Identity's Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Eriksonby Lawrence J. Friedman
Identity's Architect is the first comprehensive biography of Erik Erikson, postwar America's most influential psychological thinker, who decisively reshaped our views of human development.
Drawing on private materials and extensive interviews, award-winning historian Lawrence J. Friedman illuminates the relationship between Erikson's personal life and his/i>
Identity's Architect is the first comprehensive biography of Erik Erikson, postwar America's most influential psychological thinker, who decisively reshaped our views of human development.
Drawing on private materials and extensive interviews, award-winning historian Lawrence J. Friedman illuminates the relationship between Erikson's personal life and his groundbreaking notion of the life cycle and the identity crisis. A decade in the making, this book is indispensable for anyone who hopes to understand fully the life and intellectual legacy of one of the most significant figures of our time.
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- Harvard University Press
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Identity's ArchitectA Biography of Erik Erikson
By Lawrence Jacob Friedman
Free Association BooksCopyright © 1999 Lawrence Jacob Friedman
All right reserved.
Toward a New Beginning:
Infancy, Childhood, Youth
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Erik H. Erikson had reached the peak of his influence and popularity. Elegantly dressed in tweed jacket, blue shirt, and white moccasins, with a mane of white hair and rosy complexion, he seemed to resonate charisma and charm. He appeared on the covers of widely circulating newsmagazines as the founder of the life cycle and the identity crisis. Speaking invitations, honors, and honorary degrees abounded. Erikson enjoyed a reputation among Harvard students, graduates and undergraduates alike, as an inspirational, relevant, and profound gurulike instructor. He was sought out in advisory capacities not only by academic and psychiatric facilities but by a high official in the administration of New York's mayor John Lindsay, by members of the Kennedy family, and by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House. He won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for Gandhi's Truth, which propounded a political ethic that could lead the world from the brink of nuclear war while addressing America's brutality in Vietnam.
Growing public acclaim seemed to have an effect upon this habitually quiet, understated man. He displayed a new buoyancy and assurance--almost a prophetlike quality. When he spoke reassuringly and approvingly to a young admirer, both regarded it as a devout and sacred ritual of mutuality. Robert Abzug, a young Danforth Graduate Fellow, would never forget a special conference in northern California where Erikson had lectured on Ingmar Bergman's classic film Wild Strawberries. Afterward, Abzug found himself walking along a nearby beach, saw Erikson, approached him, and offered an interpretation of a key scene in the film that Erikson had not made--Isak Borg, the main character, had never been able to wholly connect himself to his parents. Later in the conference, Erikson took Abzug aside, touched him gently on the shoulder, looked him deeply in the eye, and said that Abzug had been right in his observation on the film. This was a special moment for both. The young man sensed that he had been respected, even blessed, by a strong, unwavering prophet. Abzug gained accreditation, and Erikson felt confident that he had a devoted student of yet another generation.
It is not easy to detect, from what is known of his early years, the roots of this show of confidence and inner strength in Erikson's late-life relationship. Young Erik seemed desperately to need a wise and giving adviser, such as he later became. Born out of wedlock and later adopted by his mother's second husband, he did not know who had fathered him. The problem was exacerbated by what he called the loving deceit of his mother and foster father; they had misled him for years. "Adoption was the great theme of Erikson's existence," recalled his closest childhood friend, Peter Blos. "He talked about it all the time." In an autobiographical essay written late in his life, Erikson noted that "a stepson's negative identity is that of a bastard" and provides no sense of belonging. Such a person "might use his talents to avoid belonging quite anywhere...." Nonetheless, Erikson felt that deceit and illegitimacy did not set his early decades entirely on a downhill course. A "different background" also came to signify very special circumstances and a destiny that he came to accept "as a fact of life." The sense of being extraordinary was facilitated by "the pervasive love and essential stability of my childhood milieu," even with the deceptions, and by the willingness of those closest to him "to let me develop my talents and choose my own life course."
Early circumstances therefore sapped and constricted young Erik. But they may also have inspired and motivated him. Despite his well-known eight-stage universal model of the human life cycle, which distributed the first two decades of life among five separate and distinct stages, he saw his own early life as a single unified stage that encompassed the entire flow of events from his birth to young adulthood. In his autobiographical essay, he characterized this stage as both broadly constrictive and energizing. Debilitating consequences were balanced by elevating ones.
Drawing upon that essay and other of Erikson's late-life reflections, it is important to determine why he regarded his infancy, childhood, youth, and young adulthood as part of a continuous and unified developmental stage--his essential beginning. Adult reflections on childhood feelings and experiences carry complex and varied agendas, to be sure, along with internal contradictions. Nevertheless, we must honor Erikson's quest to see unity in his early life by seeking out materials that lend themselves to a cohesive story even as we introduce other data that destabilize the story.
