Obituary: Professor Abraham Wasserstein

Abraham Wasserstein, classicist: born Frankfurt am Main 5 October 1921; Assistant in Greek, Glasgow University 1951-52, Lecturer 1952-60; Professor of Classics, Leicester University 1960-69, Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1966-69; Professor of Greek, Hebrew University of Jerusalem 1969- 89 (Emeritus); married 1942 Margaret (Macca) Ecker (two sons, one daughter); died Jerusalem 20 July 1995.

To all appearance Abraham Wasserstein was the archetypal absent-minded professor - a professor of Classics first at Leicester University and then at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The appearance concealed a generous devotion to persons and principles but a determination to fight wholeheartedly for the issues which were dear to him.

He was a man of extremely wide scholarship; there can be few professors of Classics who are also Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society, and his inaugural lecture at Leicester, delivered a short while after he had taken up his appointment, moved broadly but confidently over the whole field of Hellenic endeavour. Greek mathematics, astronomy, musical theory, philosophy, and history - all were brought together to illustrate what he termed "Economy and Elegance".

He was not blind to the defects of the ancient Greeks, and indeed in this lecture drew parallels between the occasional cruelty of the Greeks and that of the Nazis. But his aim was to justify his study of the Greeks and that he did in no small measure. Apart from his popular edition of a selection from the works of Josephus, Flavius Josephus (1974), all his writing showed this love of Greek scholarship. His major work was a translation of Galen's commentary on Hippocrates, Galen, On Airs, Waters, Places (1982), but there was a mass of learned articles on Greek drama, Greek mathematics, and on the minutiae of Greek texts. Had he been sparing of the time he gave to his graduate students and their theses, his own corpus would have been much greater.

Wasserstein was born in Germany and, as with so many of his contemporaries, his early education was distorted by the impact of Nazi rule; he was educated at a Jewish school in Berlin to which, he was proud to claim, many of the German-Jewish intelligentsia also came. He was fortunate enough to be able to escape to Rome and from there, with the help of the Roman Catholic Church, as he later acknowledged, to Turkey and Palestine.

After the end of the Second World War he came to Britain and studied Classics part-time at Birkbeck College, London, whence he graduated with his BA in 1949 and his doctorate in 1951. That year he was appointed as Assistant to the Department of Greek in Glasgow, where he stayed for nine years, subsequently as Lecturer in Greek; in later years he emphasised the debt he owed to the patterns of Glasgow's teaching and regarded it as a model to be followed.

In 1960 Wasserstein applied for the Chair of Classics in Leicester, with so little confidence in himself that he did not even wait to hear the results of the interview. But his stay in Leicester from 1960 to 1969 was to prove memorable for him. He made many friends in the academic community and for him and his wife these were very happy years. These were stirring years too in the university, culminating in the first manifestations of student unrest in Britain. Much later colleagues still recalled how he stood single-handedly at the entrance to the library to prevent students extending their "sit-in" into its precincts. But when some students asked to be allowed to enter and retrieve their possessions, promising not to abuse this permission, he accepted their word and his trust was not betrayed.

Wasserstein's love of books and learning was immense, though on occasion he could be led into extremes. A refusal by Senate to accept that since Classics comprised two languages it should be given a book grant double that for other subjects led to his denunciation of the "Philistines" and a refusal for some time to attend either Senate or the Senior Common Room. Yet before he left Leicester he was elected Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Chairman of the SCR, and when he moved to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem his colleagues unprecedentedly made a substantial collection to purchase a set of Loeb's Greek Classical Texts to be presented in his name to the Hebrew University Library.

Wasserstein's decision to take up an appointment in the Hebrew University, made as a demonstration of idealism, proved to be less than happy. There were few students in Jerusalem wishing to study Greek, and he found himself doing most of his teaching in the University of Tel Aviv. At the same time, however, he made a reputation for himself in Israel, not least as a result of his visits to the Monastery of Sancta Catharina on Mount Sinai and his work on the manuscripts he found in its library, and was amused at becoming a star on Israeli television. He was President of the Classical Association of Israel between 1971 and 1974, and before his last illness was almost as much to be found in the Hochschule fur Judische Studien in Heidelberg, in the Centre for Postgraduate Studies in Oxford, in Princeton or Philadelphia as in Jerusalem.

"Addi" Wasserstein was the first to point to the support he had from his wife, Macca, whom he married in 1942, who had always to be prepared to move from one scene where she had put down substantial roots to another and begin the process all over again.

He was also tremendously proud of his children. He was at first upset that Bernard had decided to become an historian rather than a classicist, but the stream of books Bernard produced and the wide acclaim they received gave him as much pleasure as if he himself had been their author. David at first followed in his path as a classical scholar, but transferred to medieval Hebrew and Arabic, and again Addi basked in the glory of his son's publications. His daughter Celia turned to the Law as a career, holding an appointment in the Hebrew University; but she too bolstered the family's classical studies by marrying a lecturer in ancient Semitic languages.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Recruitment Genius: HR Advisor

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our Client has been the leader ...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project