Michael Golomb (born 1909) was a student of Adolf Hammerstein and received his doctorate from the University of Berlin in 1933. The picture for this article was taken in 1938 in Zagreb (Yugoslavia), his first place of refuge. In 1939 he emigrated to the United States and turned to applied mathematics. He was one of the first to apply normed spaces in numerical analysis.
Terror and Exile: Berlin mathematicians under the Nazi regime 1933-1945
In 1998 the ICM returns to Germany after an intermission of 94 years. This long interval covers the darkest period in German history. Therefore the German Mathematical Society (DMV) wants to honor the memory of all those who suffered under the Nazi terror. The DMV does this in the form of an exhibition presenting the biographies of 53 mathematicians from Berlin who were victims of the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. The fate of this small group illustrates painfully well the personal sufferings and the destruction of scientific and cultural life; it also sheds light on the instruments of suppression and collaboration.
*The exhibition consisted of hangings containing portraits, short biographies, and other relevant materials of the 53 Berlin mathematicians. A poster-size hanging of the above portrait and caption is part of the exhibition. A 72-page exhibition brochure written by J. Brüning, R. Siegmund-Schultze, and D. Ferus, published by the Deutsche Mathematiker-Vereinigung, gives an account of the entire history of German mathematicians affected by Nazi policies.
Interview with Michael Golomb, Professor Emeritus
Interview | Remarks
Michael Golomb was honored by the city of Berlin last August as part of a special exhibition "Persecuted and expelled Berlin mathematicians in the time of the Nazi regime." The exhibition was scheduled to coincide with the meeting of the International Congress of Mathematicians. Professor Golomb and his daughter, Debby Sedgwick, traveled to Berlin as guests of Berlin officials for the opening of the exhibition. You may view his remarks about the occasion at the Internation Congress of Methematicians.
How did you first learn that you were to be honored in Berlin?
On June 23, I had picked up my mail from my mailbox, and I had just begun to look through it when Leonard Lipshitz entered my office. Among the daily pieces of junk mail there was a large sheet with the word telefax in large bold letters in the center of it. I had never before seen a piece of telefax, and I was ready to drop it in the wastepaper basket, when Leonard stopped me and pointed to the top line on the sheet--"Der Regierende Buergermeister von Berlin." I was puzzled, but Leonard urged me to read on. To my astonishment, it was an invitation from the mayor of Berlin for myself and an accompanying person.
How were the exhibition organizers able to locate you?
For some five years, I have been in correspondence with Dr. Reinhardt Siegmund-Schultze, a mathematician/historian at Humboldt University, who made it his specialty to study the social history of mathematics in Nazi Germany, in particular at the University of Berlin. Early on he asked me, as one of the few survivors of that period, about my personal experiences of what happened in the mathematics department after the Nazis came into power.
Please describe your experience.
I was a student in the department from October 1929 to June 1933, when my official promotion took place, and I left Berlin shortly thereafter. So my presence in the department during the Nazi regime lasted less than six months. I have no personal knowledge of what went on during this period in the faculty and administration. Students in German universities at that time had very little contact with their professors, even with their thesis advisers. So my contribution to Dr. Siegmund-Schultze's inquiries was very limited; nevertheless he found it quite useful, and we kept on corresponding. About a year ago he wrote that he was commissioned by the Deutsche Mathematikervereinigung to arrange an exhibition of mathematical emigrees to coincide with the ICM in Berlin in August of the following year, and he asked me to provide biographical material. When I received the invitation to Berlin, I guessed that it originated on his initiative, though it was issued by Prof. Dr. Jochem Brüning, Director of the Mathematics Institute at Humboldt University.
How did you feel about returning to Berlin after all these years?
There was no doubt in my mind that I must go, and I felt very happy about the offered opportunity. I have not felt, as some of my Jewish friends do, that one must never set foot again on that defiled land. I had been back to Germany during the past years at least five times for short visits, including a couple of days to the two Berlins, mostly for the beautiful countryside, but also for the magnificent traditional culture preserved in its cities and towns.
Did any of the other mathematicians honored in the exhibition return to Berlin?
I knew there would not be very many, since in 1933 I had just received my degree and was barely 24 years old, whereas the other mathematicians that the exhibition aimed at must have been more advanced and older than myself. They would at present be at least in their nineties, and not many of them could still be alive and able to undertake a long journey. So I was not surprised to learn that only three others would come on their own, and a fourth would be represented by his daughter.
How were you treated by your hosts?
