Social worker who introduced family therapy in Germany
Elsa Leichter was a social worker who was trained both in Austria and the United States and practiced her profession on both continents. She lived and worked mostly in New York after her emigration, but frequently traveled to Europe after World War II to teach and give lectures. Leichter’s specialty in social work was family therapy, which she helped shape and promote on both sides of the Atlantic.
Elsa Leichter was born Elsa Schweiger in Vienna in 1905 to Jewish parents who had recently emigrated from Eastern Europe. She studied medicine and, at the same time, attended the academy of social work in Vienna. As a member of Viennese socialist youth movements, her political convictions shaped her choice of occupation. Since social work was considered one of the means for reforming society, she took a job as a social worker for the City of Vienna’s youth welfare service. She held this position from 1926 until 1938. After Germany’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, she lost her job as did all her Jewish co-workers.
Elsa Leichter obtained a visa to move to the United States. In 1939, she gained her first experience with American social work in a settlement house in Cleveland, Ohio. Shortly thereafter she started her American social work training at Case Western Reserve University, which had a strong focus on psychoanalytic approaches to social work. In 1943, she moved to New York City and started working for the Jewish Family Service. She married Otto Leichter, a fellow exile and prominent Austrian social democrat.
In her work, she exhibited great flexibility by combining her European and American training and experience and adapting it to the specific needs of her clients. For example, she introduced family therapy sessions in Germany in the 1970s, for which her status as an émigré was crucial. On the one hand, she was a German native speaker, but on the other hand she was considered American, which provided the necessary distance for probing into sensitive areas, such as the national socialist experience in her clients’ families.