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 to read Pushing Time Away ( Ecco, 2003), but not because they are necessarily interested in Peter Singer’s task in discovering his own family history. Rather I want them to understand Viennese Jewish intellectual life from the late C19th until 1933.
with his grandparents' portraits
A new golden age of building came to Vienna, based on the gracious Ringstrasse which was created 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. These included the Parliament, Rathaus, galleries and University. But above all, it was a place for café society to parade and debate.
Vienna was hopping and jumping in this period, creating world leaders in medicine, psychiatry, chemistry, physics, design, music, architecture, painting, 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. Note that at the same time, c30% of the Akademisches Gymnasium students, 60% of Vienna’s physicians and more than 60% of Vienna's lawyers were Jewish. Ideas were in ferment and Vienna was a very cultivated city. The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1903-7) was a perfect example of integrated Viennese culture. The greatest patron of the Vienna Secession artists was Jewish businessman Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer (although this gorgeous painting by Gustav Klimt was stolen by the Nazis in 1941).
In Oppenheim, Singer found a well placed man to witness Vienna’s Golden Age. Oppenheim “only” taught classical languages in the high-class 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.
Inevitably Oppenheim was drawn into Sigmund Freud’s circle, where his literary and philological skills seemed to be much appreciated. This earned him a footnote in the 1911 edition of The Interpretation of Dreams (suppressed when Oppenheim threw in his lot with the “heretic” Alfred Adler).
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 ever graduate from that august institution. 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 Oppenheim’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 Nazi camps, and to reach freedom in Australia.
Neue Galerie, NY
Coffee house culture, c1905
Historical researchers have to thank families who kept copies of all the letters they wrote and received. Those families had enormous foresight! 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 C19th glory days and of learning, to the arrival of Nazism and despair.
In the early decades of C20th Vienna, the city's cultural influences were unsurpassed. So it was impossible that David and Amalie Oppenheim could have known that they had seen the decaying decades of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Could they have understood what the terrible Anschluss in March 1938, when Austria became an integrated part of Germany, revealed?
Andrew Riemer of the Sydney Morning Herald had believed such ideals were destroyed by the ideological fury of Nazism, the sign of Hitler's true triumph; that post-Holocaust, many Jews sloughed off the rich secular heritage their European ancestors evolved. So Riemer might have been wrong. Peter Singer clearly saw was the continuity between his grandfather's intellectual preferences and his own: a dedication to secular humanism that so many European Jews had espoused. The triumphant brilliant Jewish Viennese culture!
Therefore I suggest that Prof Singer's book subtitle, The Tragedy of Jewish Vienna, should be changed to The Great Successes and Unthinkable Tragedy of Jewish Vienna.