Prof Peter Singer, born safely in Australia straight after the 1939-1945 war, wanted to get to know his late grandfather, David Oppenheim. This was a man who died in the war in 1943, before he could reach a safe place. Luckily for Singer, heaps of documents survived. His aunt, Doris Liffman, had studied some of the letter-based material years earlier for her university degree.
These days I ask my students in Melbourne to read Pushing Time Away ( Ecco Publications, 2003), but not because they are necessarily sympathetic to Peter Singer’s task in discovering his own family history. Rather I want them to understand Viennese Jewish intellectual life from the late 19th century until 1933.
A new golden age of building came to Vienna, based on the gracious Ringstrasse (1860-90): all the city’s great institutions were located there. Different from the churches and imperial buildings which were already present in central Vienna, the new Ringstrasse developments were buildings which stressed secular culture, education and the new constitutional government, including the Parliament, Rathaus, galleries and University. But above all, it was a place for café society to parade and discuss.
Vienna was hopping and jumping in this period, creating world leaders in medicine, psychiatry, chemistry, physics, design, architecture, painting, music, politics, publishing, philosophy and every other intellectual field. The Jewish community of Vienna was largely secular, highly educated and extremely motivated to succeed intellectually.
At the end of the century, 10% of the total population of Vienna were Jews, while c30% of the Gymnasium students were Jewish. 60% of Vienna’s physicians were Jewish and more than 60% of Vienna's lawyers were Jewish.
In Oppenheim, Singer found a well placed man to witness Vienna’s Golden Age. Oppenheim “only” taught classical languages in a high-class school (Akademisches Gymansium), so he was not in the centre of Vienna’s intellectual ferment at work. But he moved to the centre in everything he did. Oppenheim's life was lived in cosmopolitan Vienna and he could not help contemplating and writing about many of the significant issues that crossed his fertile mind. Singer may have been rescuing his grandfather’s memory, but the reader uses Oppenheim’s connections to link up with Freud, Adler and the other members of their group.
I am uncertain what to make of Singer’s grandmother, Amalie Pollack Oppenheim. She was no intellectual slouch herself, having enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1899; she was only the 39th woman to graduate from that august institution ever. But her career went nowhere, so one is left to guess that her role was a] raising healthy, happy, educated children and b] supporting her husband in his research, writing and publications. I was quite interested in the complexities of David’s and Amalie’s relationship, but I would have loved to have known what contributions to learning Amalie made, outside the home. At least Amalie had the huge good luck and the strength to survive the camps, and to reach freedom in Australia.
Historical researchers have to thank families who kept copies of all the letters they wrote and received. Those families have enormous foresight. And even had David Oppenheim been born in Ballarat or Leeds, his story would have been worth telling. But Pushing Time Away focused on the critical moments in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s transition from the late 19th century glory days and learning, to the arrival of Nazism and despair. The book’s subtitle, The Tragedy of Jewish Vienna, should have been changed to The Great Successes and Unthinkable Tragedy of Jewish Vienna. Timing is indeed everything.