We received "royal treatment." The cost of the air travel and seven days of hotel accommodation with buffet style breakfast for myself and my daughter were at the expense of the Senate of the City. Our hotel was one of the International Westin chain, individually designed by a famous architect. The Berlin Westin seems to be known as the most sumptuous and beautiful one anywhere. The wonder of it is that it was built fourteen years ago in the eastern part of the city during the communist administration. The day-by-day care during our stay was provided by the German Mathematical Society (DMV). Two personal attendants ("Betreuers") were assigned to us. Mr. Tjaden of the Mathematics Department of Technische Universit&aauml;t Berlin acted as our personal chauffeur. We were met by him on our arrival at the Berlin airport, and he drove us to our hotel. He also insisted on taking us back to the airport at 5:30 on the last day of our stay. Our other attendant, Professor Dr. Wildenhain, who at present is Rector (President) of the University of Rostock, spent many hours with us each day, guiding us through the events of the ICM. Also Professor Brüning volunteered to help us out with any problem we encountered. These men, who offered their services so generously, are prominent mathematicians, active and productive teachers, and researchers. We are deeply indebted to them.
What's the ICM like--would you please describe it a bit?
Tuesday, August 18 was the day of the opening ceremonies. After registering at the main building of the Technische Universität, we proceeded to the International Convention Center, where the ceremonies were to take place. There in a huge hall we found seats reserved for us in the third row from the stage. The ceremonies started at ten o'clock with a performance of the last movement of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet by soloists of the Ensemble Oriol Berlin. Participants were welcomed by the President of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), the President of the German Mathematical Society (DMV), and the President and Honorary President of the ICM '98 Organizing Committee. All but the first one are German mathematicians of international reputation. The DMV representatives spoke of the horrors committed by the Nazis while they ruled the country, and they expressed the hope that German mathematics will recover the glory of its past, before the Nazi barbarians destroyed the great mathematical centers of Göttingen, Berlin, München, etc. They were honored that the IMU, after decades of bypassing Germany, had chosen Berlin for the location of the International Congress. To demonstrate the change that had taken place in German society, they wanted to honor the memory of all those that had suffered under the Nazi terror by arranging the Exhibition "Terror and Exile" as one of the events of the Congress. I thought it was very decent of the German mathematicians to bring up and condemn now, fifty years later, the infamous past of their country before a forum of people, many of whom did not remember or did not know or care about this history.
After a midday recess and buffet luncheon, the afternoon session started with speeches by dignitaries and politicians. The speakers were intelligent, eloquent, and had many good points to make: the long-term benefit to society of basic scientific research; does it justify the considerable expense by the state, and where is the limit; basic research versus targeted research and how to apportion limited resources to each; can a politician who is running for re-election make the decision, which to the best of his knowledge, is the correct one, if at present it is the unpopular one; aren't pressing social needs overriding all other considerations?
The session lasted longer than scheduled and delayed the most important event of the day: the presentation of the Fields Medals. These are the highest awards that mathematicians can receive, and they are handed out only every fourth year at the ICM. Four medals were given out--two to British recipients, one to an American, and one to a Russian. An exceptional award was given to Andrew Wiles, who did not meet the age restriction of the medal, but is among the greats of this century for proving Fermat's Last Theorem. The Nevanlinna Prize given for the best work in Computing and Information Theory was presented to Peter Shor of AT&T Labs, Florham Park.
Did you actively participate in the opening ceremonies of the exhibition?
Of course, I did. For me it was the most important event of the Congress. It took place on the second day in the early afternoon. The exhibition was housed in the "Lichthof" of the TU main building. After opening speeches by officials, the four honorees in attendance each made a short speech, improvised at the spur of the moment, about how we succeeded with the help of colleagues, friends, or organizations to escape Nazi Germany and to land a new position in exile. [See Remarks.] The audience then left the lecture room and wandered about the exhibition hall. Each visitor who asked for it received a copy of the brochure "Terror and Exile," the official catalog of the exhibition.
Tell us something about the brochure.
The complete title is: "Terror and Exile. Persecution and Expulsion of Mathematicians from Berlin between 1933 and 1945." It is a scholarly work documenting the history of German mathematicians affected by Nazi policies. To me it is the most precious item that I brought back from my visit, because it illuminates the events of those years that were crucial in my preprofessional life. Of the deeply disturbing, but also highly informative presentations in the brochure, I want to mention only a couple items. Separate sections deal with the fate suffered by the most eminent of the mathematicians at the Humboldt University. One is entitled "The School of Issai Schur." It deals with the life and work of the famous algebraist Schur, one of the four ordinary professors in the mathematics department during my student years at Humboldt. Eleven of the 44 exiled Berlin mathematicians were his students. I now quote the final lines of the section: "Schur's emotional ties to Germany (by birth he was Russian) were so strong that when the Nazis came to power, he declined many invitations to universities in the United States and Britain. He endured six years of persecution and humiliation under the Nazis. A sick man in body and spirit, he finally reached Palestine, where he died two years later."
