There is relatively little material available in the public domain about Australia’s first training analyst, Clara Geroe. Several online biographies outlining her contribution and influence on psychoanalysis in Australia after her arrival in 1940  tress her professional work while moving swiftly across her ‘refugee story’. These accounts are based on the interviews she gave to Douglas Kirsner in 1977 and 1979 and published in Meanjin in 1983.  The impact of Geroe’s arrival, a watershed in the development of the psychoanalytic discipline in Australia, and her longer term influence is still being absorbed. She was a medical practitioner, relating first and foremost to those in that profession. But she also recognised lay professionals and drew these practitioners into her circle. Less conscious perhaps, is the influence not just of her European background in a country which stressed Englishness and upheld the White Australia policy, but also of her refugee/migrant experience. Clara described herself as a ‘reluctant immigrant’: she did not wish to leave Europe and only came to Australia’ because Hitler came to Europe’. Her link with Britain legitimized her status and presence: she was Australia’s first qualified and approved training analyst under the aegis of the British Institute for Psychoanalysis.

During the last two decades historians have been able to provide a good account of the encroachment of Nazism on daily life in Europe; they have been able to investigate the response of governments outside Europe, providing context for the types of decisions, and circumstances people such as Clara Geroe were facing. Let us begin with Kristallnacht.

On 6 November 1939, Herschel Grynszpan, aged 17, a young man of  Jewish German origin, bought a gun, loaded it with 5 bullets, and walked into the German Embassy in Paris. He shot one of the diplomats Ernst vom Rath  three times in the abdomen -an act of revenge for his family’s expulsion from Germany. It was the excuse the German authorities needed, the historian, Martin Gilbert explains. On 9- 10 November, Kristallnacht, Nazi stormtroopers conducted systematic raids in cities and towns across the country. Synagogues were smashed, homes and businesses broken into and looted. Jewish families were rounded up made to stand and wait outside in the cold night for hours. Women and children were separated from their menfolk who were deported to the concentration camps for several weeks. They returned  with orders to leave the country, to go to any country that would take them.

The trouble was, as Louise London pointed out in her 2004 book, Whitehall and the Jews, few countries would do so. Great Britain, acting on policies developed in conjunction with the USA in 1933-4, and London shows, fearing that the influx of foreigners would undermine its social fabric, limited its intake essentially to women and children – to be employed in service. Few men were admitted. Many who did make it avoided internment by joining the British Armed Forces.  Those who were not of German origin fared better – for a time. Despite this reluctance to accept refugees, members of the psychoanalytic profession, led by Britain’s Ernest Jones, became  one of the few professional groups to lobby for  European colleagues at risk of Nazi persecution. The Freud family was an exception. Even so when the family arrived in London Anna Freud fearing repercussions for those left behind, asked reporters to stress they had been well treated.

Australia was slow on the up-take and New Zealand, too, was closing its doors. While there had been some co operation between Britain and the Dominions concerning intake during the interwar years, this had dwindled from about 1933 – due to concerns about an influx of  undesirables – possibly communists and revolutionaries in the guise of refugees.  (London 2000:43).

To leave one’s country of birth with no possibility of return: to relinquish its sights, sounds and smells; to be without the mirroring of one’s self within one’s community is in the realm of accumulating psychic trauma. In their book, Migration and Exile, Lesn and Rebeca Grinberg show how one may respond to such dislocation by becoming frozen in time, relating internally to the culture left behind; becoming, perhaps even more ‘European’ or more ‘English than English’ , more of whatever was part of one’s roots than those that remained behind. For Clara Lazar Geroe, her ultimate arrival in Melbourne was the culmination of a long story of doubt, uncertainty and dislocation. She told some of this in two interviews with Melbourne researcher Douglas Kirsner, the first held in 1977 and second in 1979 – shortly before her death in 1980. This was compiled by Judith Brett these were  published in Meanjin in1983.

For Australian psychoanalysts Clara Lazar Geroe effectively parachuted into the local scene. While much of its historiography, including Joy Damousi’s Freud in the Antipodes  stresses the activity of medical practitioners. he first two qualified medically trained analysts were Sydney based.  Dr Roy Coupland Winn who qualified first as an Associate and then as a full member of the British Psychoanalytical Society set up in private practice in 1931. The second qualified analyst, Dr Fink who arrived in 1938 from Germany – another escapee from Nazi Germany – was a member of the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society. He worked in the New South Wales mental health services before entering private practice. Paul Dane in Melbourne was another key figure. Lay people: educationalists and psychologists – including workers in the child guidance movement, found their way to psychoanalysis through psychology and philosophy studies at the major universities. As in Britain and Europe and building on the work of the Child Study movement,  the child guidance movement was developing with psychological clinics as far afield as Perth in Western Australia as well as in the eastern states.

