My Grandfather and the Tragedy

Of Jewish Vienna

By Peter Singer

Ecco. 254 pp. $24.95

Theodor Gomperz, one of the great classicists of turn-of-the-century Vienna and a secular Jew, liked to think of his Jewish heritage as merely "un pieux souvenir de famille," a pious family memory. Peter Singer has written, in the best possible sense, a pious family memoir, about another Viennese classicist and secular Jew, his maternal grandfather, David Oppenheim.

It might at first glance seem an unwarranted distraction for Singer, one of the most renowned ethical philosophers around and a champion of the notion that animals have rights, to write a biographical account of an ancestor, a classics teacher at a Viennese high school. Yet, as should be plain to any reader of this touching, thoughtful and profound book, Singer's aim here as well is a deeply ethical one. As he says, to read his grandfather's work and to restore his memory is "to undo, in some infinitely small but still quite palpable way, a wrong done by the Holocaust." He adds, "I cannot entirely dismiss the feeling that by allowing David's writings to reach across to me, I am doing something for him."

Pushing Time Away is largely a biography, but it is also at times an intensely personal memoir of Singer's feelings about his family and its past, and about the tragedies and ironies that this past touched on. Although Singer is historically well informed, he does not attempt to provide a comprehensive accounting of his grandfather's life, the society in which he was raised or the philosophical and ideological context in which he worked; to paraphrase his grandfather's own distinctions, Singer is interested not in explaining David Oppenheim but in understanding him. There are thus long passages of personal reflection in which Singer compares his experiences with those of his ancestor and tries to identify with him, while always retaining the clarity and skepticism of the trained philosopher. He does this, by the way, in exquisitely lucid prose, and few books of this sort can have been as clearly and thus as beautifully written.

It also helps that the story that he has to tell is fascinating in its own right. David Oppenheim and his wife, Amalie, were both most worthy examples of the Jewish bourgeoisie that was at the heart of the modern cultural achievement of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Singer's early chapters concentrate on the couple's complex relationship, in which the fashionable contemporary theories about bisexuality play a prominent and intriguing role. Singer then describes Oppenheim's intellectual encounters with Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, and comments on the manuscript, Dreams in Folklore, that Oppenheim co-wrote with Freud and that was not published at the time because of his siding with Adler. There are chapters on Oppenheim's wartime experience, and then -- the heart of the book -- chapters on various aspects of his mature life during the interwar period. The book finishes with a most moving account of Oppenheim's inability to leave Austria, and his eventual death at Theresienstadt on Feb. 18, 1943, almost exactly 60 years to the day before this book's publication.

The picture that emerges is of an exceedingly intelligent, thoughtful, well-read and, above all, good man. Singer asks in his epilogue whether one can say that Oppenheim lived a good life, on classical lines. In those terms, given his fate, he clearly did not. Yet, and I think he is quite right in this, Singer asserts that in his own terms and those of his grandson, Oppenheim undoubtedly did live a very good life. An excellent teacher at his high school, he was revered by many of his pupils, including Friedrich Heer and Erwin Ringel, who are about as good as it gets for postwar Austrian intellectual life. His humaneness, his humanity and his humanism informed not only his family life but also his intellectual endeavors; he felt it his mission to discover "the secret of the human soul." His sheer dedication to "man, mankind and humanity" so impressed one SS member, Albert Massiczek, that the young Nazi completely changed his world view, eventually dedicating his life to the study of the Jewish humanism that he had seen in Oppenheim and his family and was later to see in the thinking of Karl Marx.

Just how Jewish was this humanism, though? Oppenheim was an atheist, did not abide by Jewish ritual laws (unlike his wife) and was an expert in Greek and Roman rather than Hebrew civilization. He was also fervently anti-Zionist, believing that this movement contradicted his universalist values. So what was there explicitly Jewish in any of his work, thought or life, apart from his tragic fate as a victim of the Holocaust? Singer approaches this question only indirectly, but I think his view is the one that he reports of Massiczek: that the Jewishness of Oppenheim, and by implication the rest of sophisticated, assimilated Jewish Vienna, resided in his "distinctive attitudes and emotions," his fervent, universalist faith in Man -- qualities that Massiczek had found so utterly different from those of his own, rural Austrian background.

In other words, the Jewishness of Jewish Vienna sprang from that dialectical process of modernization and indeed secularization of Jewish thought, stretching back to the 18th century, to the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) and the subsequent ideology of emancipation. This process encompassed both a rejection and a continuation of the Jewish heritage -- both the acceptance and the adaptation of modern Western culture -- and it was this Jewish take on modernity that found its expression in the "distinctive attitudes and emotions" of Central European Jews, including David Oppenheim.

The true irony, perhaps even tragedy, of this was that the very humanist and universalist values that this Jewish experience and tradition had created led many of its offspring to want to deny, or at least look past, its Jewish aspect. Singer, to his credit, is quite prepared to call it as he sees it, to talk of "Jewish Vienna." It might be added that, whether he quite recognizes it or not, he appears very much in the same tradition. And if his exercise in "pious family memory" ends up making him aware of that, good for him -- and his grandfather. *

Steven Beller, author of "Vienna and the Jews, 1867-1938," is writing a concise history of Austria.