At the end of the brochure is the "List of Emigrants among all German-Speaking Mathematicians." It contains 130 names. It is a surprise to me, and probably also to many readers, that as many as 75 German mathematicians, many of them world-renowned, emigrated to this country in the thirties. By their own work and as teachers of a generation of brilliant young American mathematicians, these emigrees from Nazi Germany have made the U.S. the great center of mathematics in the world that it is today.
Was there any event at the Congress that stands out in your memory?
Yes, indeed. Possibly the most memorable event of the Congress was the invited lecture by the world famous Andrew Wiles (he finally disposed of the Fermat Conjecture, which had eluded the efforts of many generations of mathematicians). It took place at 7:30 p.m. of the second day of the Congress in the Auditorium Maximum of the TU, which seats about a thousand people. All of the seats of the hall were taken early, and about two thousand people who could not find seats there were seated in two other large auditoriums, to which the lecture was televised. The speaker, who is known for the modest ways in which he speaks of his work, was rewarded by a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. It must have been a unique event in the history of mathematics (or all sciences) that an audience of that size rewarded the speaker of a highly technical subject with such overwhelming applause.
Is there any special personal experience from the trip that you'd like to recall?
No program had been arranged for us on the first day after arrival in Berlin. We were pretty tired after having gone for more than 24 hours without sleep and some 13 hours of air travel, but we did not want the day to go to waste. So starting on our own, Debby and I went by foot and bus, along the famous Unter den Linden Avenue eastward toward the old center of the city. My first aim was my old alma mater, the Friedrich Wilhelm Universitat, now renamed Humboldt Universitat. It was only a block away from our hotel, so we reached it easily on foot. I had no problem locating it; the exterior of it is still the same as it was when I spent four years there. It probably was totally destroyed like practically everything else in Berlin during WWII, but the exterior appearance of many public buildings both in Eastern and Western Berlin was restored in the years after the war. I went through the front entrance to the university and found the aula, which is still in my memory the scene of violent clashes between Nazi and antifascist student groups during late 1932, pretty well intact. We located the mathematics department, now reconstituted as the Institut für Mathematik, and there I found myself at home--pictures of many famous mathematicians are displayed on the walls of the hallways. We got a very friendly reception from a secretary, who was informed about my visit, and a present faculty member. I mentioned that I regretted that I could not remember the titles of all the courses I took. The next day I received in my hotel by telefax a note from the Director of Archives, along with some 50 pages of copies of the lists of courses in mathematics and physics offered from 1929-33. I could then reconstruct my "Plan of Study" for the four years at the university and the list of my professors. They included the mathematicians Erhardt Schmidt, Issai Schur, Ludwig Bieberbach, Richard von Mises, Adolf Hammerstein, John von Neumann, Heinz Hopf, Robert Remak, and Stefan Bergmann; the physicists Max Planck, Max von Laue, and Erwin Schrödinger; the philosopher Hans Reichenbach; and the psychologist Wolfgang Köhler. I remember them all very fondly. Who could claim a more illustrious group of teachers? It makes it the more painful for me to think that this place, Berlin, where I received the best professional preparation available anywhere, would soon become the origin of my plight that almost aborted my career.
What is the overall, lasting impression of your return to Berlin this past August?
I will keep a lasting memory, both depressing and heartening, of our visit to Berlin. Depressing, because what I learned during my visit brings back to me in greater detail and with solid documentation what happened to my profession during that period some sixty years ago. Heartening, because I saw that the most influential German mathematicians of today will not let the world forget the crimes that their compatriots committed on innocent fellow mathematicians, and that they destroyed one of the great mathematics centers. No doubt, mathematics education and research are reviving in Germany today and have achieved respectable levels, internationally recognized. But it is not and probably will never be again the commanding center that pre-Hitler German mathematics was. The Nazi juggernaut was not only the most destructive force of human life and property in all of history; it was also self-destructive--it thoroughly destroyed the great cultural center that Germany had become before the advent of the Nazi barbarians.
Michael Golomb served on the Mathematics faculty at Purdue from 1942 until his retirement in 1975. For many years he held a joint appointment with the Schools of Engineering.