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My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna

by Peter Singer

Pub Date: March 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-06-050131-6
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

A moving biography of classical scholar David Oppenheim by his grandson, eminent philosopher Singer (Rethinking Life and Death, 1995, etc.).

As a 23-year-old classics student at the University of Vienna in 1905, Oppenheim feared that he had chosen a field of study in which he could not do work of real value. In 1906, he married Amalie Pollak, one of a handful of female students at the university, and began teaching classics at a Vienna high school. By a stroke of luck, he was invited to participate in a weekly seminar in Sigmund Freud’s apartment; by 1910, he was coauthoring a monograph on dreams in folk tales with Freud and was an active member of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society. When another member of the society, Alfred Adler, was forced to resign as chairman because of his escalating disagreements with Freud, Oppenheim chose to support Adler and placed in jeopardy the greatest scholarly opportunity he ever got. (The coauthored monograph was not published during his lifetime.) Becoming an active member in Adler’s group, the Society for Free Psychoanalytical Research, Oppenheim published extensively even when drafted to the eastern front in 1914. He came home to his wife and daughter in 1918 shell-shocked, wounded, and exhausted from war. Returning to teaching and lecturing, he saw Adler’s organization falling prey to the same “cult of personality” as Freud’s. Devastated, he withdrew from the society and never published again, directing all of his energies toward his students. But after the Nazis annexed Vienna in 1938, David was not allowed to set foot in the school where he had taught for 30 years. The Oppenheims tried unsuccessfully to follow their daughter to Australia, but they were instead transported to Theresienstadt. David died there in 1943; Amalie survived and emigrated to Australia in 1946. Focusing primarily on his grandfather, Singer also follows the extended Oppenheim family, and paints a many-layered portrait of intellectual life in Vienna.

A compelling look at a modest figure in the Freud-Adler controversy.