By 1940 the theory and practice of psychoanalysis was a lively arena, of discussion and debate – if the press is any reflection. Psychoanalytic ideas were rubbing shoulders with those from psychology, philosophy and education since the early 1920s – also traced by Damousi. There was Sir Francis Anderson whose leadership of The Australian Association for Psychology and Philosophy and its journal was instrumental in the dissemination of psychoanalytic  ideas in the Australian community from 1923. The Association held regular meetings, with branches in the main capital cities. Professor John Anderson also from the University of Sydney combined philosophy and psychoanalysis in his work. At a community level and in regional areas talks were given to through the Workers Education Associations.  In 1937 British psychoanalyst Susan Isaacs, an associate of Melanie Klein,  visited Australia for the New Education Fellowship Conference which, after preliminary sessions in New Zealand,  travelled to each of Australia’s state capitals from 1 August and 20 September 1937. Isaacs was waited upon by senior Canberra women – from the Governor General’s wife down! Ruth Thomas a Western Australian based psychologist returned from England to attend the conference as did educationalist and psychologist Madeleine Ekenberg after a ten year absence. Ekenberg, who took the time to visit her folks in Singleton, New South Wales, warrants a post in this blog in her own right. She was working with child psychotherapist Margaret Lowenfeld at the London Institute of Child Psychology. Clara Geroe’s arrival may have provided locals with the impetus to formalise, and centralise.

Clara Lazar Geroe was born on 4 October 1900 in Papa in Hungary,  was the daughter  of Adolf Adam Lazar, wholesale grocer, and his wife Ilona, née Lusztig. Although Jewish, Clara completed her secondary schooling at the local Calvinist college. During WWI when the psychoanalyst Ferenczi was garrisoned in her town with his regiment she snuck into one of his lectures with her two older sisters who had been invited to the event. By Clara’s own account, she obtained one of his books from the local bookshop -which had brought them in knowing the author was in town, and after reading it felt she had found her vocation. By her son’s account she was little interested in psychoanalysis at that stage. In about 1923 she completed her medical studies in Prague and, back in Budapest in 1925 and working in a hospital for nervous disorders,  was accepted for training with the Hungarian Psychoanalytic Society. Seminar teachers included anthropologist Geza Roheim amd Michael Balint on infant development. She said of this period:

One didn’t have as long an analysis as now and the rules were less strict. In Australia today I am the only one of the training analysts who sees trainees only four times a week. The others all keep strictly to five times a week because that is the ruling. And whereas nowadays analysts and trainees avoid meeting at public places or seminars no-one worried about this during my training… Probably some of the complexities of the transference relationship were not recognised then.

In in his 2002 book, The Hitler Emigres, British historian Daniel Snowman has traced the influence of Jewish refugees upon British Culture: the arts, music, literature, the law. He  points out that young Jewish people in the late nineteenth into the early twentieth centuries  were aware that certain professions were barred from them. Politics, the public service and indeed the Church were closed to Jewish people. They were pushed out. Rather, many gravitated to Law or Medicine or indeed the studies of economics, philosophy, music literature or journalism and publishing. Many thought of themselves as ‘assimilated’, Snowman goes onto say, arguing that those who aspired to culture and sophistication thought of themselves as members of their home country’s culture. It implied rejection of ‘partisan ideology, separatism, exclusivity, dogma- Jewish or any other – and in their place, the aspiration to embrace universal truths and the whole of humanity. These were the sentiments of the press and the academy, not of the army, church or politics’. And it separated them from the the unsophisticated basic lives of Eastern European Jews, those who had not made it, ‘people without a culture who clung to outmoded attitudes’, Snowman continues.  Germany stood for urban and urbane life, Snowman continues. Not the fields and the ghetto, but for emancipation and enlightenment rather than atavistic obscurantism. (Snowman 2002: 8). Jews who served in WWI and were awared the Iron Cross felt they belonged; they were German rather than Jews. One can only imagine their profound sense of betrayal on Kristallnacht.

