The intellectual historian and trained lay analyst Peter Gay, who died on May 12 at age 91, won renown as an admiring, if not uncritical, biographer of Sigmund Freud, to whom he devoted several thought-provoking books analyzing how Freud’s status as an atheist German Jew may have led to his achievement. Gay’s persuasive arguments were doubtless influenced by his own family history, which echoed Freud’s in some essential ways.
Born in Berlin in 1923 as Peter Joachim Fröhlich, his family fled to Cuba in 1939, arriving in America in 1941. When he took American citizenship in 1946, Peter Fröhlich changed his last name to Gay, as a sign of assimilation in his adopted country, as well as the fact that Americans were unable to pronounce Fröhlich (which means merry/joyous/gay in German). Assimilation was in his family genes, as Gay recounted in his 1998 memoir, “My German Question: Growing up in Nazi Berlin.”. Responding to what he called “infuriating” questions from fellow Jews about why German Jews had not fled Nazi Europe earlier, Gay offered a portrait of his parents and himself:
“Why did it take us so long to pack our bags? I would later encounter many critics of German Jewish assimilation who asked me that question. For them, our situation had been obvious from the start… Like everyone else interested in this dismal controversy, I learned about the much-quoted indictment of German Jewry by Gershom Scholem; a Zionist from his youth, he had argued since the early 1920s that the notion of a German-Jewish symbiosis was sheer self-delusion. The Jews, he insisted memorably, had loved the Germans, but the Germans had never loved the Jews. Yet my parents and I did not think we were living a delusion. Granted, our Germany had taken refuge in exile or was living underground at home, and resistance to Nazi oppression appeared to be impossible. But we believed that the Nazis had no right to impose their perversion of history and biology on us. By 1936, we knew that sooner or later Germany would be no place for us. But when? We did not know, and our tormentors did not know either. How were we to know, when the Nazis themselves did not, that they would drastically speed up the timetable of their persecutions? The most formidable obstacle to fathoming things to come was doubtless the very insanity of the Hitlerian program…Hitler’s threats were so utterly implausible, so literally incredible, that we regarded them as unreliable guides to future con- duct.”
In a moving article, “At Home in America,” published in “The American Scholar” in 1977, Gay describes his “infatuation” with America as a “boy entering adolescence in Nazi Germany and being told, with ugly and emphatic reiteration, that he was Jewish - which meant, in the official vocabulary, subhuman. For me Roosevelťs America was in every respect what Hitler’s Germany was not: a land of justice and freedom.” Gay added: “My six years under the Nazis had inflicted wounds that had not healed; their scars, I am sure, still show today.”
Repressing any tendency to self-pity, Gay worked his way through studies at the University of Denver, refusing to follow the example of Jewish émigrés mocked by his father as “Byunskis” because of their constant nostalgic complaints, “Bei uns in Deutschland war alles besser” (In Germany everything was better for us). Gay toiled in a cap factory, haberdashery, shoe store, and ice cream parlor, among other humble jobs while aspiring to realize his mother’s dream that he might become another Walter Lippmann (1889 –1974) the famed American political journalist of German Jewish origin.
Gay’s hyper-active work ethic later resulted in books on Voltaire and the Enlightenment, Victorians, and other subjects, and some readers may continue to criticize Gay’s sympathetic view of Freud as well as his descriptions of how assimilated German Jews actually were before the Second World War. Yet none can doubt that Gay’s stances were based on his own personal experiences, eloquently expounded in his many publications. The visceral recollections in “My German Question” have the authenticity of heartfelt testimony, and are inarguable as such:
“The pressure on Jewish pupils [in 1930s Berlin] was selective: I was never ridiculed, never harassed, never attacked. But my cousin Edgar was victimized more than once, threatened with being dragged before a Stürmer display and made to read it. The Stürmer - need I remind anyone? - was the pornographic anti-Semitic weekly, edited by Julius Streicher, which featured stories and cartoons depicting savagely caricatured Jews with repellent curly hair, grotesquely hooked noses, evil eyes, and fat, sensual lips, busy cheating the world, orchestrating hostility to the Third Reich, and, worse, lusting after blond, often half-naked ‘Aryan’ women. I find it soothing to recall that Streicher was convicted at the Nürnberg trials and hanged. He is a principal reason why my opposition to the death penalty has always been halfhearted.”
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.