20 October 2020

John Kafka (1921-2020)

Tribute to John S. Kafka


With much sadness we share the news of the death of our senior colleague, teacher and dear friend Dr. John S. Kafka, who died from heart failure on October 13, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland, USA.  Born in Linz, Austria, in 1921, John Kafka was 99 and practiced as a psychoanalyst until recent weeks! His remarkable life was like a breathtaking journey, which included the direct witnessing of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime in his native Austria, a brief study of philology in France interrupted by World War II, fleeing Nazi occupied Europe in 1940, serving in U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946, studying psychology in the 1940's and 50's, doing a psychiatry residency at Yale University, followed by psychoanalytic training; and working with psychotic patients at the famous Chestnut Lodge together with renowned pioneers in the field including Frieda Fromm-Reichmann and Harold Searles.  John Kafka was a clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University’s School of Medicine, a supervising and training analyst at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute, a research consultant for the National Institute of Mental Health, and a board member of the Freud Archives at the Library of Congress in Washington.  

He leaves behind his wonderful wife Marian – a creative neuroscientist, who many of us remember well from our Schools.  Earlier this year John and Marian celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary!  

John’s overall and longstanding contribution to the development of psychoanalysis in Eastern Europe was really unforgettable and unprecedented. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, in 1988 John Kafka and Han Groen-Prakken were appointed as co-chairs of the IPA's East European Committee.  Sharing a strong belief that “Psychoanalysis  (neither clinical work, nor psychoanalytic training, nor psychoanalytic theory building) have ever existed and developed in an average expectable environment» (Kafka, 2004, p.1), John and Han put much of their efforts to co-ordinate and give shape to the enthusiastic and robust, but often chaotic and sometimes controversial initial activities in the  “East” in the late 1980's and early 1990's. They had, as John formulated it himself:

“to react against attempts to get us involved in any political power or "turf” issues, such as an IPA versus "Europe” competition. The fact that Han Groen-Prakken was also during some time president of the EPF and the first chair of the EPF’s East European Committee was a strong defense against possible divisiveness. Many decisions were taken in joint EPF - IPA Committee meetings… While welcoming the educational contributions from individuals and psychoanalytic societies, we also had to react against some competing attempts to "colonize" the East by psychoanalytic missionaries representing exclusive ideological or national psychoanalytic orientations (Kleinian, Ego-Psychological, French, German, etc.) Today most orientations are well represented in summer schools and seminars and East European candidates may well be exposed to a broader perspective than many candidates in the West (Kafka, 2004, p.2)

The task of setting up high-quality educational programs in the East:

“in the absence of training analysts and the presence of well-educated eager potential analytic candidates, many of whom had already become sophisticated connoisseurs of psychoanalysis,” - writes John – “presented us with the challenge of inventing an unconventional laboratory of psychoanalytic education that we had to sell as an experiment to the IPA and the EPF…  The implementation of these steps demanded a great amount of work from committees of the EPF, the IPA and East European colleagues. In brief, the steps were:

1) Rigorous evaluation of individuals on the basis of their knowledge and performance, and relative neglect of the usually specified pathways that led to their level of knowledge and functioning.

2) Organization of the shuttle and condensed training-analysis arrangements, partly in response to the fact that some who had their training in the West, chose to remain abroad (Kafka, p.3) <…>  

Over the years, ad hoc ways of operating evolved into guidelines and more or less flexible requirements and regulations. They formed the basis of the ever more clearly formulated standards and regulations of the Han Groen-Prakken Institute established to function as the educational institution wherever study groups do not yet exist” (Kafka, 2004, p.3).  

Looking back to those years today, we can really appreciate the caliber of John’s and Han’s wisdom and hard work which were essential for building the groundwork and establishing the main principles of such a stable and fruitful IPA-EPF cooperation in Eastern Europe, which has from 2002 been fulfilled by the PIEE (2002-20014) and by the EPI (from January 2015 till present.)  

