Isca Salzberger-Wittenberg (born 1923) is a Consultant Psychoanalytic Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist who worked at the Tavistock Clinic for twenty-five years and was its Vice-Chairman for ten years. She was a Senior Tutor in the clinical training of child psychotherapists and head of child psychotherapy in the Adolescent Department. She later also trained as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist with adults.

Isca Wittenberg was born on 9 April 1923 in Frankfurt am Main. Her father, Dr. Georg Salzberger, was one of the liberal’ rabbis of Frankfurt (and had been a military chaplain during WWI). The household Isca grew up in was quite cosmopolitan, often hosting literary salons frequented by notable philosophers and thinkers.

Isca was nine years old when Hitler came to power. Prominent Jewish people lost their jobs, books by Jewish authors were destroyed, persecution increased year on year. Jewish children were excluded from schools. As a child she learned to keep her mouth shut in the street in case someone spat at her.

As a rabbi, her father Georg felt that it was necessary to stay to look after his congregation. Isca’s family had a particularly traumatic time. On one occasion Nazi youth broke into their flat during the night and the family were forced to throw all their Hebrew books out of the window.

Speaking of her experiences in Germany Isca said, “We had a centre for Jewish youth right next to us which had huge glass windows. In ‘38 around the time of Kristallnacht that was all smashed up. My parents, they’d gone to try [to] send us children off, to get papers. They were away, but we were next door when this home was completely smashed up. We were sitting – all three of us – anxiously, while this was going on. And my middle sister who was the calm one said, ‘Let us knit or crochet or do things while this is going on.’ She thought to try to calm us down until our parents came back again.”

On Kristallnacht itself her father was called early in the morning to witness the burning of his synagogue. After this many Jewish men from her town started vanishing and were taken to concentration camps. Each day Isca would watch for the postman, hoping he was not carrying a small wooden box, which is how the ashes of the deceased were delivered to their families.

Isca’s father was taken to Dachau, but her mother found out that if she could get a visa that they were leaving Germany he could be let out. She contacted friends from all over the world and was sent a job offer for Los Angeles. She took it to the Gestapo and a week later her father returned home, hardly recognisable and suffering from double pneumonia. They had to wait four months to get a temporary visa to England and during that time her father had to report to the Gestapo each week. He was shouted at and threatened with being sent back to Dachau.

Isca’s parents 1937

Later, reflecting on the period she said, “I could not understand what had happened, how it could turn to hatred and persecution. And I wanted to know what it is in people, that turns their minds. How people can, from being ordinary human beings, become so cruel. So outrageous… outrageous and commit such crimes.”

Laura, Ruth and Isca Wittenberg

Isca and maternal grand parents in Frankfurt

Isca aged 10½

Aged 16, Isca became a refugee as on Easter Monday April 1939 she and her family escaped to England, taking nothing but a suitcase and ten shillings each. Her father became the first rabbi of the ‘New Liberal Jewish Congregation’ (later Belsize Square Synagogue). During the war the family lived in Hemel Hampstead. In 1940 Isca was sent by the committee dealing with Jewish refugees to Yorkshire to study as a children’s nurse and then she took a job at a war-time nursery in Hemel Hempstead. In 1943 Isca was sponsored by the Jewish Aid committee to study Social Sciences at Birmingham University, where she lived in a Quaker community, for the first time feeling welcomed and not alien. During the 1950s Isca joined the Tavistock Child Psychotherapy course established in 1948 by John Bowlby and Esther Bick, and she later rejoined the clinic in 1965 as a senior staff member.

Isca Wittenberg 1940

Her special interests as a teacher built on two features, her devotion to Infant Observation, which she taught for many years, and her conviction that the use of group process in small and large group teaching greatly enriched the learning of group members. Throughout her career as a senior trainer,  she energetically encouraged the use of  attention to the emotional life and atmosphere of the group alongside attention to the object of study.  

Building on the Introductory Group Relations-based event attended by all new students each September, she created a parallel experiential ‘leaving event’ for trainees when their courses ended.

In the early 1970s she took on the leadership of a hugely successful part-time course for teachers at all levels of education to help them understand the emotional aspects of teacher/pupil relationships and to think about the systems within which they worked. This work led to an important book opening up the field of counselling aspects of education in the same way that her earlier influential book introducing psychoanalytic ideas to social workers had done. Her final book returned to her long term fascination with the vital meaning of beginnings and endings in human life.

As vice-chair of the Professional Committee, she played a lively part in the direction of the clinic’s development and wider place in the community, and in its social life, including staff pantomimes. Within the adolescent department she was a major figure, interested in new clinical services, and supervising generations of psychiatrists as well as child psychotherapists.

She has lectured and run seminars in Austria, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the USA and run workshops in Australia and South Africa. She held temporary professorships at Turin and Klagenfurt University and is a life-long honorary senior staff member of the Tavistock.

She has published articles in professional journals, contributed chapters to a number of psychoanalytic books and written three books: Psychoanalytic Insight and Relationships, The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching and Experiencing Endings and Beginnings.

Author: Glenn Gossling 2020