A MATTER OF PARENTAGE
Erik's mother, Karla Abrahamsen, came from a prominent Jewish family in Copenhagen that traced its genealogy back to the seventeenth century and the north of Germany. The men tended toward merchant and trade callings. There was a rabbi, a church historian, and even a Lutheran minister in the family tree, indicating some intermarriage. In addition to child-rearing duties, Abrahamsen women had maintained a tradition of embroidery and the painting of porcelain. All were "ladies" and employed housekeepers. Unlike Eastern European Jews in Copenhagen, the Abrahamsens tried to appear Danish. They spoke no Yiddish and blended the requirements of kosher food with traditional Danish dishes.
Karla's father, Joseph, was a prominent dry-goods wholesaler. Her mother, Henrietta Kalckar, died when Karla was fifteen, leaving her in the care of aging Abrahamsen aunts. Joseph required the brightest of his three sons, Axel, to forsake law and join his business, now "Abrahamsen and Son." Axel went on to become a very prominent figure in the textile industry and a leader in several of the city's Jewish charities. When Joseph died in 1899, Axel largely assumed leadership over Abrahamsen family affairs. Max, Joseph's second son, worked under Axel in the family dry-goods warehouse but died at twenty-two. Two other sons, Nicholai and Einar, established their own businesses as local jewelers. Einar became a respected gemologist. Like Axel, they were active in local Jewish charities. Matilda, Axel's wife, helped run a local soup kitchen for Russian-Jewish immigrants.
While Axel succeeded his father as the director of larger family affairs, his sister, Karla, emerged as the family's most remarkable member. She was the most beautiful Abrahamsen in memory, brilliant, and deeply intellectual. Indeed, she was one of the few women in the community to attend gymnasium. Unquestioning in her Judaism, she nonetheless read Kierkegaard devotedly and was taken with his culturally Danish but decidedly Christian appeal. Karla's father and brother respected and adored her. But they worried about her disposition to act on impulse and her interest in unconventional artists and craftspeople. Because Karla's mother had died when she was young, they feared that she was untutored in the sexual proprieties honored by her family and her class.
In 1898, Karla, at twenty-one, married a twenty-seven-year-old Jewish stockbroker, Valdemar Isidor Salomonsen. Little is known about him. Valdemar's father, Abraham, a lawyer, was on friendly terms with the Abrahamsens. His mother, Thora, was the daughter of the well-known portrait painter David Monies. Karla's marriage to Valdemar did not last a night and was probably unconsummated. She wired Axel from her honeymoon destination in Rome to take her home. By the time Axel arrived, Valdemar had fled to either Mexico or the United States. Family lore has it that after the wedding ceremony he informed Karla of his dealings in crime, fraud, and some financial irregularities that required him to become a fugitive. He might also have beaten her and may have made her apprehensive that he had syphilis. Although Karla never saw Valdemar after the wedding night, she retained his surname for legal appearances. When Erik was born four years later, the birth certificate listed Valdemar and Karla Salomonsen as his parents. In October 1902, four months after the birth, Valdemar's father provided Karla with evidence to prove that Valdemar had died abroad that month. Erik was technically legitimate. Karla, officially a widow, was free to remarry.
Since Valdemar could not have fathered Erik, who did? Karla's daughters through her second marriage, Ruth Hirsch and Ellen Katz, wish to maintain that their mother was probably a virgin until she became pregnant; she was supposedly inexperienced sexually and very proper. They suspect that Karla had too much to drink at a party hosted by her brothers and was either asleep when someone had intercourse with her or she was too drunk to recognize the man. Based upon their conversations with Karla, however, Erik and Joan Erikson assumed that she was not so innocent sexually and that she knew the real father, if only through Erik's appearance. However, she would never divulge his identity. Joan suspected that the father was one of the few Danish-speaking tourists Karla met during a vacation trip to the Isle of Capri. A persisting Abrahamsen family rumor is that Karla named Erik after the real father, and that he was a Copenhagen court photographer. Bjorn Ochsner's definitive Fotografer i og fra Danmark til og med ar 1920 (1986) lists two from Copenhagen who were named Erik: Erik Strom and Erik Bahnsen. Strom, however, was clearly no court photographer, and evidence on Bahnsen is far too thin to make any kind of case for his paternity. In any case, it is striking that when Karla left Copenhagen for a holiday in northern Germany in 1902, she had no idea that she was pregnant. Family lore has it that she first became aware of her physical state in a bathroom shower only two months before her term was up and that she verified her pregnancy with a local physician. To avoid disgrace and scandal, the Copenhagen Abrahamsens insisted that Karla stay in Germany under the care of three aging spinster aunts. She was to give birth in Frankfurt and raise Erik Salomonsen in the small adjacent town of Buehl. The whole scandal was managed smoothly. Appearances of propriety were preserved.
