Obituary: Professor Abraham Wasserstein
Tuesday 08 August 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.
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