The late Benoit Mandelbrot, best known as the founder of fractal geometry, was born in Warsaw to a family of Polish-speaking Jews in 1924. In 1931 he and his family moved to Paris. They spent World War II hiding in a French village, where friends of his uncle—also a famous mathematician—took them in. In his posthumous memoir, The Fractalist, Mandelbrot tells the story of his childhood as well as of his later mathematical career. Adam Kirsch calls attention to Mandelbrot’s reflections on how he escaped the fate of most of French Jewry:
“Our constant fear,” Mandelbrot writes, “was that a sufficiently determined foe might report us to an authority and we would be sent to our deaths. . . . We escaped this fate. Who knows why?” One reason why, he suggests, is that his academic brilliance won him special consideration. “Xenophobia lost, meritocracy won,” he writes, and this would become the motto of his French experience.
The history of Eastern Europe, according to Mandelbrot, “included a growing number of stories in which a would-be ‘butcher’ is oversupplied with potential victims, and a person perceived to be special is somehow spared. Father must have felt it was very bad to be overly conspicuous, but very good to be seen as rare and special. This attitude, which he probably brought from Warsaw, created in me an elevated level of commitment and ambition.”