As a result of those joint efforts, initiated and shaped by John Kafka, Han Groen-Prakken, Eero Rechardt, Paolo Fonda, Gilbert Diatkine and other colleagues, there are recognized Component and Provisional Societies and Study Groups in Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Serbia, Moscow, Romania, Croatia, Lithuania, Estonia-Latvia, Bulgaria and Ukraine, as well as 60 trainees and 17 Direct IPA members and pre-Study groups in the EPI regions in St.Petersburg, South of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Siberia and Kazakhstan.    

With great appreciation for John’s outstanding, generous contribution to the “East” in his various roles as an IPA representative, we will never forget him as a dedicated, highly-requested and inspiring teacher, keynote speaker and supervisor at dozens of our schools, seminars and conferences, where he was always so attentive to both students and colleagues.  We will remember him as a wonderful person and friend with a sharp and receptive mind, able to carefully listen to another point of view, but also to stand up and passionately defend ideas and principles he felt important.  We remember as well his help for people who needed his hand, and his spirited sense of humor. John was an elegant dancer, an inexhaustible swimmer and skier, a talented painter and a trilingual punster, and an avid lifelong fan of art, literature, cinema and fine food. We remember the papers and talks he gave to us at various schools and meetings with captivating ideas and titles; here just a couple of them: “When you die, you will miss me. Some thoughts and questions about narcissism”, “Have ever been bored in your dreams?”.  

At the last Summer School of the PIEE he attended (Budva, 2014), at the panel “Pain and Time” John presented a beautiful and really moving paper “From Despair to Poignance”.  Let’s listen to some of his words from that last meeting of the PIEE and the last time many of us saw John in-person:

“There are moments in a personal analysis that are remembered with great clarity.  These moments are thought of  as  nodal points even if the reasons for their importance are not clear.  One such moment in my own analysis occurred when, after a session in which I felt that a great emotional weight had been lifted off my shoulders, I had the absurd thought  “even living  and  dying  is not a question of life and death.”  I remember exactly where I was when I had this thought… I do not remember the content of the session in which I experienced this lifting of an emotional weight.  As I write this, I not only remember breathing more easily but also finding  myself breathing easier and more deeply now.   The world seemed brighter,  colors more vivid  and, when I focus on the memory, I experience even now an echo of that change and a widening of the world.  I realize that I am describing the lifting of depressive affect, but the reference to depression is too broad, too vague (Kafka, 2014, p.1)  <…>  

Over the years I have tried to understand the meaning of the specific words “even living and dying is not a question of life and death.”  The words have a fixity in my mind that resembles the fixity of  words in a dream (Kafka, 2014, p.2)   <…>  

Michael G. Flaherty, in his paper  “Time and the  Horizon of  Poignancy: Notes on Temporally Induced Sorrow”  differentiates  poignancy from other affective responses to loss.  He does so by assembling   “ ...  a ... formula for poignancy from a number of concrete instances in everyday life and literature.”  (Flaherty, 2012, p. 92)    ....  “We do not abruptly end a conversation or leave someone’s presence unless we are thoughtlessly or pointedly rude.  Ending one’s involvement with another person (even temporarily) is fraught with symbolic implications for mutual respect in interpersonal relations.  Will I ever see that person again?  Each moment is irretrievably lost, which makes it precious in our sight, its loss poignant precisely because we know our days are numbered.  “Farewell is the song Time sings,” writes Margaret Atwood (Atwood 2009, p. 365).  It is not an anxious tune but a poignant  one (Kafka, 2014, p.4).”

Yes, it's a poignant tune, John… And yes, you will be so much missed!


On behalf of the name of the Han Groen Prakken European Psychoanalytic Institute:

Igor M. Kadyrov, Christoph E. Walker, Endel Talvik, Gabor Szonyi, Joëlle Picard, Tomas Kajokas



Kafka, J.S. (2004)  Psychoanalysis Never Developed in an "Average Expectable Environment". Paper presented at the 1st “Psychoanalyst at Work Conference” of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Moscow, 7-9 May, 2004.  4p.    

Kafka, J.S. (2014) From Despair to Poignancy. Paper presented at the panel “Pain and Time”, PIEE Summer Seminar  “Psychic Retreat and Psychic Change”  Budva/Montenegro, 22-28 September, 2014, 9p.

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