Peter Singer, Pushing Time Away, Australia, Harper Collins, 2003.


In March 1939 psychiatrist Dr Anita Muhl, newly arrived in Melbourne from the United States, was contracted for three years to educate and lecture medical and other professionals about developmental psychology and psychiatry. She was in the process of setting up her office in St Kilda Road when Dr Kora Singer, a recent arrival from Vienna, wrote to her:

Mr Penhalluriack, the Passport and Control Officer was kind enough to mention your name and to tell me you might be looking for a part-time assistant. Therefore I beg to offer my services. I am a Viennese lady-doctor and passed my medical degree in Vienna in 1932. After that, I was working for four years as a resident medical officer in the General Hospital in Vienna where I spent almost a year on the Clinic for Psychiatry.

Clearly Kora Singer, an Austrian doctor, had found respect and support from government officials who went out their way to help her. Not so the British Medical Association in Australia. In 1939, imagining that an influx of refugee doctors would undermine the quality of medical practice in Australia, the BMA was lobbying the government to prevent overseas trained doctors from practising unless they undertook further training. Muhl could not practice either. Her three year contract was underwritten by philanthropist and doctor Una Cato. To make ends meet Singer had accepted a part time job as a laboratory assistant at the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women.

The main source for Kora’s story is Peter Singer’s lucidly written: ‘Pushing Time Away‘, Kora Singer needed the work. She and her husband Ernst, a businessman, were  trying to raise enough money to support the emigration of Kora’s parents David and Amalie Oppenheim and Ernst Singer’s parents from Jewish Vienna. They had the visas but not, it seems the will although Kora and Ernst had departed for Australia in August 1938, six months after the Anchluss, when Hitler and his army had taken Vienna. David Oppenheim, Kora’s father, a teacher, scholar and humanist thinker, had lost the teaching post at the school he had taught for thirty years. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, when the Nazis had destroyed Jewish homes, businesses and places and worship, matters had become far more pressing. But David, who had fought in the First World War, and who had been awarded medals for distinguished service, thought he was untouchable. So many of his army comrades had thought likewise. Besides he was reluctant to leave his beloved library. The Oppenheims also did not wish to put financial pressure on their Australian family by emigrating – even though by March 1939, Kora had found another job.

Peter Singer’s account of the lives of his grandparents, David and Amalie Oppenheim is also about his own journey as he discovers something of his origins and a like mind in his grandfather.  Busy with his work as a philosopher and ethicist, Peter Singer did not turn his mind to his grandparents’ story until he was close to sixty. When he began to read David’s letters and follow his career, he discovered a shared  interest in understanding the problems of humanity. David, a classical scholar, an expert in Greek mythology, in sexuality and cultural life, was interested in the symbolism within them for understanding contemporary human life and problems. His discovery of psychoanalysis in the early 1900s complemented and expanded his knowledge: he was, for a short time, a member of Freud’s Wednesday Group. Author of some sixteen published articles he co wrote an article with Freud – Dreams in Folklore. Oppenheim eventually departed from Freud, choosing follow Adler, another member of the circle, who split with Freud – not particularly because he objected to Freud’s theory but more in response to Freud’s poor treatment of Adler and others whose views differed from his. He became an editor the Adlerian Journal of Individual Psychology.

During his research visits and discussions amongst the family Singer was astounded to discover a cache of letters between his grandparents, David and Amalie. In this section Singer lucidly explicates the quality and nature of his grandparents’ thinking and perception of their world. Informed by science and the humanities, their interest was not upon the quantifiable nature of the psychologies but the inner mystery and uncertainties of being human.In the woman who became his wife David discovered a kindred spirit. In these youthful years both were exploring their sexuality, and love for members of the same sex as well as heterosexual relationships. Were they both homosexual? Singer lets the matter rest, exploring in detail their feelings and thinking about the nature of love. For both love between women and between men was one of the finest forms and part of appreciating beauty. Amalie was the only one in whom David could confide his innermost thoughts and feelings on matters of  love – platonic, spiritual, sexual and emotional. Amalie was no intellectual slouch either. Also a university graduate in science she let go a brilliant career to marry David. He in turn  chose against the uncertainties of an academic career for the security of a teaching position in a boys school in Vienna. It brought in enough money for the couple to start a family. He remained in his teaching post at the same school for thirty years until Hitler came to power and expelled Jewish people from the professions. Throughout Singer lucidly explicates the quality and nature of his grandparents’ thinking and perception of their world. Informed by science and the humanities, their interest was not upon the quantifiable nature of the psychologies but the inner mystery and uncertainties of being human.

Peter Singer’s handling the story of David’s and Amalie’s lives in Vienna after Hitler came to power is breathtakingly sad. For a reader who ‘knows’ what befell Jewish people in Germany, David’s reluctance to leave the country and his beloved library seems to be and ignorant blindness. But then no one knows what is going to happen next in their lives; it is only with hindsight that we learn. Peter Singer writes of this and David’s illness with diabetes, of periods in hospital and his slow, slow convalescence which delayed and continued to delay the couple’s departure. They had long been granted Visas for Australia and, before David’s illness occurred, had intended to travel with their son-in-laws parents. But this too was  delayed on the Singer side when a member of the family was arrested by the Gestapo for possessing a contraband camera.

The matter of fact way Singer writes of this period, I think, underlines the gravity and horror of their situation. In 1943 the couple were transported to Thereseinstadt. David died shortly afterwards. Amalie survived: through what means Singer does not know. She eventually made it to her daughters in Melbourne, Australia where she remained until her death in 1955.By then Kora Singer had gained her registration and was practising.

Somehow in the mean-time, before the war finally ended, news got through to Australia that David had died in the camp. His death notice appeared in the Argus on  1 September 1944. Ignored by most of the population who knew little, if anything, of the death camps, this little notice is a reminder of the humanity and culture lost to Hitler’s megalomania. It is a reminder too of the damage to humanity of totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany – and of ignorance.


References and further reading

Kora Singer to Anita Muhl, 19 March 1939, Papers of Anita Muhl, Box 1766/9, State Library of Victoria.

Freud, Sigmund and Oppenheim, David, ‘Dreams in Folklore’, Dreams in Folklore – published in  The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953–1974), Vol. 12, pp. 177–203.

SINGER Ernst born 26 March 1905; Kora age 31; nationality German; travelled per ORONSAY arriving in Melbourne on 27 September 1938 retrieved 11 March 2015


Applicant – SINGER Ernst and SINGER Kora; Nominee – OPPENHEIM Doris; nationality Austrian, retrieved 11 March 2015

‘The Question of Singer’ The Age, February 1 2003, retrieved 11 march 2015

‘David Oppenheim’s Case’, Peter Singer, reply by David Mendelsohn, New York Review of Books,  January 15, 2004, retrieved 11 March 2015.