In Buehl, Karla raised her baby with quiet dignity. Erik felt that she "held all the confusing details together" and was most supportive. But there was also a recognition that his mother had been abandoned rather than honored, and that distressed him. A friend who worked at a Jewish hospital in the town helped Karla to secure some training as a nurse. She liked to associate with artists in the Bohemian section of town, and the men among them gave her fatherless child what he later called "my first male imprinting." Yet as the swarthy, dark-haired mother walked with the blond-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned child asleep in his buggy, neighbors and passersby sensed that something was irregular.
As an adult, Erik tried to reconstruct his infancy when he lived fatherless with Karla in Buehl. "My earliest remembrance is of the official letter arriving declaring him [Valdemar Salomonsen] dead," Erik noted. His eyes were always on Karla: "I knew she had a sadness I could not understand." When he observed much later in life how identity (the sense that "I am somebody") began with the recognition of a mother's smile, Erik was thinking of Karla. When she was not gazing at him and visually establishing a bond of trust, Erik recalled that Karla epitomized wisdom; she was "deeply involved in reading what I later found to have been such authors as Brandes, Kierkegaard, Emerson." All his life, he identified reading positively with memories of his young mother. Although living in Germany, they sometimes spoke together in Danish, which he regarded as special. At twenty-three, he sketched and carved a woodcut of Mary and the Christ child that seemed to recapitulate the trust and reciprocal engagement that he felt growing up alone with Karla. Erik felt that he knew as a very young child that Karla, sad and alone, remained deeply supportive of the specialness of her son and his potential: "I could never doubt that her ambitions for me transcended the conventions which she, nevertheless, faithfully served." The recognition, trust, and joy from looking face-to-face, eye-to-eye, at his helpful, intelligent, and beautiful mother was something that Erik dwelled on throughout his life. If the first three years of this illegitimate child's life with his mother in the north of Germany, distant from the Abrahamsens, was difficult--perhaps traumatic--it was hardly hopeless. A very special bond between mother and child had been forged.
The strength of the bond between Karla and Erik was such that when she began to see a Karlsruhe pediatrician nine years her senior, small in stature with dark brown hair and a goatee, that man assumed the role of an "intruder." Erik had been a sickly child, suffering especially from gastric distress. One story has it that Karla's artist friends in Buehl recommended that she summon Theodor Homburger to examine Erik. According to another story, Karla was in transit with Erik and had stopped at the Schloss Hotel in Karlsruhe, and the hotel management called on Homburger to care for the boy. A short, staid, reserved pediatrician, and confirmed bachelor with a kindly disposition, Homburger found the problem in the milk Erik had been drinking. He changed Erik's formula and the boy recovered immediately, only to discover that his mother was very much taken by the doctor. A courting period followed, a wedding date was set, and the Karlsruhe Jewish community talked excitedly about how a leader of their larger and more "liberal" temple was about to marry a tall, dark, Danish woman who had a small, blond, blue-eyed boy. Erik recalled how it was no easy matter "to come to terms with that intruder, the bearded doctor, with his mysterious instruments." His mother seemed to be shunting him aside for Theodor. The situation was difficult for Theodor, too, for he realized that he had interrupted the very special relationship between Karla and Erik. Karla, especially, must have felt conflicted. She recognized the deep and continuing needs of her son, and that they seemed at cross purposes with the desires of her future husband. Yet she found no alternative to accommodation--to making a place for Theodor as well as for Erik in what was then a very unusual family circumstance. After all, the very conventional and intellectually limited pediatrician, who promised to move her from the artistic community in Buehl to his family home in Karlsruhe, had offered Karla a way to mitigate the sin of having given birth to an illegitimate child. Theodor was providing Karla a way to restore herself to middle-class respectability.
Theodor Homburger and Karla Salomonsen became engaged in November of 1904. They married in Karlsruhe the following June 15--Erik's third birthday--and took him with them on their honeymoon. It was as if Erik was there from the start--or so they hoped. When he was a young man, Erik made a woodcut of the honeymoon boat ride to Copenhagen. It was a study of a tense, worried, and angry young boy in a sailor's suit who felt lonely and apart from his parents. They appeared on the ship's deck, seated and embracing. Erik had turned his back on them and looked up to the ship's captain on the bridge. One interpretation is that the captain was his real father and that Erik wanted to climb a ladder to join him. The ship docked in Copenhagen, where the Abrahamsens were delighted to meet Karla's new husband, a Jewish doctor who made a decent living. But they felt awkward around her illegitimate son.