Perhaps this sense of whether or not one belonged was less of an issue in Hungary than Germany. Jewish people assumed they did belong. The Historian Bernard Wasserstein traces these in his 2012 book, On The Eve. From 1867 when acts were passed freeing Jewish people from legal restrictions  Jewish people had prospered moving into the professions and into the nobility… Antisemitism seemed to belong to a less civilised past’. They felt at home in Hungarian  From 1920, though there was a harbinger of things to come. The reappearance of the numerous clausus, a quota system enacted into law in 1920, restricted admission to university no more than 6 per cent of  student of Jewish origin. it was the first anti -semitic law in interwar Europe. ( Wasserstein, 2012: 28).

For Geroe, being a psychoanalyst in Europe was part of being part of cultured community. ‘Analysis was a cultural and vocational interest and not extremely lucrative’, she explained in her interview with Kirsner. ‘You had to be a bit of revolutionary to become interested, to think for yourself and not be with the establishment’. There was no distinction between medical and non-medical people, she continued… Perhaps this was a rather pointed comment. Tension over such distinctions rumble still in the local Australian scene if not elsewhere. And, as if to add to the halcyon days of the past Geroe remembered, ‘No-where were women treated more equally than in analytic circles’. Child analysis was also developing during the 1920s and 1930s. Geroe worked with Alice Balint in a children’s clinic which closed down when the Nazis came. Anna Freud’s work was commencing; there were meetings in Budapest and Vienna. The group also received patronage from leading families. Geroe explained:

The Baroness Herzog endowed the Analytical Society with a villa in a beautiful forest where fifty children, most of whom were in analysis, would come for two to three months in the summer. We would give them sessions once or twice a week to see how they were reacting to the therapeutic milieu.

August Aichhorn, whose work with delinquent children was based in milieu therapy, was very interested in this project, she continued. Aichhorn had begun the first child guidance clinics in Vienna in 1927.

The reason Geroe came to Australia with her family  was ‘because Hitler came to Europe’, she said flatly.  It had been a good life before that, a ‘happy well-ordered life’. She had had no intention of immigrating. But during the 1930s life had become oppressive, as it had for all Jewish people.

Uniformed police were always present at our (psychoanalytic) meetings. Their presence was mainly to vex us,  but if they could have put their finger on anything they would have suspended the Society immediately. Everything intellectual in which Jews took part was suspicious and persecuted, and perhaps more than half our members were Jews or counted as Jews according to the Nuremberg laws. Still we had our practices and it was a hard decision to leave.

By the end of the 1930s antisemitism was official state policy in Hungary. Many sought escape by converting to Christianity. Others such as Geroe were being forced to face the fact that the future for them if they remained in their homeland was dire. There were visitations and warnings from abroad. In 1937 when Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia she had barely heard of Australia let alone New Zealand. Britain sent someone to help. Geroe explains.

 Dr John Rickman of the British Society came to Budapest to advise us how to get out and where we could go. We heard of countries about which we knew almost nothing and New Zealand was one of these. It was suggested to several of us that we should try and get a permit to New Zealand. The emphasis was on those people who were child analysts and interested in education because New Zealand had recently hosted a large international congress on the New Education Fellowship  Movement which Susan Isaacs had attended. There was a lot of interest in modern educational ideas in New Zealand, more than in Australia at the time.

What went on at the 1938 -9 Psychoanalytic Congress in Paris, what discussions were had, the emotional atmosphere, and the urgency with which European Jewish Psychoanalysts sought assistance from their international colleagues can only be imagined. A group of Hungarians at the 1938-9 Psychoanalytic Congress in Paris then met with Ernest Jones who, Geroe says, confirmed that there was an interest in Analysis in New Zealand, but mainly child analysis. From initial perusal of the New Zealand’s digitised newspaper collection: Papers Past, this seems not to have been accurate. It may be that the British Rickman, so far away from Australia, had not grasped that his colleague, Susan Isaacs, had spent most of her time in Australia. Perhaps in the way of these things, and not fully apprised of the details he had heard she was leaving for New Zealand… but not much more. It was enough to encourage hope for these people so desperate and far away.  Geroe and  four or five colleagues applied for admission to New Zealand.  Contacts were made and letters written – to Duncan Hall the Colonial Secretary at the League of Nations.  The New Zealand Government refused them. Twice.

