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Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna [Hardcover]

Peter Singer
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Feb. 20 2003

"What binds us pushes time away" wrote David Oppenheim to his future wife, Amalie Pollak, on March 24, 1905. Oppenheim, classical scholar, collaborator, then critic of Sigmund Freud, and friend and supporter of Alfred Adler, lived through the heights and depths of Vienna's twentieth-century intellectual and cultural history. He perished in obscurity at a Nazi concentration camp in 1943, separated from family and friends, leaving his grandson, the philosopher Peter Singer, without a chance to know him.

Almost fifty years later Peter Singer set out to explore the life of the grandfather he never knew, and found a scholar whose ideas on ethics and human nature often parallel his own writings. Drawing on a wealth of documents and personal letters, Singer made startling discoveries about his grandparents' early romantic attachments, the basis on which they decide to marry, their professional aspirations, and their differing views of Judaism. An essay that Oppenheim co-wrote with Freud, but which was suppressed because of a bitter split within Freud's psychoanalytical society, leads Singer to explore the difficulties of following one's own ideas in the circles of both Freud and Adler.

Combining touching family biography with thoughtful reflection on both personal and public questions we face today, Pushing Time Away captures critical moments in Europe's transition from Belle Époque to the Great War and to the rise of Fascism and the coming of World War II. Singer gives us a vivid portrait of Vienna when it was the center of European culture and new ideas, a culture that was both intensely Jewish and distinctly secular. Examining this culture and its fate forces Singer to confront one of the foundations of his own thought: How much can we rely on universal values and human reason?


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Singer, a philosopher, bioethicist, professor, and author of 16 books, is best known for the "animal liberation" movement, which deals with the ethics of our treatment of animals. He also is the grandson of David Oppenheim, a Jew and a classical scholar who lived in Vienna and died in Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942. Oppenheim's wife, Amalie, survived the Holocaust and moved to Australia in 1946. Singer found many letters and intimate personal papers in an aunt's home in Australia and in the State Archives of Austria. They included more than 100 letters that Singer's grandparents wrote to his parents and to his mother's sister after they left for Australia in 1938. Singer describes how his grandfather became a friend of Sigmund Freud and how they discussed theories of psychology. Oppenheim later parted with Freud, following instead the first of the great heretics of psychoanalysis, Alfred Adler. Singer's book is an exceptional eulogy to his grandfather. George Cohen
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Review

“Fascinating ... Singer’s moving book...constitutes a revolt against the anonymity of the Holocaust’s grim statistics.” -- The New Yorker

“Pushing Time Way... has all the power of a great novel... An extraordinary work.” -- New York Times

“Touching, thoughtful and profound... few books of this sort have been as clearly and thus as beautifully written.” -- Washington Post

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A FREEZING FOG HANGS over Vienna, softening the light of the street-lamps. Read the first page
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5.0 out of 5 stars well-crafted tribute May 31 2004
Format:Hardcover
Australian philosopher Peter Singer, now a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, has written a thoughtful, well-researched portrait of his grandfather, David Oppenheim, who perished in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. "We all know that six million Jews died," writes Singer in the Prologue, "but that is a mind-numbing statistic. I have a chance to portray one of them as an individual."
His grandfather was a classical scholar in Vienna, a teacher of Greek and Latin at a prestigious gymnasium (high school), and an active participant in the city's psychoanalytic circles as a collaborator, then critic of Sigmund Freud, and a friend and supporter of Alfred Adler, the first of Freud's colleagues to defect from his inner circle over basic disagreements about psychoanalytic theory.

