Germany’s Jewish Mathematicians on the Eve of the Holocaust

February 13, 2017 | Abraham Fraenkel
About the author:

Born in Germany in 1891, Abraham Fraenkel embarked on a highly successful career as a mathematician. In the 1960s, while living in Israel, he wrote a memoir about his life up until the early years of the Third Reich. At one point he reminisces about some of the outstanding mathematicians he knew in pre-World War II Germany and their reactions to the changing climate there, including one of the rare Gentile professors who stood up for Jewish colleagues:

In his time, David Hilbert (1862–1943) was the most significant mathematician in the world. . . . Students flocked to him from all over Europe and the United States. . . . Hilbert always remained free of all national and racist prejudices. After the turn of the 20th century, he had a large number of Jewish students, both in absolute and relative terms. In his own working life, he was greatly influenced by two Jews, Adolf Hurwitz and Hermann Minkowski. His authority and tenacity managed twice to break through the [pre-World War I] prejudice in the Prussian Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs against appointing Jews to full professorships: Minkowski in 1902 and Edmund “Yechezkel” Landau in 1909. . . .

Hilbert’ s response to a question [posed to him by] Bernhard Rust, the Nazi minister for science, education, and popular culture, was typical. At a banquet in 1934 in Göttingen, Rust asked: “Is it really true, Herr Professor, that [the mathematical institute you direct] suffered so much from the departure of the Jews and their friends?” to which Hilbert replied, in his characteristic East Prussian dialect: “Suffered? No, it hasn’t suffered, Herr Minister. It simply doesn’t exist anymore!”

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