Stefi Pedersen played a significant role in the establishment of psychoanalysis in Sweden. She was also one of the first to highlight issues of alienation and was ahead of her time with regard to the particular needs of traumatised refugees and others who had suffered trauma as a result of war, especially children.
Stefi Pedersen was born in Berlin to a culturally assimilated Jewish family. There are indications that she was baptised and thus converted to Catholicism. At this time it was not unusual for German Jews who viewed themselves as non-religious to convert. Following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 Stefi Pedersen fled to Prague and then on to Norway. She settled in Norway, where she became a Norwegian citizen and in 1942 she gained her Master of Arts in the humanities and psychology. After the Nazi invasion of Norway she fled across the mountains to Sweden. She and those she fled with also helped a group of Jewish children newly arrived in Norway from Austria to flee a second time. Stefi Pedersen settled in Stockholm and remained there until her death. She was married briefly, but divorced in 1939. She never re-married and as far as is known she did not live with a partner after her divorce. Those who knew Stefi Pedersen described her work, colleagues and patients as a surrogate family to her.
From 1930 to 1932 Stefi Pedersen trained under Otto Fenichel’s supervision at Berlin’s psychoanalytical association. She continued her career in Oslo with Trygve Braatøy as her mentor. Once in Sweden she carried on with her analytical training and in 1955 formally became a member of the Swedish psychoanalytical association. She was an early example of a non-medically trained person who worked with psychoanalysis and early clinical psychology and psychotherapy in Sweden. International contacts were vital to Stefi Pedersen and in her role as the scientific secretary of the Swedish psychoanalytical association she invited international psychoanalysts to give lectures.
At the time Stefi Pedersen was one of relatively few Swedish psychoanalysts who published in established international journals. She also wrote popular science articles, for newspapers such as the Norwegian Arbeiderbladet and the socialist Tiden. She had become an enthusiast of socialist ideas from an early point in her life. In 1958 she worked in Cuba, where she gave lectures, worked as a clinician and tried to establish a psychoanalytical association. She was appointed educational analyst for the Swedish psychoanalytical association. This was a remarkable appointment as Stefi Pedersen lacked medical training and at the time it was unusual for non-medics to be members of the association. The psychoanalyst and author Else-Britt Kjellqvist has asserted that Stefi Pedersen was as much a person of the cultural elite as she was a clinician.
Stefi Pedersen lectured at various universities in Norway and Sweden and also taught at the Psychotherapy Centre and Sankt Lukas foundation, which offers training for psychotherapists. Social engagement and responsibility were important to Stefi Pedersen, and it is reasonable to assume that her own experiences of persecution, flight and alienation lay behind this engagement. She wrote on human rights and worked for and with refugees and people who in various ways were marginalised and living “on the fringes”. She also worked with severely traumatised people through UNESCO. Further, she lobbied for humane reception of refugees and tirelessly highlighted the considerable needs of children living in poverty. Stefi Pedersen has emphasized the importance of early verbal expression for children and how stories can help them to manage the fear that always arises when dealing with the world. Stefi Pedersen pointed out that stories allows that we are afraid of to be confronted and processed, and she asserted that children must understand their anxiety, not be protected from it. She also expressed deep respect for the sometimes magical means humans employ to conquer fear. In the essay “Flykt och verklighet. Några mentalhygieniska iakttagelser om emigration”, written in 1945, she pointed out that by definition flight is a journey into nothingness and that people who are fleeing can demonstrate depersonalization and the inability to remember both their own history and factual knowledge. The trauma tends to be experienced as though constantly repeating itself. In this way Stefi Pedersen heralded knowledge of post-traumatic reactions, which later came to take on a central focus within research and clinical activity regarding people with traumatic flight and war experiences. Stefi Pedersen died in 1980.