Pushing Time Away by Peter Singer

A Viennese labour of love
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The Independent Culture

The philosopher Peter Singer's Viennese grandfather, David Oppenheim, was born in Bruenn, now Brno in the Czech Republic. His father came from a long line of distinguished rabbis, but Joachim Oppenheim was less pious, becoming secretary of the Jewish communal organisation in Bruenn. When Singer saw that his great-grandfather's gravestone named him as the "Secretary of the Israelite Denominational Community, Bruenn", it made him think that "Israelite Denominational" was an expression of the desire of Austro- Hungarian Jews to be regarded as just another religious group within the empire.

"Israelite", he argues in this family memoir, "is a euphemism to avoid the derogatory overtones of Jew". But it was not quite like that. It was more to state that they were loyal subjects of the emperor first, and Jews second. Israeliten - as all my German Jewish ancestors would have called themselves - meant Jews, bound by a sense of peoplehood and mutual obligation, if not religious practice.

Loyal Austrians or Germans was certainly what they were, living in a stable world that was soon to vanish, but not before they fought, as Oppenheim did, as proud subjects of the emperor or kaiser in the First World War. Many died for their countries, while others relived the nightmare of the trenches - as Oppenheim did - until the new Nazi nightmare came to replace it.

Singer traces his grandfather's steps, his writings, his relationship with Freud, and his golden opportunities as a young Vienna schoolmaster to become a scholar - taken seriously in that exacting world. Then came a break with Freud and a link with Adler. Oppenheim was not truly an Adlerian either, but he could not bear bad, intolerant behaviour, such as Freud showed anyone who disagreed with him.

As he tells the story, we are treated to a piece of classic Singer. If Freud had been less intolerant, if he had listened to disagreement and tested his arguments properly, psychoanalysis might have been a science. Freud's approach "ensured that it would remain dogma, rather than science, because psychoanalysts would treat its central tenets as truths that were immune to any kind of testing that might show them to be false".

By means of his grandfather's writings, through which he searches assiduously, and by his published work, Singer reveals an extraordinarily humane man, and a great classical scholar. He depicts the terrible effect of army service on his nerves, and tells of many of his pupils' devotion to him. He demonstrates, with clear fellow feeling as a philosopher and personal connectedness, that David Oppenheim was a believer in the truth and in the "possibility of... a world in which we can (once again) appreciate the humane, non-sectarian, universal values embodied in the greatest writers of both ancient and modern times".

Singer also believes that, "by allowing David's writings to reach across the years to me, I am doing something for him". Though he does not believe in an afterlife in which Oppenheim is literally looking down on him, he expresses a belief, albeit shadowy, in immortality. Singer is rescuing his grandfather, colleague of Freud, colleague of Adler, classicist and philologist, from the obscurity into which the Nazi world drove him. He is rescuing his memory from that horrible physical death in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt as a disappointed, worn-out man.

Only one thing is missing in this fascinating, unputdownable volume. In Peter Singer's elegant polished prose, in his seeking the truth about his grandparents' relationship, in writing about the catastrophe that befell Vienna's Jews, there is no mention of his own love for his grandfather, and his vanished world. We get his grandparents' love for each other - and for others, of the same sex. We have parental love for children. We even have David's widow Amalie's last years, overflowing with love to be lavished on the young Peter and his sister. Despite admitting wanting to mitigate the wrong done to his grandfather, Singer never states that he wrote this book - taking unpaid leave from his job - out of love.

The rationalisations are that people who knew his grandfather would soon be dead, that this was a golden opportunity, that he could still ask questions of his increasingly vague aunt. These may explain the timing, but they leave emotions unexplored. Singer should have stated that he wrote this book - as he clearly did - in loving memory of the grandfather he never knew, immortalising him out of a deep, traditional Jewish respect for family, and abiding personal love. Why not say so?

Rabbi Dame Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer