Hélène Eliat (van de Velde) (1894-1989), German-American writer and psychologist

Lotte Jacobi, Hélène Eliat Getting into a Car, Moscow, Fall 1932

The nature of Lotte Jacobi’s relationship to Hélène Eliat is unclear, but Jacobi recorded in her Daybook that she took photographs of her in Moscow on October 9, 10, and 12, 1932, and at least a dozen of these photographs survive. As Maria Gough has pointed out, it is possible that this striking, stylish Jewish woman was on the same VOKS tour in October 1932 that took Jacobi through Moscow (Gough 92). It is also possible that they knew each other in Berlin prior to Jacobi’s trip to the USSR, as their circles of writers, artists, and politicians could easily have overlapped. A writer for Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (BIZ), Eliat was 38 and married to a wealthy banker when she and Jacobi were together in Moscow. Subsequently, Eliat led an extraordinary life that including living in Paris in the 1930s, incarceration in a Vichy labor camp in France, an escape over the Pyrenees, five months as an exile in Cuba, and a career as a psychotherapist in New York City.

Lotte Jacobi, Hélène Eliat Taking a Photo on a Street in Moscow, Fall 1932

Eliat’s daughter France-Hélène described the difficulty in piecing together her mother's life. “No one that I have met has been able to give me a complete history. She seems to have recreated herself constantly” (Hinze 57). However, Klaus-Peter Hinze has reconstructed some of the details of her biography. Caught in the turmoil of mid-twentieth century Europe, Eliat needed to be a chameleon to survive. Born in Berlin as Helene Clavier, she came from a privileged background, as her father was a successful businessman. She wanted to study psychology, but this was not possible during the First World War. After the war, a number of Freud’s followers lived in Berlin, including Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs, with whom Eliat possibly studied (“Helene E. van de Velde”), making it a center for the new field of psychoanalysis. However, Eliat became a writer instead, contributing articles to German newspapers and the new mass media illustrated magazine, Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung.

Lotte Jacobi,Hélène Eliat in Front of a Large Poster for the Soviet Navy, Moscow, Fall 1932. The poster reads: “From backward water transportation to a powerful Soviet Navy.”

In the 1920s, Hélène married the bank director Ernest Eliat, and in 1932 or ‘33 they left Nazi Germany and moved to Paris where Ernst was able to work. In both Berlin and Paris, the Eliats’ home was a place that welcomed artists, writers, and scientists, some of whom stayed with them. Their friends in Berlin included the Austrian writer Ernst Weiss, whose novels were influenced by Sigmund Freud, and the great German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, while in Paris they knew avant-garde figures, such as the French surrealist writer, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau and the French Nobel-prize winning writer André Gide (Hinze 58). Around 1924, Ernst Eliat commissioned a house (unbuilt) by Mies van der Rohe in Potsdam-Nedlitz, Germany, on the Weisser See (White Sea), about 100 miles southwest of Berlin (Cohen 46, MoMA).

Lotte Jacobi, Hélène Eliat Taking a Photo in Red Square, Moscow, Fall 1932

In 1940, Eliat was one of thousands of German Jews, determined to be “enemy aliens,” who were sent to a women’s camp run for the Nazis by the Vichy government in Gurs, 500 miles southwest of Paris near the Spanish border. She was there for five months. By this time, she and her husband had separated (Hinze 58). She adopted an orphan girl, born in Lisbon, Portugal, whom she named France-Hélène Eliat (later Weindling) (Hinze 58; “France-Helene Weindling”). She fled across the Pyrenees to Spain and then Lisbon, before heading to New York City via a five-month stay in Cuba (Hinze 58).

Lotte Jacobi, Hélène Eliat Photographing in Moscow, Fall 1932

Yet, for the still-peripatetic Eliat, this first stay in New York was only temporary. In 1946, she returned to Paris to follow her original dream, to become a psychologist, studying at the Institut de Psychologie in Paris and then the Intitut für Angewandte Psychologie in Zurich. By 1953, she had settled permanently with her daughter in New York, where, now going by the name Hélène Eliat van de Velde, she opened a therapy practice in Washington Square, which according to Hinze, focused on the latest developments in Freudian psychology. When Hinze met her in New York in 1976—Eliat was then 80--he found her to be elegant, charming, and energetic, as well as still practicing (56, 57). During her life after Berlin, Eliat also wrote short stories and three novels, Sheba Visits Solomon (1932), She Would, and She Wouldn’t (1933), and The Arena of Love (1944). Hélène Eliat died in New York in 1989. 

Lotte Jacobi, Moscow police Officer Lighting a Cigarette for Hélène Eliat, Moscow, Fall 1932

Hélène Eliat (?), Lotte Jacobi on a Street Talking with Policemen, Moscow, Fall 1932

In some photographs, Jacobi captured Eliat taking her own photographs of tourist sites around Moscow (for Berliner Illustrirte Zeichnung?). It is also likely that Eliat then used Jacobi’s camera to take photographs of Jacobi; the existence of one photograph of Eliat with two police officers and another of Jacobi with the same two police officers is a good indication of this, as the negatives for both can been found today in the Jacobi Archive.

Contributor: Eleanor Hight

Works Cited:

“France-Helene Weindling Obituary.” Poughkeepsie Journal (Nov. 9, 2017), https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/poughkeepsiejournal/name/france-helene-weindling-obituary?id=17745917.

Gough, Maria. "Portrait Under Construction: Lotte Jacobi in Soviet Russia and Central Asia." October 173: 65-117.

“Helene E. van de Velde, 95, Psychologist,” Obituary, New York Times, February 21, 1989. https://www.nytimes.com/1989/02/21/obituaries/helene-van-de-velde-psychologist-dies-at-95.html.

Hinze, Klaus-Peter. “Helene Eliat van de Velde (1894-1989), Ernst Weiss' sehr gute Freundin.” Exil (Maintal, Germany), vol. 13, no. 1, 1993, pp. 56–61.

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Eliat House Project, Potsdam-Nedlitz, Germany, Perspective, 1925,” https://www.moma.org/collection/works/100362.