Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Unexpected Imagination of Tom Seidmann-Freud

(6) Photo courtesy of Max Halberstadt 1921

When a person hears the name "Freud" I would imagine that a very specific image  comes to mind.

This one. The stern, bearded face of  Sigmund Freud, famed father of psychoanalysis.

Yet I'd argue that as intriguing as Sigmund Freud was, he was by no means the only member of the extensive Freud family worth learning about.

I was meandering my way through the Weinstein Collection of vintage and rare children's books (which I have the honor of working with  through my position with the Center for Teaching Through Children's Books in Skokie, Illinois).   There were many distracting treasures.  And then I saw this:

Everything about it piqued my interest, not the least of which was the mysteriously free-floating orange fish and the author's name--Tom Seidmann-Freud.

Tom was born in Austria in 1892 under her  given name Martha Gertrude Freud. (7)  Her mother, Mitzi, was Sigmund Freud's younger sister and her father, Moritz, was Sigmund and Mitzi's cousin. (7)

Before World War II Tom enjoyed a privileged life, growing up in Berlin and later attending art school in London. (1)  Tom abandoned her given name "Martha" as a teenager in hopes that using a masculine name would smooth her path as an artist. (1).  Many sources claim that Tom also dressed in men's clothing, although there are family members who dispute this. (1)

A number of sources I found described Tom as a sensitive, nervous child who grew into an adult with emotional issues and a tendency towards eccentricities, including her name change, mens clothing and heavy smoking. (2)(3)

(1) Angela and Tom Seidmann Freud
When Tom was 28 years old she fell in love with Jakob Seidmann, marrying him a year later and giving birth to their daughter, Angela, a year after that. (1)  Throughout this time Tom created a number of children's books including "Peregrin and the Goldfish", published in 1929. (1) Her books received favorable reviews, but sadly many of Tom's creations--books as well as works of art--were destroyed when Hitler came into power. (2)

In 1922 Tom and her husband decided to partner up with the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik to create a publishing company called "Ophir". (1)  They put their trust in the wrong person however. Bialik betrayed them, refusing to contribute his share of funds to the fledgling publishing company. As a result Tom and her husband were left penniless. (1) Jakob was unable to come to terms with this failure. He committed suicide in 1929; Tom followed a year later, starving herself to death. (1)  They left behind their daughter Angela, who was seven years old. (1)

Tom's  books and artwork that survived the Nazi purge point to a complex, tremendously creative woman.  The book I was lucky enough to stumble across is a testament to her talent.

"Peregrin and the Goldfish" begins with a boy named Peregrin who falls asleep beneath a tree and begins to dream.

The dream  begins softly--Peregrin sees himself carrying his pet goldfish, Nickeling, in a bowl as he  makes his way through a skewed world of tilted, rainbow-hued houses.

And then he falls down, dropping and shattering the bowl on the ground.

 Nickeling the goldfish swells up to huge proportions.

Freed from his bowl (and now appropriately large), Nickeling encourages Peregrin to accompany him to "...go out into the world together, for there is much to see.  Come with me!"

Nickeling brings Peregrin to yet another strange land.  Peregrin feels frightened and out-of-place, but soon enough he begins meeting an array of children who reach out to him.

Peregrin joins the children, helping them with their various daily tasks--picking fruit, selling the fruit at market, building houses, studying books.

Finally, exhausted and homesick, Peregrin calls out to Nickeling to bring him home.

Nickeling appears, takes Peregrin into his mouth.  The fish carries Peregrin into increasing darkness, finally diving down into the water until Peregrin wakes up.

The story and writing style (albeit translated from the original German) is simple and almost musical at times.

However the tale has an underlying darkness that I can imagine children delighted in as well as feared.  The images of odd landscapes, unknown people and an eventual plunge into darkness are the stuff from which  fears and troubling, thrilling dreams rise.

These dark undertones  seem all the more obvious when paired with Tom's crisp artistic style (a stencil and layering method called 'pochoir' (2)), the clean lines and pure jewel tones of the colors almost like folk art.  While not all of Tom's work follows this style, many of her books certainly do.

The tragic lives of Tom Seidmann-Freud, her husband and daughter  are but one piece of the troubling story of the entire Freud family.  Tom's mother, Mitzi, outlived her daughter  only to be put to death in a Nazi Concentration Camp in 1942. (7)  Four of Sigmund Freud's five sisters died in Concentration Camps, the rest of the Freud family splintered apart in their search for refuge. (7)

Reflecting upon Tom's life, I find myself wondering how much of her   unique sensibilities snuck onto paper through story and art.  The bright surfaces of Tom's art seem to  hide intricate and unexpected secrets, and I find myself unable to look away.

Although many of Tom's books and works of art were destroyed in the Nazi purge during World War II, enough (now very rare) copies survive to give us a peek into Tom Seidmann-Freud's volume of work that includes fairy tale books, moving picture books, counting books as well as illustrations completed for other writers. (2)

As I hold this copy of "Peregrin and the Goldfish" in my hands,  I can only feel gratitude for the chance to learn about Tom, and sadness for all that was lost.