Clearly, the devotedly middle-class Abrahamsens were taken with Theodor Homburger. He had rescued Karla from the sin of unwed motherhood. Moreover, he was from a prominent old Karlsruhe Jewish family going back to the establishment of that city as the new capital of Baden in 1715. Indeed, the Homburger family home at 9 Scholsplatz in the town center, where Theodor would make a home with his wife and child, was built in 1722. Owing to Karlsruhe's comparatively late development, it lacked a historic Jewish ghetto. Baden, the most cosmopolitan and liberal German state, resisted Prussian monarchical pressures and cheered the triumph of reform causes in France and Belgium. Indeed, Baden granted full and complete legal emancipation to all Jews in 1862 even though it had formerly been the state capital of a Lutheran principate with a large Catholic population. By the late nineteenth century, Karlsruhe had become an industrial center producing tools, machinery, furniture, and other necessities in a rapidly industrializing nation-state. Jews gravitated toward the professions and the merchant trade. Julius Homburger had been a successful wine merchant. He and his wife, Therese Veis, had seven children. Theodor was the only one who had obtained advanced education and become a professional. He graduated from the town's Margravate Gymnasium; studied medicine in Wurzburg, Munich, and Heidelberg; wrote a medical school thesis on scientific instrumentation to measure natural light in school classrooms; and opened a pediatrics practice in 1894. At the time, there were several Jewish doctors in Karlsruhe. Pediatrics was not an uncommon specialty among them.
The historic Homburger family home was very large with several wings. Theodor's brothers, David and Ludwig, and his sister, Bertha Marx, lived with their families in parts of the complex, and Theodor moved his family into a three-story wing overlooking a beautiful park. His first child with Karla, Elna, was born early in 1907, but she died at two of diphtheria. This must have been a difficult time. Then, in 1909, Ruth was born; Ellen followed in 1912.
When they announced their engagement late in 1904, Karla had accepted Theodor's sole request as a condition of marriage: Erik was to be told that Theodor was his biological father. Karla probably regarded this fiction as a way to bury the past and to start life afresh. As Erik observed many years later, Theodor "apparently joined her in the promise to annul the past: and they committed themselves totally to being, together, my 'real' parents." Was it "loving deceit" consistent with the perspectives of their day to protect him from an unfortunate past, as Erik once suggested, or "worse: stepfather and M decided to keep this secret," as he noted on another occasion. The young child must have sensed something was wrong. Even a three-year-old understood that one was not presented with a "natural" parent at that point in time; there were too "many cues" that were to the contrary, including whispers among the adults in the house concerning Erik's paternity. Thus, although Erik grew up feeling that Theodor was a caring father, he also "felt all along ... doubt in my identity. You know, all through my childhood years." Consequently, "I was quietly convinced that I came from a different background and somewhat accepted it as a fact of life and a part of my mother's past which was not to be mentioned whether in Karlsruhe or in Copenhagen." There was a sense of specialness here, positive and negative within this retrospective portrayal.
If young Erik could not quite believe that Theodor was his natural father, Theodor had difficulty accepting Erik as his blood son. "Genes enter into it," Erik subsequently remarked ironically. An adopting father can feel that the son is not his own kind in his humor and other traits. Indeed, he can regard the son as undescended from him and can treat that son accordingly. Moreover, Theodor was almost certainly unsure of the biological father's ultimate intentions toward Erik. Under these circumstances, full commitment to Erik as a son was difficult despite Theodor's humane disposition.
Even more than Karla, Theodor wanted to maintain middle-class respectability. This required that he adopt Erik immediately and have his surname legally changed from Salomonsen to Homburger. Yet no record of these proceedings appeared on their 1905 wedding certificate--the first place it could have been noted officially. Indeed, in a 1909 document naturalizing him as a German citizen, he still appeared as Erik Salomonsen. On a 1959 curriculum vitae, Erik acknowledged that the legal name change to Homburger did not occur until 1908, a few years after his parents were married. A side notation on his official Frankfurt birth certificate, dated June 1911, is especially revealing: "By decree of the Karlsruhe administration," Erik Salomonsen was officially permitted to adopt the family name of Homburger. To be sure, this change was "in administrative lieu of the Jewish congregation." Consequently, it may have been made at the Homburger's Karlsruhe synagogue beforehand--perhaps even at the time of the marriage--although that was not customary. Finally, the Registry Book of the Karlsruhe District Court for 1909 records Erik's name change from Salomonsen to Homburger while the 1911 Registry Book indicates completion of his guardianship and adoption procedure. In Karlsruhe and Frankfurt, he was not legally Theodor Homburger's son until five years after his parents' marriage.