New Zealand’s refusal of the applications of six prospective analyst refugees, and Australia accepted but two of them is a story in itself.  Judith Brett‘s short biography  of Geroe  published in the Australian Dictionary of Biography which traces these events is a master of understatement:

At the International Psycho-Analytical Congress, held in Paris in 1938, Clara had explored the possibility of six Hungarian analysts emigrating to New Zealand. Their applications were refused. A group of Australians—including Bishop E. H. Burgmann, the doctors R. S. Ellery, R. C. Winn and Paul Dane, and (Sir) Charles Moses—took up their case with the Commonwealth Department of Immigration. Of the six, only Clara was accepted. She later surmised that she was selected because she had a child. With her husband Vilmos Gerö (William Geroe)—whom she had married on 27 August 1927 in Budapest—and their son, she arrived in Melbourne on 14 March 1940.

In Europe things were deteriorating. It became more and more urgent to leave Hungary. Geroe, finally, was able to get a visa – for Australia… perhaps ‘because I had a child and Australia was always keen to get families’. Then the permit was cancelled when war broke out. She was relieved at first. ‘ I was so ambivalent about leaving that I was glad we could stay, but then after some months our permit was renewed because Hungary was not a declared enemy in the war’.

What finally tipped the balance for Geroe is any one’s guess. Daily life for Jewish people was becoming impossible. In May 1938 another anti-jewish law was passed in Hungary cancelling the licenses of Jewish small business owners and subjecting Jewish in the professions to the numerus clausus– a quota. ( Wasserstein, 365). Another law was passed in May 1939 -‘adopting a racial rather than a religious definition of Jewishness. It severely curtailed Jewish economic activity and civil rights, restricted Jewish participation in the professions and required the dismissal of Jewish civil servants ( it was possible in Hungary to be a civil servant until then) theatre directors and editors of the general press. Only those Jews whose ancestors had lived in the country before 1867 retained the vote. The 7,500 foreign Jews in the country were ordered to leave’. ( Wasserstein, 405). Geroe may have had no choice… And then there was Kristallnacht.

Paul Dane was waiting for Geroe when she arrived at Melbourne in March 1940. Again there were promises. There was talk of grants for the establishment of a psychoanalytic organisation… but overseas qualified medical practitioners did not have automatic registration in Australia. Geroe, nevertheless, began work at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne – the first to do any child psychiatry at all. In October 1940 the Melbourne Institute of Psychoanalysis was opened with money donated by Miss Lorna Traill. There was a lot of interest and good will Geroe remembered, ‘partly because people wanted to help the European refugees and do something against Hitler’.  Geroe, appointed as the analyst of the Institute, was to give three hours a day to institute patients – and was paid 4 guineas a week. She was to see every new patient- difficult because all new patients had to be seen by a registered doctor. She wanted to set up a free clinic – for what she called ‘analytic psychotherapy. There was also her children’s clinic. Her project.

This was a bit of a private war of mine. I had made a promise to myself that as I was lucky enough to come away from Hungary  safely with my family, I would never turn away from the institute for financial reasons any child who needed help. I kept to it as long as I was physically able.

Perhaps the world Geroe had left so abruptly was always with her. Perhaps she was never entirely reconciled with its loss. Stanley Gold writes sensitively of Geroe’s sadness: ‘She brought with her a great love of psychoanalysis and in particular its application to the education and development of children, and a life-long nostalgia for the early days of the psychoanalytic movement with its camaraderie and intellectual radicalism’. Perhaps a legacy of her European life was  her belief that people at all levels of the community should have the opportunity to ‘explore psychoanalysis as a meaningful intellectual and philosophical discipline and to develop techniques for its application within society’.(Meanjin 1983).


Stanley Gold, ‘The Early History’, Meanjin, 3/1983, pp. 342-351

Clara Lazar Geroe, ‘A Reluctant Immigrant’ ( from an interview with Douglas Kirsner compiled by Judith Brett), Meanjin, 3/1983, pp. 352-357.

Joy Damousi, Freud in the Antipodes, A Cultural History of Psychoanalysis in Australia , UNSW Press, 2005.

Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Disaster, London, Harper Press, 2006.

Louise London, Whitehall and the Jews: 1933-1948: British immigration Policy and the Holocaust, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Daniel Snowman, The Hitler migres: The Cultural Impact on Britain of Refugees from Nazism, London, Chatto and Windus, 2002.

Bernard Wasserstein, On The Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War. New York, Simon and Schuster, 2012.