Sunday, May 8, 2016

Telling It Like It Is on Mother's Day

My dear, equally book-crazed friend Sue gifted me a vintage book in honor of Mother's Day.

The Wonderful Story of HOW YOU WERE BORN by
Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg. Illus. by Hildegard Woodward.
Garden City Books. Garden City, NY. 1959.
This particular book is especially well-suited to Mother's Day as it is all about where babies come from--yes, that parentally-dreaded, all-important question to which parents know the answer, but don't know how to say the  words.

Considering that this book was first published in 1952, I at first rather expected it to either offer the standard stork/cabbage patch variety of explanation, or perhaps hide beneath vague euphemisms (neither of which, I might add, a child particularly needs or wants when asking this very important question).

The author, Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg  was born in Austria in 1881 and educated in Germany and New York (1).

From 1906 until 1961 she worked as a world-famous parenting and child expert, serving as director for the Child Study Association of America, conducting parenting lectures, serving on editorial boards for Parent's Magazine and Child Study and working on various White House subcommittees on behalf of children and parents. (1)

In addition to these achievements, she authored over 15 books on child issues and parenting aimed at both children and parents. (2)

What all this boils down to is that the book I hold in my hands was written by someone with considerable clout--so if this is the way Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg answers the question "where do babies come from?", then chances are this is a good way for most of us to answer the question.

 And just how does she answer this question?

With precocious and splendid honesty.

I was first struck by the cover.  Ms. Gruenberg and illustrator Ms. Woodward started right away visually reinforcing that how YOU were born is how EVERYONE was born.  Pretty much.

Now, Ms. Woodward could have drawn a few little adorable babies and left it at that--a few little 1959-ish white babies in bonnets and bibs. I may be generalizing a bit, but not by much I feel, based on the many, many illustrated covers of vintage 1950's children's books I have seen with my very own eyeballs.

But Ms. Woodward's  cover illustration offers a selection of children from obviously different backgrounds (delightfully enough, depicted from the front as well as the back on the book covers).   Both the cover art and the title page art seem to exude a kind of  idealized multi-ethnic spirit of childhood that appeals to the idealist in me.  The illustrations throughout the book are just soft and ambiguous enough to represent people from any number of countries.

And paired with these gentle, lovely illustrations is Ms. Gruenberg's carefully crafted text.

Ms. Gruenberg starts right off acknowledging how parents try to avoid answering the "Where did I come from?" questions and covers the gamut of standard answers:  babies are found under cabbage leaves (this explanation illustrated in rather disturbing detail at the bottom of page 3), are ordered from stores via mail order, are delivered by storks or brought by fairies.

The rest of the book is then dedicated to telling the REAL story--beginning with a gentle foray into the fact that  all living creatures--including humans-- come from eggs.

Ms. Gruenberg describes how the egg grows in the mother's womb (in the case of mammals) and describes the key changes that happen as the baby grows.

"A baby lies in the womb with his head near a passage in his mother's
body that leads to the outside.  This narrow passage is called the
vagina."   (pg.13)

There is then a description of childbirth itself that is in equal parts careful and blunt.  Ms. Gruenberg is careful to avoid absolutes:  "Most babies are born in a hospital because this is a convenient place for mother and baby to get all the attention they need." (pg. 17).   And while she mentions the pain of childbirth, she does so with reassurances for a young child listening to this book  and learning about this topic for the first time.

On page 22, in the second half of the book, the father's contribution to the creation of a baby is explained--again in careful, honest detail using specific vocabulary.  

"In the mother's womb the egg is ready to begin
to grow into a baby.  But only if it is joined by
something else.  This very important something
is called a 'sperm', and it comes from
the father's body."  (pg. 22)

At this point the book seems to sigh with a bit of relief, having  succesfully navigated the murky waters of introducing the terms  "vagina" and "sperm" (or perhaps the sighing I hear is the collective timeless sighing of thousands of parents reading this book to their children.)

At any rate, the rest of the book is straightforward, discussing how the baby grows from an infant into a child, from child to teenager, from teenager to young adult.

The last few pages of the book skirt just a bit timidly  around the topic of puberty, the leap into a final technicolor celebration of family which while abrupt, is pleasing never the less.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book--by it's honesty, by the illustrations that sought to represent many different kinds of people, by the way it offered an easier way for parents to introduce a challenging topic to their children.

A final new edition was published in 1970.  This new edition included an enlarged  format and updated  text and  illustrations  (some of which, according to one Goodreads review, they "wouldn't want a younger child accidentally coming across." (3))


This is one vintage book that I feel has weathered the passing years quite well, even in its original edition.  Of all the lessons and information parents must pass on to their children,  the most difficult are those that strike the closest to our emotional hearts--birth and death, love and loss, pain and passion.

There is something  in this book, with its  gentle, pastel-tinted treatment of reproduction, parenthood and family, that is timeless and appropriate.

Especially for Mother's Day.