trio’s Gatsby-like goings-on.

Eitingon died in 1943—Mirra followed soon after and the two are buried on the Mount of Olives—and so he had been dead for six years when Agnon wrote “Edo and Enam.”  I would not make too much of the Eitingon connection, yet it comes to mind at the story’s climax in which, inevitably, the husband catches his wife and her lover together.  Yet the sort of flagrante delicto we witness is not what we might have expected.  It is less sexual than scholarly, a scene in which the lover records a mysterious language known only to the wife:

Moonlight filled the room, and in the room stood a young woman wrapped in white, her feet bare, her hair disheveled, her eyes closed. And a young man sat at the table by the window and wrote in ink on paper all that she spoke.  I did not comprehend one word of her speech, and I doubt there is any man in the world who could understand a language as mysterious as this.  Still the woman spoke and the pen wrote.

What is this but an image of psychoanalysis, the hysteric patient with hair disheveled and eyes closed, and the analyst writing down her words?

5 thoughts on “Max and Mirra, Edo and Enam

  1. I was very disappointed with the end of the article. The scene in Edo and Enam is nothing like a psychoanalytic session. First, in the story the woman is standing, not sitting or lying on a couch. Second, in a session the analyst does not sit at a table. Third, and most important, in a psychoanalytic session the analyst does NOT write down everything the client said. Rather he or she unobtrusively may take some notes, but only writes up the session after it has ended.

    1. I believe that this is Agnon’s imagination of the psychoanalytic scene, and draws partly from classical Freudian analysis but is also influenced by images of hysteria and its treatment, such as Brouillet’s well-known painting (detail above) of Charcot’s lectures, a copy of which hung on the wall across from Freud’s analysis couch.

  2. You are right that Agnon’s scene does somewhat resemble Brouillet’s painting, but what is going on there is a very far cry from what goes on in a classically conducted Freudian psychoanalytic session. While Freud pays high tribute to Charcot as a pioneer, he, at the same time, emphasizes the great distance between his therapeutic approach and that of Charcot.

    Let me add that on the whole I found your article fascinating.

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