Born in a Russian town outside the “Pale of Settlement,” Mirra Burovsky was drawn into the epicenter of Jewish ferment by her second marriage to the liberal journalist Boris Khariton. An affair with the playwright Osip Dymow helped her realize her theatrical aspirations but ended in a shootout, which inspired Dymow’s best-known play. After starring in Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater, an anti-Semitic backlash and failing health sent her into exile and the arms of Max Eitingon, an early follower of Sigmund Freud and financial sponsor of the psychoanalytic movement. They hosted a salon in Berlin (and later in Jerusalem) that catered to expatriate Russians, leading to charges of collaboration with Soviet intelligence—which may have been motivated by clandestine links with Mirra’s son Yuli Khariton, “father of the Soviet atomic bomb.”
An aspiring young woman from a Russian frontier town flees two marriages
Mirra (Miriam) Burovsky was born in 1877 in the south Russian frontier town of Ekaterinodar, far outside the Pale of Settlement to which most Jews were limited by the tsarist regime; her parents may have been exempt as descendants of conscript soldiers. There were few Jews there and no community institutions, so the three Burovsky sisters attended the local girls’ gymnasium, where Mirra was exposed to ideas and trends then sweeping Russian society and culture – including the concept that marriage should be based on love.
Shortly after graduating (with mediocre grades), Mirra married—or was married off to— a scion of the Ukraine-based Brodsky dynasty of sugar magnates and philanthropists. They had a son, Viktor, who remained with his father when Mirra left him.
Mirra next married a young widower, Boris Khariton, a law graduate who turned to journalism. They moved to St. Petersburg, where Boris eventually became managing editor of Rech’, the organ of the liberal Constitutional-Democratic Party, whose exposes of Tsarist excesses brought him multiple prison terms. Prominent in Jewish and Zionist circles, Khariton was connected to the scholars and activists associated with the ideologue and essayist Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginzberg). Mirra was thus drawn into the epicenter of both Russian and Jewish political and cultural ferment. Her commitment to these causes was exemplified by her decision, in 1904, to name her second son Yuli, after the historian and Zionist-Congress delegate Yuli Gessen.
A brilliant but brief and scandalous theatrical career
Mirra also found in St. Petersburg an opportunity to realize her aspiration to a theatrical career, assisted by another new arrival in the capital, the rising writer and playwright Osip Dymov (Yosef Perlman). Mirra was so taken by the heroine of Dymov’s story Lydia Birens that she adopted the stage name Mirra Birens when she first appeared in summer theaters in the resorts around the city. Though she had no professional training, she won positive reviews even in shows that were otherwise panned. As one critic wrote, the petite, vivacious Mirra was “endowed with rare qualities for playing 'brats' – in brief, for comic ingénue roles," and she advanced to metropolitan stages in plays by Dymov. Returning from one of his jail terms in 1907, Khariton found widespread rumors that his wife and the dramatist were lovers. He surprised them in a railroad car and fired four shots at Dymov. No one was hurt, but the scandal echoed throughout Russia. Dymov fled to Berlin, where he wrote Nju, a stylistically innovative and highly successful play about the affair that is considered his masterpiece.
Mirra’s marriage was ruined. She dropped out of sight and may have undergone an abortion, then illegal in Russia. Then she—again—left her husband and son and moved to Moscow, where as a Jew she could reside only if employed by a recognized company. She worked first with the Imperial Maly Theater and then the celebrated Moscow Art Theater of Konstantin Stanislavsky. There, in 1908-1909, she starred in the world premiere of the theater’s greatest hit and perennial staple, Maurice Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird. Mirra was the first Jewish actress to overcome legal and social barriers to play a leading role on the mainstream Russian stage.
Over 30 years old, Mirra was getting old for her preferred roles, and she landed in court for tampering with her papers to conceal her age. On top of an anti-Semitic crackdown that banned Jewish actors from Moscow, she was afflicted with lung disease and depression that forced her to seek recuperation at European sanatoria—and prompted a mutual friend to introduce her to a fresh medical school graduate in Zurich, Max Eitingon.
A fiercely independent exception among the wives of Freud’s followers
Four years younger than Mirra, Max had been born into a fur-trading family in Mohilev, Russia. After his father was expelled from Moscow in the anti-Semitic crackdown of 1891, the family emigrated to Leipzig, Germany. The ordeal left eleven-year-old Max shy, inhibited, and stuttering. He never completed high school but gradually established his academic credentials through five universities and, as he put it, “a decade of neuroses.” In 1907, Max discovered psychoanalysis as Sigmund Freud’s first follower from outside Austria, and he became his unswerving loyalist and financial sponsor. Although Max himself was the son of an Orthodox Eastern European family, Mirra was “not another Jewess from the Pale of Settlement,” as he wrote in one of hundreds of love letters, but a refreshing and exciting woman of the world. She was initially unimpressed by “this ordinary Jew.” But by 1912 theirs was a passionate romance, and Max scheduled their marriage as soon as civil law and halakhah permitted, after a proxy divorce from Boris was arranged. Max opened a psychoanalytic practice in Berlin and indulged Mirra with a well-appointed apartment, adorned with her theatrical memorabilia and bankrolled by his family wealth.