One perspective on these documents is that Theodor and Karla regarded Erik as a very young and unsuspecting child when they married. They wanted him to believe Theodor was his biological father even as they almost certainly had to acknowledge him as Theodor's adopted son at their local synagogue. Perhaps they felt no need to move legally toward German naturalization and adoption until he was nine, when he would be taking entrance examinations for admission to a local gymnasium. The problem with this interpretation for the delay is that it does not account for the enormous pressure Theodor and Karla felt to quickly bury the sins of the past. They wanted the family to appear legally--that is, within the German governmental records that they and other local Jews so highly prized--as a normal middle-class entity. That there was an extended delay on such a vital matter among people very attentive to legal formalities suggests that Theodor was ambivalent about having Erik as his son, insisting that Erik see him as his biological father while delaying the process of assuming legal paternity. Given Karla's powerful presence in the family, the delay in adoption also suggests that she may have had reservations about sharing full legal parentage with Theodor. Indeed, there was probably a complex jumble of motives on both sides. It is instructive that Theodor did not invoke full and explicit legal language to acknowledge Erik as his adopted son until 1942, when he prepared his will and testament.
The awkward honeymoon trip where Erik accompanied his mother and Theodor to Copenhagen was not the last time he saw the Abrahamsens. "I made many visits there as a child," he recalled. Usually he stayed in Axel's home. Since Jewish tradition assigns the child to the religion of the mother even when the father cannot be identified, the Abrahamsens regarded Erik as a Jew, and Axel took him regularly to synagogue. He never forgot the day when the king of Denmark arrived for a service and sat next to them. But he took greatest joy in visits to his uncle Nicholai's summer house on the coastal Oresund north of Copenhagen in Skotterup Snekkersten. Roselund, Nicholai's house, was ideally located for walking in the nearby woods or for swimming and boating. Every time Erik lectured about Bergman's film Wild Strawberries, the vision of the Oresund depicted in the movie brought him back to his childhood and Roselund, where "I spent the sunniest summers of my early years." As a child, he recalled, "I often looked across the Sund from the Danish side" and delighted in seeing Sweden. His Scandinavian ties contributed to Erik's sense of specialness. More often than Ruth and Ellen, his Homburger half sisters, he made special trips from Karlsruhe to Copenhagen.
Neither the Abrahamsens nor the Homburgers objected to young Erik's frequent visits to Copenhagen. Like other Danish and German Jews, they often crossed the border to be with one another. During World War I, the Abrahamsens sent the Homburgers of Karlsruhe what they needed most--food. In this regular interchange of families, Erik felt especially close to Henrietta, Axel's daughter. She always greeted Erik affectionately, never considering him an outsider. When Erik was twelve, he made for Henrietta a beautiful sketch of a farmhouse in winter and signed it "A remembrance from your cousin." But though the adult Abrahamsens were kind and polite to Erik, there was always an element of uneasiness in the relationship. He exaggerated this element to Peter Blos, his closest Karlsruhe friend, complaining that the Abrahamsens had cut him and his mother off. More typically, he recalled the tension in the Homburger house when the Copenhagen Abrahamsens visited, and his parents restrained them from speaking of his origins: "Like I can imagine my relatives coming down from Denmark and don't say this, don't say that...."
The very conditions of Erik's birth, then, created tensions in the Homburger household and among the Abrahamsens. The young child could not help but sense that something was amiss. After Karla's marriage to Homburger, Erik continued to feel as he had during his first three years living alone with his mother--that her strength and presence were his primary hope and support and the basic source for his continuing sense of specialness. Consequently, he played along with the tensions and fabrications in the Homburger household and put behind him "the period before the age of three, when mother and I had lived alone."
A STEPSON'S IDENTITY
Theodor and Karla were determined to build a family of their own in Karlsruhe. When Erik was four, Elna was born. Roughly a year and a half later, the two appeared together in a photograph. Erik, dressed in a sailor's suit, sat tense and joyless. Elna leaned against him, wearing some type of sheet or diaper around her waist, although custom required fuller dress. She did not appear to be entirely normal. Within months of this photograph, Elna died of diphtheria. For Erik, the trauma of her passing was accented by the sense that he did not quite belong within the family. Ruth was born the year Elna died, and Ellen was born when he was ten. Theodor was very close to his surviving daughters. He took them for walks in the country every Sunday and talked with them about music and the novelties of nature. Although they did not learn that Erik was a half brother until they were well into their teens, they had relatively little to do with him. Erik continued to be very close to Karla and liked her artist friends in the vicinity. By the age of twelve, if not earlier, Erik was emulating them, making sketches of the local countryside, and these suggested that he had some talent. Karla encouraged a spirit of independence, he recalled, "a certain sense of choice--and the right to search." Consequently, as he grew older, he did more on his own or with young friends in town, confident that he could turn to his mother for support when he needed her.
