Fischel Schneersohn was born around 1885/88 in Kamianets Podolski under the Russian Empire. He studied medicine in Berlin from 1908. By 1920 he was in Kiev, working as a children’s doctor and co-editing the short-lived Hebrew literary journal Kadima. He then returned to Berlin to direct a Jewish children’s centre. He is variously recorded as having specialised in psychiatry and psychology; the non-fiction books and articles he published in both Yiddish and German certainly belong more to the field of psychology than psychiatry. But he was also interested in non-scientific literature, with many of his Yiddish novels published in the 1920s and 30s, also in German and Hebrew translation.
In the 1930s he emigrated to Mandate Palestine where he continued to practise either child psychiatry or psychology, running a clinic and afterschool programme in Tel Aviv for neurotic children. In 1952, he wrote a lengthy German report on a syndrome which could not be considered today to have any nosological validity. It was a type of Lesesucht, or reading addiction, observed among the children in his Tel Aviv clinic over 1937 to 1951.
Concerns about Lesesucht had been at their highest in Europe during the 1700s with the rise of the entertainment novel. There were fears that society would go to wrack and ruin – women would neglect their housework, people would begin living in fantasy worlds, sexual excitement would be stimulated, everyone would become socially isolated, no one would get anything done. The noble pursuit of reading, for spiritual and scientific edification, was being debauched and degraded. Moral anxiety about new media repeats itself later with radio, then television, then video games and internet.
Schneersohn’s worries picked up where the early 1800s had left off. The syndrome he described contains elements of today’s hyperlexia, ADHD, autistic syndromes, OCD and Tourette’s. But it fits none of those categories, nor is there enough information to retrodiagnose any of his small patients using a modern classifications system. Yet Schneersohn felt the existence of his syndrome demonstrably proven by the fact that all children suffering from it had been successfully cured of their baneful addiction following treatment in his clinic and showed few signs of “recidivism”.
Children who had formerly been isolated loners, preferring books to their friends, were now fully participant in school and social life. They could go on to become engaged and productive members of society, something an emerging state with Marxist leanings probably considered important. Schneersohn writes that reading in normal quantities (1-2 hours a day), whether for entertainment or edification, is certainly to be highly valued or even considered essential to life, but, like any other essential aspect of life, eating, drinking, exercise, becomes damaging when indulged in to excess (for Schneersohn, 2 hours or more). While that may be somewhat true, the conclusions Schneersohn then extrapolates from his observations are highly questionable and his work today stands largely as a curio for the historian of medicine.
I was most charmed by the creative writing exercises completed by two of his case studies. The following translation consists of four brief snippets from Schneersohn’s paper: first some background on the authors of the short stories, then the short stories the children wrote with Schneersohn’s introductory remarks. While Schneersohn’s words are a simple translation from German to English, the two stories written by the children are first translations from, presumably, Hebrew, but possibly another language, into German by Schneersohn, a native speaker not of German but of a Ukrainian variety of Yiddish, and then into English by me. Let the Chinese whispers begin!
April 1938. Simon, 10 years old, in the 4th class, isolated child (has only a two-year-old brother). The boy was sent to the clinic by his teacher Mr Itingen who complains that the boy is indifferent to his lessons, that he in no way participates, much less in the social life of the class. The teacher claims that his indifference and apathy, exceeding all bounds, are entirely immune to paedagogical influence. The mother of the boy also complains that he is very untidy and dirty, that he doesn’t do his homework and that his behaviour towards her indicates a note of the sharpest opposition. But neither the teacher nor the mother mentioned the child’s excessive reading which was only established on examination in the clinic.
During examination using the unrestricted storytelling method (it was suggested to the boy that he write a composition on any topic of his choice), the boy responded that he had nothing to say. The boy was only able to write a short composition using the restricted storytelling method (i.e. on a set topic: “A boy went walking in the field and lost his way”) with great difficulty. The result was a short story completely devoid of content, which we reproduce here in its entirety.