Max exhibited profound concern and affection for Mirra’s sons, despite his anguish when they could not have children together. He offered to bring Viktor, a promising artist living with his father in Baku, for professional training, but advised that the boy complete high school in Russia first. The outbreak of World War I scotched this plan. Max was recruited as a military physician in the Austrian Army and posted to field hospitals on the Hungarian front against Russia. Mirra, whose parents, sisters, and sons were on the other side, volunteered to serve alongside Max as a nurse. She was the only wife in Freud’s circle to do so, belying her subsequent portrayal in Freudian literature as pampered, indolent, and shallow. Her moving war diary, recently discovered in Jerusalem, bespeaks profound empathy for her soldier-patients from both armies, as well as their mothers.
Viktor disappeared during the war, the Russian Revolution, or the subsequent civil war, but Mirra’s younger son Yuli survived and prospered in the USSR, even though his father was arrested and exiled by the Soviets.
A glamorous hostess in Berlin amid charges of Soviet espionage
After Max’s family’s firm secured a lucrative near-monopoly on Soviet fur exports, he became the psychoanalytic movement’s main financial sponsor in the 1920s and a favorite of Freud, who appointed him to the movement’s “Secret Committee.” In Berlin, where Eitingon endowed the first psychoanalytic institute and free clinic, his resplendent home—designed by Mirra and Freud’s son Ernst—became a glittering salon where Mirra held posh soirées, mainly for Russian emigrés and guests from the Soviet Union. After Max’s efforts to get her into the German theater failed, she impressed her guests with readings of Russian literature. “Nobody who ever heard her read Russian verse or prose could fail to realize,” wrote their friend, the author Arnold Zweig, how “with wonderful intuition she divined the poet’s meaning, and by no means only in the drama for which she had retained the easy interpretation of congeniality since her youth on the stage.”
Mirra was instrumental in channeling funds toward her former stage colleagues from Russia, when they passed through Berlin. Among her protegés were expatriate Russian folk singer Nadezhda Plevitskaya and her husband Nikolay Skoblin, a former “white” general, both of whom were recruited by Soviet intelligence during one of their frequent stays at “Hotel Eitingon.” Plevitskaya dedicated a volume of her memoirs to Mirra, who undertook their translation into German. The Eitingons’ subsequent implication in a Soviet espionage scandal around the Skoblins was immortalized by another admirer of Plevitskaya in Berlin, Vladimir Nabokov, in his novella The Assistant Producer.
Protecting a son’s survival and career in Stalin’s USSR
Mirra’s son Yuli, who had excelled in physics in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), also visited. Between 1926 and 1928, he was even allowed by the Soviet authorities to study for his PhD at Cambridge, where Max supported him financially. But Yuli’s mother and stepfather so assiduously concealed his visits with them in Berlin on the way to England and back that they came to light only after Yuli died in 1996. After his return to the USSR, and despite a family profile that doomed many with such backgrounds during Stalin’s purges, Yuli progressed rapidly in the Soviet scientific and security establishment.
This adds a noble motive for the services that Max and Mirra evidently did perform for the Soviets, as charged in a long-running controversy. The charges originally rested on the Eitingon family firm’s commercial links with the Soviet Union and the identity of a cousin, Naum Eitingon, as a general of Soviet intelligence who was, among other exploits, responsible for the assassination of Leon Trotsky. But Yuli’s subsequent career indicates that Mirra and Max were also protecting him in what was effectively ransom for the safety of a hostage. Under the personal patronage of secret-police chief Lavrenty Beria, Yuli was put in charge of developing nuclear weapons and spent the following 50 years in a secret, closed city as scientific head of the project, revered as “Father of the Soviet Atom Bomb.”
Soon after the Nazis came to power in 1933, they ousted Max Eitingon from his psychoanalytic positions. Against Freud’s wishes, he decided to leave Germany for Palestine, with Mirra’s enthusiastic approval.
Cultural contributions in mandatory Palestine
Settling in Jerusalem, the Eitingons made their mark on cultural life. In addition to Max’s establishment of a psychoanalytic institute, clinic, and society on the Berlin model, he singlehandedly underwrote the Bezalel Museum of Jewish Art through a ten-year crisis, becoming its president for life, with Mirra as an active adviser. On her frequent trips to Europe to look after her Paris-based sister who was increasingly ill, she found time to buy and ship art works to Bezalel. She reconnected with old colleagues who had founded the Hebrew theater Habimah, donating books to the troupe’s library and subscribing with Max to the drive for constructing its hall in Tel Aviv. She helped to publish in Hebrew her mentor Stanislavsky’s memoirs, which became a bestseller. The Eitingons’ circle of friends included such literary luminaries as Elsa Lasker-Schüler and S.J. Agnon, whose wife Esther was a patient of Max’s. Their library competed for prestige as Jerusalem’s finest private collection. Max volunteered his psychiatric services for Youth Aliyah, after he was connected with Henrietta Szold through Irma Lindheim, the widow of an Eitingon family business associate; Szold became a friend of and advocate for Max and Mirra.