Oppenheim's wife, Amalie (a math and physics scholar in her own right) was also sent to Theresienstadt, but she survived, the only one of Singer's four grandparents to do so. She moved to Australia in 1946, the year Singer was born, and lived with his family for nine years until her death in 1955. Singer went on to study philosophy at Oxford and teach at Monash University in Australia, but always in the background there was a cloud of sadness and silence that hung over his family's recent past. (On his mother's side he comes from a long line of rabbis stretching back to the seventeenth century.)
His aunt's master's thesis about her father inspired Singer to learn more about his grandfather and write this book. He collected his grandfather's personal papers, letters between his grandparents before their marriage that he retrieved from his aunt's attic, and letters his grandparents wrote to his parents and aunt after they emigrated to Australia in 1938.
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2.0 out of 5 stars The Missing Element July 7 2003
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
An excellent and important story that needs to be told over and over again. But for those of us who use non-fiction books such as this for research as well, this book lacks a crucial element--an index. I could not recommend this book to someone researching information on the Holocaust because there is no way for someone to retrieve important information without laboriously searching page by page through the book. When will publishers learn what researchers and librarians know, a non-fiction book without an index is not complete?
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5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling and moving memoir April 8 2003
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This is a compelling and frequently moving account of the author's grandparents' lives from the turn of the century in Vienna to the middle years of the twentieth century. The grandparents, David and Amalie Oppenheim, had both the good and bad fortune to live through some of the most interesting and tragic times of the last century. As young, educated, middle-class Jews living in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, they experienced the last days of the Hapsburg empire, the intellectual currents of the time and place (including being part of Freud's circle), the first world war, the depression, anti-semitism, Nazism and the Holocaust, as well as the great intellectual achievements of Austro-German culture.
The book is a fascinating account of the period, as well as the curious relationship between David and Amalie, whose homosexual feelings towards others seem to lead them into marriage and children of their own. The final chapters, describing post-Anschluss Vienna, the ghetto conditions in which they were forced to live, and finally Theresienstadt concentration camp are harrowing and moving. As a memoir rather than a history, the book is written well and reads easily; though there are references to other works, it is not in any way dull or academic. The author's frequent comparisons between his grandfather's way of thinking and his own are I feel a little forced, but this is only a minor quibble, especially when the humanity of both the author and the grandparents about whom he is writing is evident. Highly recommended.
One book which Singer refers to frequently is Stefan Zweig's "The World of Yesterday", which I would also highly recommend to anyone interested in the period or subject matter.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling and moving memoir April 8 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a compelling and frequently moving account of the author's grandparents' lives from the turn of the century in Vienna to the middle years of the twentieth century. The grandparents, David and Amalie Oppenheim, had both the good and bad fortune to live through some of the most interesting and tragic times of the last century. As young, educated, middle-class Jews living in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, they experienced the last days of the Hapsburg empire, the intellectual currents of the time and place (including being part of Freud's circle), the first world war, the depression, anti-semitism, Nazism and the Holocaust, as well as the great intellectual achievements of Austro-German culture.
The book is a fascinating account of the period, as well as the curious relationship between David and Amalie, whose homosexual feelings towards others seem to lead them into marriage and children of their own. The final chapters, describing post-Anschluss Vienna, the ghetto conditions in which they were forced to live, and finally Theresienstadt concentration camp are harrowing and moving. As a memoir rather than a history, the book is written well and reads easily; though there are references to other works, it is not in any way dull or academic. The author's frequent comparisons between his grandfather's way of thinking and his own are I feel a little forced, but this is only a minor quibble, especially when the humanity of both the author and the grandparents about whom he is writing is evident. Highly recommended.
One book which Singer refers to frequently is Stefan Zweig's "The World of Yesterday", which I would also highly recommend to anyone interested in the period or subject matter.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars well-crafted tribute May 31 2004
By Charles Patterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Australian philosopher Peter Singer, now a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, has written a thoughtful, well-researched portrait of his grandfather, David Oppenheim, who perished in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. "We all know that six million Jews died," writes Singer in the Prologue, "but that is a mind-numbing statistic. I have a chance to portray one of them as an individual."
His grandfather was a classical scholar in Vienna, a teacher of Greek and Latin at a prestigious gymnasium (high school), and an active participant in the city's psychoanalytic circles as a collaborator, then critic of Sigmund Freud, and a friend and supporter of Alfred Adler, the first of Freud's colleagues to defect from his inner circle over basic disagreements about psychoanalytic theory.

