Living for Tolerance

Salzburger Nachrichten (04/23/2005)

In Search of the Jewish Philosopher David Oppenheim

For anyone who enjoys reading personal memoirs, this book is invaluable. That is, if one has patience because one needs it when reading the meticulously-researched book by Peter Singer, Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna. Just short of three hundred pages, Singer, one of the great American philosophers of bioethics in our time, describes the life of his grandfather, David Oppenheim, and his wife, Amalie.

Based upon a great number of letters to his wife, Amalie, as well as upon philosophical papers, Singer explores his family’s past with the thoroughness of an investigator, taking us back to Vienna before World War I.

For Peter Singer, David Oppenheim was a man he never knew. The classical scholar perished in a Nazi concentration camp in Theresienstadt. At the time, David Oppenheim was already an old man and suffered from diabetes. His wife, Amalie, survived and later wrote that her husband’s greatest comfort was knowing before his death that his two daughters, Kora and Doris, had escaped and started a new family in a new country, Australia.

Singer wrote: "Perhaps he was also able to find comfort in the stoic philosophy of Seneca and other philosophers of antiquity, which he loved..." This remark describes the real motivation of the modern-day philosopher, Peter Singer; namely, discovering something about the life of his grandfather.

David Oppenheim was a scholar of the classics from a distinguished, liberal Jewish family, who loved the philosophers of antiquity and admired Goethe and Schiller. He spoke fluent Latin and Ancient Greek and was a member of Sigmund Freud’s circle, "Mittwoch-Gesellschaft." Singer attempts to discover the precursors of his own thoughts in his grandfather’s works. He notices that both he and his grandfather want to understand the inner essence of man, "the secret of the human soul."

This journey of philosophical discovery lays bare interesting details of the rise of Psychoanalysis while depicting the life of Jewish Vienna between the Fin de Siècle and Nazi occupation.

The book about the extraordinary life of a liberal Jew married to a religious Jewess, has, apart from the tragic, also something comforting: Tolerance, then as today, is one of the noblest feelings of which humans are capable..

"What binds us pushes time away," he wrote to his beloved wife, Amalie.
MORAWEC, BARBARA Peter Singer: Mein Großvater, 296 pages, Europa Verlag, 2005.