Erikson's mother, Karla Abrahamsen, came from a prominent Jewish family in Copenhagen, Denmark. She was married to Jewish stockbroker Valdemar Isidor Salomonsen, but had been estranged from him for several months at the time Erik was conceived. Little is known about Erik's biological father except that he was a Danish gentile. On discovering her pregnancy, Karla fled to Frankfurt, Germany, where Erik was born on June 15, 1902 and was given the surname Salomonsen.
Following Erik's birth, Karla trained to be a nurse and moved to Karlsruhe. In 1905 she married Erik's Jewish pediatrician, Theodor Homburger. In 1908, Erik Salomonsen's name was changed to Erik Homberger, and in 1911 Erik was officially adopted by his stepfather.
The development of identity seems to have been one of Erikson's greatest concerns in his own life as well as in his theory. During his childhood and early adulthood he was known as Erik Homberger, and his parents kept the details of his birth a secret. He was a tall, blond, blue-eyed boy who was raised in the Jewish religion. At temple school, the kids teased him for being a Nordic; at grammar school, they teased him for being Jewish.
At Das Humanistische Gymnasium his main interests were art, history and languages, but he lacked interest in school and graduated without academic distinction. After graduation, instead of attending medical school, as his stepfather had desired, he attended art school in Munich, but soon dropped out.
Uncertain about his vocation and his fit in society, Erikson began a lengthy period of roaming about Germany and Italy as a wandering artist with his childhood friend Peter Blos and others. During this period he continued to contend with questions about his father and competing ideas of ethnic, religious, and national identity.
Psychoanalytic experience and training
When Erikson was twenty-five, his friend Peter Blos invited him to Vienna to tutor art at the small Burlingham-Rosenfeld School for children whose affluent parents were undergoing psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud's daughter, Anna Freud.
Anna noticed Erikson's sensitivity to children at the school and encouraged him to study psychoanalysis at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, where prominent analysts August Aichhorn, Heinz Hartmann and Paul Federn were among those who supervised his theoretical studies. He specialized in child analysis and underwent a training analysis with Anna Freud. Helene Deutsch and Edward Bibring supervised his initial treatment of an adult.
Simultaneously he studied the Montessori method of education, which focused on child development and sexual stages.
In 1933 he received his diploma from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. This and his Montessori diploma were to be Erikson's only earned academic credentials for his life's work.