While the Homburger family featured special ties between the father and his daughters and the mother and her son, Karla ran the family's affairs. Theodor worked very long hours even though he maintained medical offices on the lower floor of the family home. He was out on house calls every morning and evening and received large numbers of office calls during the afternoon. In addition, he was a city school physician, wrote a paper on school learning conditions during wartime, and took on Karlsruhe welfare cases when he could. Beyond his medical practice and his synagogue, however, Theodor had little time and few interests. Karla maintained family finances, giving him pocket money. She also set the social and cultural agenda for the family.
That agenda was congruent with the Jewish middle-class traditions of Theodor's parents and siblings. All three meals were taken together. The purposes of the various rooms in their wing of the extended multifamily complex were to be strictly observed. The children were confined to the family quarters on the second floor, though they were free to play in the arcades and the beautiful inner courtyard. Boarders lived on the third floor. Mixing of residents on all three levels occurred only during the air-raid alerts of World War I, when everybody raced into the wine cellar to seek cover from French bombers. Although Karla read a Danish newspaper daily and probably identified culturally with Denmark more than with Germany, the children were expected to use German. Indeed, Abrahamsen relatives from Copenhagen were instructed to speak German in her home. Karla was intent on maintaining a German household, not a Danish one, all the more because German was the "official" language of continental Europe. This was easier on Ruth and Ellen as the children of a German than on Erik, who was not. To his lifelong regret, he claimed that he "forgot" what Danish he had picked up during his infancy for "step-German," the language of his stepfather. Above all, Karla insisted on the strict maintenance of Jewish customs and rituals despite her abiding interest in Kierkegaard and Christian spiritual issues. There was no question, for example, that Erik was to spend years training for and to receive a traditional bar mitzvah. Karla maintained the laws of kashruth, the ceremonial celebration of Jewish festivities, and required synagogue attendance Friday evenings and on the Sabbath.
The Karlsruhe synagogue that the larger Homburger family attended was extremely important in the lives of Theodor, Karla, and their children. Frequented by old, established families who had migrated to Karlsruhe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it consisted of perhaps 2,500 members and was the more "liberal" of the city's two synagogues. Unlike the smaller, more orthodox synagogue attended primarily by more recent Polish immigrants, members considered themselves assimilated into German society and culture. Nonetheless, all wore hats during services, which were prolonged during holidays, and women sat in the balcony. Theodor was a member of the synagogue's governing council for thirteen years and served five more as its president. He was a reformer, pressing for the confirmation of girls when they turned fourteen, and introducing a synagogue choir supported by an organ played by a talented Gentile. Karla regularly hosted the rabbi and his wife on Sabbath afternoons. She chaired a synagogue-based chapter of the League of Israelite Charities of Baden and supervised the "middle-class kitchen" of volunteers who fed poor and unemployed Jews, providing roughly two hundred kosher meals a day. Their synagogue activities made Theodor and Karla leaders of the Karlsruhe Jewish community.
Erik stayed away from the synagogue as much as he could. Tall, blond, and blue-eyed in a congregation where many were short and dark like Theodor, he continued to sense that he was different. Owing to his physical appearance, Erik was distressed that "I acquired the nickname 'goy' in my stepfather's temple." It promoted a developing suspicion that his real father was not Jewish. He also resented the fact that Theodor thought little of his artistic interests, instead pressuring him "to become a doctor like himself." Erik claimed to remember the artistic talents and rebellious lifestyles that he had encountered living alone with his mother in Buehl. He seemed to identify with this unconventional past while Karla embraced a more somber life with Theodor. Indeed, Erik found that he could not relate very well to his stepfather, who was a product of "an intensely Jewish small-town bourgeoisie family." He resented not just the synagogue but the values that shaped family life after Karla buried her rebellious nature and married Theodor. Erik recalled that he became "intensely alienated from [the] German middle class, [from] reform Judaism, [from the] doctor role." Only much later, after his migration to America and after his identity with a rebellious young Karla had been attenuated, was Erik able to revise his portrayal of Theodor. Only then could he acknowledge that "my stepfather the pediatrician provided me, even in my rebellion, with a daily firm model of identification, centered in the concern for children and in a general Hippocratic orientation."