Oppenheim's wife, Amalie (a math and physics scholar in her own right) was also sent to Theresienstadt, but she survived, the only one of Singer's four grandparents to do so. She moved to Australia in 1946, the year Singer was born, and lived with his family for nine years until her death in 1955. Singer went on to study philosophy at Oxford and teach at Monash University in Australia, but always in the background there was a cloud of sadness and silence that hung over his family's recent past. (On his mother's side he comes from a long line of rabbis stretching back to the seventeenth century.)
His aunt's master's thesis about her father inspired Singer to learn more about his grandfather and write this book. He collected his grandfather's personal papers, letters between his grandparents before their marriage that he retrieved from his aunt's attic, and letters his grandparents wrote to his parents and aunt after they emigrated to Australia in 1938. Singer also travelled to Vienna to see where his grandparents lived and visit the school where his grandfather taught. He searched for additional pertinent information in the Austrian archives, interviewed his grandfather's surviving students, and went to Theresienstadt to see for himself where his grandfather died. Singer believed that reading through his grandfather's vast collection of writings in German, most of them in longhand that was difficult to read, would be "to undo, in some infinitely small but still quite palpable way, a wrong done by the Holocaust."
The final part of the book describes the departure of the children to Australia in 1938 after the Anschluss, the illusory hope that life would somehow go on, the desperate efforts from faraway Melbourne to save the parents from the impeding catastrophe, and finally Theresienstadt. During his research Singer also learned what happened to his paternal grandparents: the Germans transported them to Lodz in Poland (after that they were probably gassed at Chelmno).
Professor Singer's well-crafted tribute to his grandfather and the lost world of Jewish Vienna is a valuable contribution to Holocaust remembrance and mourning.
--Charles Patterson, Ph.D., author of ETERNAL TREBLINKA: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So much more than the title implies Oct. 22 2008
By M. Atwell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I bought this book because I am a long time fan of Peter Singer's work, and I am also very curious about the lost world of Jewish Vienna. I was pleased to find that this book offers not just a remarkable portrait of his grandfather, David Oppenheimer, but a fascinating look at the early days of psychoanalysis in Vienna. This is also an interesting read for anyone interested in Moravian (Czech) Jewish history, since Oppenheimer came from Brno. It may not be the kind of scholarly work which a previous reviewer had wished for, but for me, Singer's presentation of his grandfather's wonderfully humanistic world view is clear and very moving.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Atheism and Resurrection or the Timeless Power of Universal Values Feb. 7 2010
By Michael Murauer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
At the end of Peter Singers commemorative book for his grandfather there is a philosophical question: Given an atheist and naturalist worldview - am I able to do something good for a dead person by devoting my time to her thinking and by writing a book about and for her. Yes, says Singer, though a little bit restrained, we can do something for the dead by standing up for the values we share with them even if they unfortunately can't look down on us from a cloud.
That's after a bit less than 300 pages in which life, thinking and time of David Oppenheim have been resurrected in our mind's eye. The simple style of this biography almost appears a little bit clumsy at the beginning (as one can't help to compare it with the stringent and brilliant way of argumentation in Singers philosophical treatises). But it soon turns out as the right way to bring us close to the time between Belle Epoque and Nazi desaster and to the inevitability of the described personal fates. We are even enabled to understand what seems ununderstandable from a modern point of view: that the intellectuals of the time got infected by the excitement for war in great numbers at the beginning of World War I. David Oppenheim didn't have the distance of the few either. He was to well assimilated to his society to gain independence in this situation (as did for example the extraordinary Bertrand Russell). But changed into an opponent of war by the cruel mass killing on the battlefields he later teaches his students the values of humanity. When Nazism takes over Austria he finds one reason after the other not to use the window of opportunity for fleeing overseas. He learns English but isn't really able nor willing to cut his deep rootedness in german culture. The younger generation of the jewish family and many straight thinking, less educated people of his own generation draw the right conclusions from the escalating humiliations of every day life und pursue flight consequently. But the scholarly man neglects repeated warnings by his students und holds himself back by a multitude of reflections (might we have done the same?): he trusts in his status as a decorated former front-line army officer, fears to become a burden on his already emigrated children, hesitates to abandon his daughter's parents-in-law, doesn't want to loose his beloved library. Until it's to late and disease and unlucky historical development make it impossible to escape. Death in Theresienstadt. His wife, the grandmother, survives. There is a shadow on how high the moral price might have been which had to be paid fo that. Glorifying family history is not what Peter Singer intends, as he always wants to get to the bottom of things.
Monument, memorial, history book, philosophical reflection - a fascinating book. It keeps the promise of David Oppenheims marriage which resounds in the title: "Pushing Time Away".
2.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected March 12 2013
By Monique Sue - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I expected to learn about Jewish life in Vienna before World War II and to understand through the lives of a particular family the vicious and murderous German Nazi destruction of that vibrant community.
However the author spends about half of the book discussing his grandparents sex attitudes which maybe belongs in a psychoanalysis book but not in this one.
There were some interesting things to learn in the latter half such as the fact that his grandfather was so far removed from his Jewish identity that he refused to even circumcise his newborn son. And eventhough he was so far removed from his Jewish roots, it didn't help save him from the Nazis.
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