“A Conversation with Sophie Freud,” by Joyce Lazarus

Longtime BOLLI member and Study Group Leader, Sophie Freud, died peacefully at her Lincoln home on Friday, June 3 at the age of 97. ​Sophie was a free spirit who lived according to her own high-minded values and principles, and in doing so became an inspiration to us all. Member Peter Bradley met recently with Sophie to interview her for the BOLLI Oral History Project, which he is spearheading.* During their time together Sophie relived some memorable moments of her childhood and young adulthood, as well as her more recent experiences at BOLLI. Some may recall Naomi Schmidt’s October 2007 Banner essay on Sophie’s memoir, Living in the Shadow of the Freud Family. In both the memoir and in Peter’s recent interview, Sophie demonstrated her outspoken nature, courage, and strong drive for professional achievement.

During the interview with Peter, Sophie observed that both good luck and tragedy had marked her life. She felt fortunate to have escaped from Vienna in May 1938 before she could witness the horrors of Kristallnacht (November 1938) and the Holocaust. She had a happy but overly-protective childhood in Vienna with a nanny who accompanied her to school every day, when she would have much preferred to go there on her own. Sophie remembered her famous grandfather, Sigmund Freud, as caring, protective and generous, though emotionally distant.

On a darker note, she endured the difficult years of her parents’ unhappy marriage and their ultimate divorce. Sophie expressed pride in her mother’s talents and achievements as a pioneer speech therapist who was posthumously awarded an honorary degree in the field. In Sophie’s opinion, it was her mother’s career that rescued her from an unhappy married life. Though their relationship was complicated by her mother’s destructive self-doubts, Sophie always knew that she wanted her to have a good life and a successful career. 

Good fortune smiled again during her years in Paris just before World War II. While she missed Viennese friends and family, she enjoyed new freedoms and spent time with two aunts who had settled there. Her favorite, “Tante Janne,” was a loving woman who became a second mother to her.

Within a week of the Nazi invasion of France, Sophie and her mother fled from Paris on bicycles, eventually making their way to Nice where Sophie would attend school. In her memoir, she depicted their hair-raising escape through the French countryside while German bombs were falling. Their flight from the horrors of Nazism would take them to Casablanca and then to Lisbon, where in 1942 they boarded a ship for America. For Sophie, her eight months in Casablanca were highlights of adolescence because while there she met Flor, who became her lifelong friend.

Although Sophie felt lucky to have escaped from occupied France, she would always be haunted by the death of her maternal grandmother, Ida Drucker, who was deported from France to Auschwitz in 1942. Her famous grandfather had been fortunate to have escaped to London.

Upon her arrival in the United States, Sophie had only a high school knowledge of English and very little money. She spoke again of her good luck when her father’s wealthy cousin, Edward Bernays, offered to pay her tuition at Radcliffe College. Sophie struggled to master enough English to pass her courses and worked hard as an au-pair to support herself. She remembered that there was no money for her to see a dentist. These were difficult years. Still, she managed to graduate with honors in psychology. Her life took a happy turn in her senior year when she married a German emigrant, Paul Loewenstein, whom she had met in France. They would raise three children and enjoy 40 years of marriage.

Sophie later graduated with a degree in social work from Simmons College and worked at the Putnam Children’s Center where she taught parents of autistic children how to help their kids overcome the disorder. Her dissertation on the subject challenged a widespread misperception that parents were responsible for their children’s autism. Sophie’s analysis of the biological origins of autism is still the prevailing wisdom in this field. Although she found her career as a social worker rewarding, she discovered that her true passion was teaching. She taught at Simmons College and years later did graduate work at the Heller School for Social Policy at Brandeis University, where she earned her Ph.D. Sophie gave workshops and courses throughout the United States, traveling to twenty-three states. She also helped launch a social work school in Alberta, Canada, and another in Portugal.

While officially retiring from teaching at 68, Sophie continued to teach at BOLLI for many years, giving courses that were all well-attended and popular. She had a youthful spirit and was not afraid to speak her mind, as shown by her criticism of some of her grandfather’s theories. She expressed it succinctly: “His ideas on women’s sexuality were all wrong.” Nor did Sophie accept his theory of the Oedipus complex. It bothered her as well that her grandfather did not allow his son to become a doctor, perhaps fearing competition in this field. In her memoir, however, she credited him with being overall a positive influence on her life, who contributed to making her the strong, creative thinker she became.

Those of us at BOLLI who were fortunate enough to have known Sophie can recall her recollections of the early days at Brandeis when she was an independent, outspoken woman with a youthful spirit who loved riding her red motorbike to campus, swimming in Walden Pond and, perhaps most of all, teaching. Everyone who later participated in one of her BOLLI classes witnessed the skill and passion she brought to the task. Sophie’s own words, as cited in her Boston Globe obituary, say it best: “The joy of teaching is being able to reach people’s minds, to widen their perspective.” Her many BOLLI friends thank her for sharing her joy and passions with us for so many years. We will miss her greatly.


*To listen to Peter’s talk with Sophie, click HEREIf you are interested in participating in the BOLLI Oral History Project and sharing your story, click HERE or write to Peter at bradleypa@mac.com.

– Peter Bradley and Jack Curley assisted with the preparation and editing of this article.


2 responses to ““A Conversation with Sophie Freud,” by Joyce Lazarus”

  1. Ruth Bramson says:

    Sophie was a brilliant, charming and warm addition to the BOLLI community. I know she will be remembered fondly by all of us and will be greatly missed.

  2. Nancy Katz says:

    Fascinating! Sophie sounds exactly like a teacher I would have loved. May she Rest In Peace. Nancy

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