As Erik grew older, then, he felt that his mother had acceded to Theodor's middle-class German-Jewish habits. Hugo Schiff, his rabbi, recalled that "he was aloof from everything and everybody [Jewish]." "At that point I set out to be different," Erik recalled. He contrasted the Karlsruhe painters' studios that he often visited with the limitations of "our house"--especially Theodor's medical office, "filled with tense and trusting mothers and children." Unlike his stepfather's home and office, the artist's studio and lifestyle offered an opportunity for the "recovery of the senses." In addition to Karla's artistic friends and his own artist acquaintances, Erik sought this visual path to recovery because he sensed that it might connect him to his biological father. Far more from romantic visions than from tangible evidence, he asserted increasingly, as he grew older, that this father was also artistic.
Little beyond hope and hearsay sustained this vision of Erik's birth father. If his mother knew or strongly suspected the man's identity and conveyed it to her brothers, they passed on only very general impressions to their children. Axel's son, Svend, and his daughter-in-law, Helena, never knew the actual identity. His daughter, Henrietta, tried to find out, but without success. If Axel's brother Nicholai ever knew, Nicholai's daughter, Edith, was unable to learn despite prodigious efforts.
It was no easy matter, then, for Erik to track down the man who fathered him. Much later, when he recalled his unsuccessful search, he sometimes charged that "MOTHER DECEIVED" him. This was an obvious reference to her failure to nurture and sustain him with a sense of himself and his past. At times, he underscored "how many discordant signals she must have given me as to my origins!" His quest to discover his missing father by questioning his unforthcoming mother progressed along three overlapping stages, charting Erik's increasing difficulty relating to Karla as he grew older.
When Erik was three, he was told that Theodor had always been his father. This was suspicious. The fact that Theodor delayed for years changing Erik's legal name to Homburger and formally adopting him compounded the suspicion. Nor could Erik forget the day he sat under a dining table and heard the unaware adults above discuss his real father as artistic and Gentile. Between the ages of eight and fourteen, a second level of understanding emerged. As he later recounted to his friend Betty Jean Lifton, he had been walking in the Black Forest on the outskirts of Karlsruhe and came across an old peasant woman who was milking a cow. She looked up at him and asked: "Do you know who your father is?" Erik ran to Karla and demanded the truth. Karla acknowledged that Theodor had adopted him. Then she recounted how Valdemar Salomonsen, a Danish Jew and her former husband, had abandoned her while she was pregnant with Erik. This was a half truth. Salomonsen had departed years before she became pregnant, but the story left Erik assuming that Salomonsen was his biological father. Erik sensed that Karla was deeply distressed as she acknowledged her first husband; the tone of her voice and her body language told him not to press her further about issues of paternity. Consequently, he continued for some years to believe that Salomonsen fathered him, but also that Karla continued to conceal information. The suspicion deepened during adolescence and led to a third stage in his understanding. He heard new rumors and remembered others that prompted "the gradual awareness" that his father was a Danish aristocrat, with artistic talents, and probably a Christian. When Karla died in 1960, some Abrahamsen cousins of Erik's generation told him what rumors and innuendos they had learned: "They confirmed what over the years I had concluded from accidental impressions--namely, that my father was a Gentile Dane 'from a good family' and 'artistically gifted.'" When he first became attentive to the possibility of this Gentile-Danish father, however, Erik feared traveling to Copenhagen to seek him out. If his father was wealthy--possibly an aristocrat--he might conclude that Erik was only pursuing him to acquire money. Moreover, "if my father hadn't cared enough about me to want me ... why should I look him up now?" Erik pressed for his father's identity, but only to a point.
While young Erik continued to feel tied to and trusting of Karla, he became increasingly aware that she had concealed information on what was emerging as the central issue in his early life and that she wanted him to drop all inquiries. This was shocking. It did not destroy Erik's love for, need for, and dependence on Karla, but it created a barrier between them and required him to draw increasingly on his own emotional resources. He came to feel that he could hardly avoid trying "to make an identity out of being a stepson."
