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Interview with Michael Golomb

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Interview with Michael Golomb, Professor Emeritus
Interview | Remarks

Michael Golomb's remarks on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition at the International Congress of Mathematicians - August 19, 1998

I was a student in Berlin at what was then called Friedrich Wilhelm Universitšt from 1929 to 1933 and passed my Ph.D. exam in June 1933, one month after my 24th birthday. At that time Hitler had been in power for just five months. Up to the end of 1932, I had no doubt that I would have a successful academic career in the land of my birth and education. At the end of 1932, I received a letter from Professor Alexander Ostrowsky at the University of Basel, offering me the position of his assistant. I turned the offer down; my career was to be in Germany, one of the leading countries of mathematical research, not in Switzerland.

It was not that I did not foresee the imminent power grab of Hitler, but I did not believe that Fascism could last in Germany. I was prepared to join the antifascist groups in Germany and help to get rid of the pest. But a couple of months after Hitler became Reichskanzler, Bieberbach, one of the four ordinary professors in the Mathematics Department, appeared in the class room in the brown shirt uniform of the Storm Troopers, the most militant, violence-prone civil combat troops of the Nazi party. Quite a few students, too, showed up in this uniform. There appeared signs "Juda verrecke" on the campus, and they were not withdrawn. Soon it became known that prominent mathematicians and other university personnel lost their positions or preferred exile, for no other reason than they were non-Aryans.

How could I expect now to find employment in Germany? I was worried by the foreboding that I had to emigrate and build a new life and career away from the land where I had lived up to now and where I would leave my family and friends behind. I started frantically to explore which country could offer me the best chance for a career in mathematics. I thought I had a choice--my professors in Berlin had given me superb recommendations. Ironically, the best one came from the viciously anti-Semitic Bieberbach. But soon I found out that my problem was not which country would offer me the best chance for advancing my mathematical development, but which country would admit me at all.

Refugees from Germany were not welcome at that time anywhere. There was deep economic depression and high unemployment in all the developed countries--the borders were tightly closed to foreigners who might seek work. Mine was an especially difficult case. I was born in Germany and had never left the country, but I was a Polish citizen because my parents were immigrants and could never acquire German citizenship. With a Polish passport, I had no chance at all to be admitted anywhere. But I found a way out.

My sister lived in Yugoslavia--she had married a Yugoslav citizen. She invited me for a visit and on that basis I received a visitor's visa, valid for two months. I left Germany in October 1933 for Yugoslavia with the vague hope of establishing myself there, or better, to escape from there to a country of my choice. How could I foresee that I was to be trapped in that country for five and a half years? After my visitor's visa expired, I was being deported to the Italian border, but I escaped from my escorts in the last minute with the help of friends. For a year I lived the life of a fugitive, then received a one year's resident permit with the intervention of influential citizens. After a year I was again threatened by deportation, and this repeated itself in ever shorter intervals, and deportation was prevented only by the intervention of various influential citizens and officials. During all this time, I was not permitted to take any employment. I lived mainly on the support by friends and charity organizations. For five and a half years I lived the life of a refugee and illegal alien.

When I finally got an immigration visa to the USA, I felt liberated. I arrived here in March 1939. I still was without a job for another half year. With the help of Herman Weyl, himself an exile from Nazi Germany, I got my first employment, six years after I had ended my schooling. It was not a mathematician's job, but that of a "Research Associate" (a flunky) to an engineering professor at Cornell University. After two more years I won my first job in mathematics, that of a part-time instructor in the Mathematics Department of Cornell. Eight years of the potentially most productive period of a young ambitious mathematician had been lost, which would never have happened but for the Nazis' racial policies. People like myself were also victims of the Nazi Terror!
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