A boy went walking in the field and lost his way.
When it was midday and he wanted to go back, he couldn’t remember the way home. He looked and looked till evening but couldn’t find it. That night he climbed a tree and sat there till morning and in the morning he looked until midday and found the path and went back home. Enough!
April 1938. Yehuda, 11 years old, in the 6th class, isolated child (he has only a five-year-old sister at home). The boy was sent to the clinic by his teacher Mr Lipetz. The teacher complains about the boy’s carelessness when learning and particularly his explosive nature; during outbursts of rage he does not shrink even from destructive acts. The teacher also writes about “nervous fits” which he witnessed in the child. The mother also complains that the boy does no homework, disobeys his parents, performs acts of defiance and teases his little sister at home no end. The mother herself attests that when she once went to the school, she saw with her own eyes her son heavily beat one of his schoolmates. She also mentioned, quite in passing, that the boy reads a lot.
We cite below the story that this erethic boy wrote using the restricted storytelling method on the same topic given to the apathetic boy. In comparison with the short, content-lacking story of the first boy which we gave earlier, the colourful, adventurous story of the second boy appears particularly striking. For the sake of brevity, we deliver below only the first half of the story:
A boy went walking in the field and lost his way.
After coming home from school, the boy left his house in the city of Tiberias and directed his steps towards Lake Kineret, as he was accustomed to spend the majority of his time there. He strolled along the shore of the lake and a determination arose in him to finally pay a visit to his schoolmate who lived in a mountain village. He thought he would need a few hours to make his way there and back again and so did not think it necessary to take provisions of food or drink with him on his journey or to inform his parents of his intention. The path that led to the village was narrow and tortuous like all the paths around there, and as the boy came to a fork in the road he forgot his friend’s directions and, instead of turning right, he turned left and continued down the new path. After half an hour, he began to fear that he had gone the wrong way, yet he could not turn around as it was close to evening and he wanted to reach an inhabited area. He could not remain in the mountains overnight. He quickened his steps and saw with fright that the light on the mountains was heralding the approach of night. An hour passed and he knew not which way to turn and as the tears began to glisten in his eyes, he suddenly saw a few lights moving at the foot of the mountain. He summoned his remaining strength and arrived, breathless, at an encampment of Bedouins who had pitched their tents there. The Bedouins gazed on him in astonishment and had no idea what to do with him. At first they wanted to leave him to fend for himself somewhere in the mountains but then they decided out of compassion to take him with them and to then hand him over in an area where Jews lived to someone who would take him in. The Bedouins gave him food and camel milk to drink and pointed him towards a few sheepskins for sleeping. Jakob drifted off to sleep amidst thoughts of his hasty deed and the sorrow of his parents and their fear when they saw he had not come home. The next morning, he was awoken by the bites of mosquitoes and pesky flies and as he saw the walls of the tent over his head …
(The story ends with the Bedouins taking the boy, after several adventures, to the banks of the Jordan where they hand him over to fishers who bring him back to his parents’ house.)
According to Schneersohn’s report, both of these children were successfully rehabilitated, to the joy of Schneersohn, their teachers and their parents. No mention is made of the children’s own views on the matter.
Charlotte Simmonds is an autistic Wellington writer, translator and PhD student (at least till the end of this year), studying the history of European research into autistic syndromes and autism-like conditions. She reads in several languages for 8-16 hours a day but only speaks in English.
- Fischel Schneersohn (b. ca. 1885-88, d. 1958) is a German transliteration. A non-exhaustive list of possible spellings can be found here: http://id.loc.gov/authorities/names/nr94015893.html
- Shneerson’s report is “Die Lesesucht bei Kindern”, published in three parts in the Swiss journal Zeitschrift für Kinderpsychiatrie. 1952. Volume 19 (issues 4-6), pages 150-163, 190-198, 205-210.