The task of forging a stepson's identity involved more than matters of parentage. Parentage prompted Erik to explore his religion and his nationality, and to consider how he had crossed the traditional borders or limits of these designations. Was he a Jew, like his mother and his stepfather, or a Gentile, as he came to assume that his father had been? Was he a Dane like Karla, Valdemar Salomonsen, and perhaps his biological father, or a German like Theodor Homburger? He never forgot the humiliation of being referred to as a Gentile in synagogue and a Jew in school. As he became attracted to Elizabeth Goldschmidt, a Jewish girl in the synagogue, he felt conflicted because he may have been partially Gentile. At times he recalled "having been born a Dane and having had to stand the scorn of German children against a foreign-born child" (though he was actually born in Germany). Consequently, when World War I erupted and Denmark remained neutral while seeking "to steal Schleswig-Holstein" from Germany, "I developed my nationalistic German tendencies for awhile in order to convince my playmates of my loyalty." They continued to call him "Dane." In sum, Erik recalled, through a hasty notation, how strange it felt "being a German (born a Dane) grown up in a Jewish household." "Rabbi almost" in that notation suggested pressure to suppress a possible Gentile aspect and become more decidedly a Jew. He resisted, and these came to be years of great confusion and "FAILURE."
Erik's conflicts over religion and nationality were greatest in the Homburger family home in Karlsruhe. Stepfather Theodor insisted on observance of Jewish traditions to the point where, for family vacations, he rented a house and hired maids who could adhere to strict kosher dietary requirements. Karla helped him maintain a kosher house, though her heart was not in it; Erik and his half sisters watched her eat nonkosher foods like shrimp during visits to Copenhagen. Karla also provided confusing signals when she hung up Danish and German flags in the family home and read Danish newspapers avidly while she insisted that her children speak only German and refused to teach them Danish. Erik found the family's "liberal" synagogue even more distressing, since it required ceremonies like the bar mitzvah he went through. Much of the traditional ritual had apparently been eliminated to ease his resentment, and the event took on a "theatrical character." The deepest meaning that the bar mitzvah had for him was that it fell on the day the French bombed Karlsruhe, damaged the Homburger family compound, and produced a state of unlimited war between Germany and France. A seemingly empty event like a bar mitzvah amid serious international tensions was "part of the transparent ceremonialism of a Burgertum which young people yearning for relevance ... vowed early to leave behind them with a vengeance." Indeed, Erik remembered "as an adolescent writing a long letter of disengagement to our rabbi." The letter, synagogue services, and daily family customs at home were "part of a quiet alienation from my whole childhood setting, German and Jewish."
The young man was ready for alternatives. One was "the Christianity of the Gospels to which I early felt inescapably drawn." He recalled how "I early received from my mother a quiet and uncombative conviction that to be a Jew did not preclude a reverence for the existential aspects of Christianity." Indeed, Karla had cultivated in Erik a love for Kierkegaard's enunciation of "the core of values of Christianity." As he read Kierkegaard, walked about Karlsruhe (where "there is a crucifix on every street corner") and the nearby Black Forest, and assumed increasingly that his father was a Gentile, the young man took a "turn toward Christianity." Protestantism interested him decidedly; he assumed that a Jew in Germany could hardly be unconcerned with Luther's legacy. A crucial moment came when he spent a night at the home of a friend in a village by the upper Rhine. The next morning the friend's father, a minister, recited the Lord's Prayer in Luther's German, and Erik responded deeply: "Never having 'knowingly' heard it, I had the experience, as seldom before or after, of a wholeness captured in a few simple words, of poetry fusing the aesthetic and the moral: those who have once suddenly 'heard' the Gettysburg Address will know what I mean."
This was not the full conversion experience that a well-known nineteenth-century relative in the Abrahamsen wing of Erik's family--Christian Herman Kalckar--had completed. Nor was Erik adopting German-Lutheran cultural norms to enhance his social status like some youngsters in the Karlsruhe Jewish community had done. Rather, he was speaking to a profound admiration and respect for Protestant devotion and piety, and was beginning to appropriate these aspects into his life. To be sure, they contrasted with the seemingly empty Jewish rituals of his stepfather's household and synagogue. But Erik did not feel that he was directly or consciously repudiating Judaism. Rather, he saw himself occupying a vague divide between Protestantism and Judaism.
To some extent, Erik may have been merging a decidedly Danish aspect of Christianity with his developing interest in German Lutheranism. As he later explained, a Danish mother who, through Kierkegaard, had given him his "introduction to Christianity" in an "intensively Danish" form had retained intense pride "that her family was also Jewish." She had taught him that he could cross borders, combining Judaism with "reverence for the existential aspects of Christianity" and even with aspects of Lutheran devotedness and piety. Karla had also informed him, proudly, that the Abrahamsen family included both the chief rabbi of Stockholm and a prominent church historian. Devotedness was more important than formal religious doctrines or affiliations.
Excerpted from Identity's Architect by Lawrence Jacob Friedman Copyright © 1999 by Lawrence Jacob Friedman. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Lawrence J. Friedman is Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University and author of, among other books, Menninger: The Family and the Clinic.
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