Early on the morning of May 6, 1856, Amalie Freud gave birth to her first child with her new husband, Jakob Freud. The baby, Sigismund Schlomo Freud, would eventually become one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the 20th century. Upon his birth, he was simply a healthy, undistinguished newborn in a middle-class Jewish family in the small town of Freiberg, Moravia.

At the time, Freiberg–now named Príbor and located in the Czech Republic–was an industrial town of about 5,000 people located in the Austro-Hungarian Empire approximately 150 miles northeast of Vienna. Jakob Freud's textile business in Freiberg had supported himself and his wife comfortably enough before Sigi's birth, but over the subsequent years it began to fail. This prompted the family's move to Leipzig in 1859 and then to Vienna in 1860. In the meantime, however, the family continued to grow.

Jakob Freud had had two grown children, Emmanuel and Philip, by a previous marriage. As a newborn, young Sigismund's was already an uncle: his half-brother's son John, born several years before Sigismund, was one of Sigismund's favorite playmates during the Freiberg years. Later, in the self-analysis he conducted in the late 1890s, Freud realized that his relationship with John had set the pattern for all of his later relationships with male friends. Freud's relationship with John was both friendly and confrontational, both loving and a little hateful. It was never clear who was supposed to be in charge: John was older and stronger, but Freud, as uncle, outranked him.

In October 1857, about a year and a half after Freud entered the world, Amalie gave birth to a second son, Julius. Freud's memories of being extremely jealous of Julius probably contributed to his theories about sibling rivalry. Julius died less than a year later, on April 15, 1958, and Freud himself suggested that this unexpected and tragic fulfillment of his wish–for the disappearance of the little brother who was monopolizing his mother's attention–was the source of some lingering guilt that pursued him throughout his life. In December of the same year another child was born: Anna, the Freuds' first daughter. Four more children, all of whom lived well into adulthood, were to follow.

Jakob and Amalie Freud had both been raised as Orthodox Jews, but they gave their children a relatively nonreligious upbringing. Freud was to become firmly atheistic later in life, but although he never failed to distance himself from the religious side of Judaism, he always remained true to secular Jewish culture. Prejudice against Jews was running strong in Austria in the 1850s and 1860s, but a loosening of legal restrictions against them meant that Jewish lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and academics were gaining increasingly important positions within Austrian society. In 1859, these loosened restrictions, and his failing textile business, convinced Jakob Freud to move his family to Vienna.

In October 1859, the family moved to Leipzig, where they stayed briefly before moving to Vienna in the spring of 1860. There, they lived in a small house in the Leopoldstadt, a mostly Jewish area of the city. In the course of the next six years, Freud's parents were kind enough to provide him with new playmates–and rivals. Regine Debora Freud (Rosa) was born in March 1860; Maria ("Mitzi") in March 1961; Esther Adolfine (Dolfi) in July 1962; Pauline Regine (Paula) in May 1864; and Alexander, Freud's only brother and frequent traveling companion, in April 1866. Despite the sudden crowding of the house, and of Freud's earlier fears of being replaced in his mother's affections by Julius, Freud remained the family favorite.

Freud's early schooling, like that of his siblings, took place at home under his mother's direction. His father, Jakob, contributed to his education as Freud grew older. Eventually, Freud entered the Sperl Gymnasium, a German grammar school, or high school, with a strong emphasis on Latin and Greek. Freud, always very serious and studious, was first in his class for seven years. His scholarly career was strongly encouraged by his parents: when the Freuds moved to a new house on the Kaiser Josefstrasse in 1875, Freud was the only one of the eight- member family to get his own room, and the only one to get a gas lamp for a light instead of candles. It speaks to Freud's singular focus on scholarship that he only got into debt once during his childhood– by spending too much on books.

Around the time of Freud's graduation from the Gymnasium, he began to use the name "Sigmund," which was the name he would use for the rest of his life. (His middle name, Schlomo, was never used even by his family.) In 1873, at the early age of seventeen, Freud entered the University of Vienna as a medical student. He had briefly considered a career in law, but found the allure of science–whetted, according to Freud, by an article by Goethe on nature–too strong to ignore. His interest in medical school came not from any desire to cure, although he was certainly happy to be engaged in work that might benefit humanity, but from a deep fascination with the image of the scientist as truth-seeker. Much later in life, in his Autobiography (1925), Freud would write that medicine had never been his passion, and that he was glad to have returned to the research that had initially drawn him into the field.

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