The Eitingons appear to have been used as a channel for Soviet money to the Palestine Communist Party. But the eruption of the Plevitskaya affair just after they ended a Paris visit in 1937, and her naming Max as her benefactor, may have ended his usefulness as a collaborator, and his financial state declined rapidly while trying to keep up appearances. After the German attack on the USSR in 1941, the Soviet sympathizer Zweig—whom the Eitingons had supported after he too left Germany for Palestine—recruited Max to lead the Jerusalem branch of “V[ictory] League to aid Soviet Russia’s struggle against fascism.” Zweig would portray both Max and Mirra in Traum ist Teuer (dreams are costly), his roman à clef set in wartime Palestine.
When Max died in 1943, Mirra was left almost destitute, and she was soon evicted from the home he had built but did not own. She was saved from penury by Princess Marie Bonaparte, an old friend and psychoanalytic colleague of Max, who bought his library. This enabled Mirra in 1947 to make a final trip to Paris, where her sister had survived the Nazi occupation but was already beyond treatment. Mirra booked passage back to Palestine, though she no longer had a home or family there. But she died a few days before the ship sailed at the end of September. Her burial alongside Max on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives was one of the last funerals there before it was cut off by the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence.
Dimow, Osip. Vos Ikh Gedenk (Yiddish: What I remember). New York: CYCO, 1944.
Ginor, Isabella and Gideon Remez. “Her Son, the Atomic Scientist: Mirra Birens, Yuli Khariton, and Max Eitingon’s services for the Soviets.” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 11:1 (2012): 39-59.
Ginor, Isabella and Gideon Remez. “Atomic Bombshell: New research uncovers a link between Freud’s inner circle and the Soviet atomic bomb.” Tablet, July 16, 2012, https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/105954/atomic-bombshell.
Ginor, Isabella and Gideon Remez. “‘Meine Mirra, meine Welt’: Mirra Birens-Eitingon als Schlüssel zur Persönlichkeit ihres Mannes Max Eitingon” (German: “’My Mirra, my World’: Mirra Birens-Eitingon as a Key to Her Husband Max Eitingon’s Persona,. Luzifer-Amor 28:1 (2015).
Ginor, Isabella and Gideon Remez. “Gipotezy stanovyatsya vyvodami: novoye o Makse Eitingone i ego svyazyakh s Sovetskim Soyuzom,” (Russian: “Hypotheses become conclusions: New findings about Max Eitingon and his links with the Soviet Union”). Neprikosnovenny Zapas (Moscow), #91, May 2013. http://www.nlobooks.ru/node/4016
Jordan, Pamela A. Stalin's Singing Spy: The Life and Exile of Nadezhda Plevitskaya. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
Khariton, Yuli B. “Iz biograficheskikh zapisey Yu. B. Kharitona (1978–1979 gody)” (Russian: from the autobiographical notes of Yu. B. Khariton). In Yuli Borisovich Khariton, edited by V. I. Goldansky, 2nd ed., Moscow: Nauka, 2005, pp. 14-37.
Mikhailova, M. V. “Zhizn’ dramy i drama zhizni: Aktrisa Mirra Birens––prototip p’es
O. Dymova ‘Dolg’ i ‘Nyu.’” (Russian: The life of drama and the drama of life: the actress Mirra Birens, prototype for for O. Dymov’s Dolg and Nyu). In Serebryanyi vek” v Krymu, edited by T. N. Zhukovskaya and E. A. Kallo. Moscow: Dom-Muzey Mariny Tsvetayevoy, 2005, pp. 26–45.
Mikhailova, M. V. “Mirra Yakovlevna Birens–-aktrisa peterburgskikh i moskovskikh teatrov” (Russian: Mirra Yakovlevna Birens–-actress in St. Petersburg and Moscow theaters). In Yuli Borisovich Khariton, edited by V. I. Goldansky, 2nd ed. Moscow: Nauka, 2005, pp. 455–70.
Nabokov, Vladimir V. “The Assistant Producer.” In Nabokov’s Dozen: A Collection of 13 Stories. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1958, pp. 59-77.
Wilmers, Mary-Kay, The Eitingons: A Twentieth-Centory Story. London: Faber and Faber, 2009
Zweig, Arnold. “Mira Eitingon: In Memoriam.” The Palestine Post, October 10, 1947, p. 4.
Zweig, Arnold. Traum ist teuer (German: Dreaming is costly). Berlin: Aufbau-verlag, 1964.