Difficult Problems: German Jewish Mathematicians Before WW II
10/16/2013 - 17:17
Elizabeth Denlinger
Original blocks for images from the works of Richard Courant. Elizabeth Denlinger
Original blocks for images from the works of Richard Courant. Elizabeth Denlinger

Don’t go to this exhibition in a hurry; and don’t go with children; but if you have the slightest interest in mathematics or Jewish history of the twentieth century, then go. Seeing “Transcending Tradition: Jewish Mathematicians in German-Speaking Academic Culture” at the Center for Jewish History is like reading a short illustrated book mounted on plywood, but your patience will be rewarded. Where does the interest lie for the non-mathematician? In the characters of the people whose histories it tells; and for the glimpses of people at work on fundamental problems.

For instance, you’ll see the 1903 notes of Felix Hausdorff (1868-1942) for a lecture on “Time and Space”: “Old problem, thousands of opinions. Not purely lecture, but discussion, joint search. My passion for this problem. Time and space: perhaps imprudent analogy?” (Hausdorff died in Auschwitz.) And you’ll encounter the geometer Max Dehn (1878 – 1952), who, in a 1932 article, described how human delight in rhythm corresponds “to the delight of the beginner number theorist when he realizes how the sequences of multiples of various numbers are embedded in each other.” Dehn and his wife escaped to the United States and found a second home at Black Mountain College.

Or, earlier, Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter, Rebecca (1811 – 1858): married to a mathematician, herself a classicist, she disagreed strenuously with her father’s conciliatory baptism, after which he and the family had taken the name Bartholdy. She would sign herself “Mendelssohn Meden Bartholdy” – “meden” being Greek for and not. Or the algebraist Emmy Noether (1882-1935), whose work continues to be crucial, and who is buried at Bryn Mawr College, where she taught; or Richard Courant, who before the war persuaded the Rockefeller Institute to fund a mathematical institute at Göttingen, and after escaping to the United States, founded another at NYU, now the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

A fairly high proportion of these mathematicians survived the war because all were dismissed by the Nazis in 1933 and were able to leave Germany. Before that stark chronological border, the exhibition focuses more on the mathematical scenes at different universities – Bonn, Berlin, Göttingen – than on chronological continuity. The atmosphere in which German Jewish mathematicians lived before 1933 is one of continual struggle against both anti-Semitism in both the wider community and in academia.

The designers of "Transcending Tradition," knowing how text-heavy the show is, threw every design trick at it: ample illustrations, fabricated objects, tables and chairs for comfortable reading, movable walls. The show is split across a hallway between the Leo Baeck Institute and Yeshiva University Museum; the YU Museum’s portion was furnished by the traveling show, curated by a team of German academics. The Baeck Institute supplements this with objects from its collections and from the Courant Institute, including a large table of books by the people described. I found this a brilliant addition, inviting the viewer to read at leisure. Anyone knowledgeable in mathematics will find the books, and the exhibition, fascinating; but even those of us who are not can find in them a beauty like a moment of music heard from a window.

"Transcending Tradition: Jewish Mathematicians in German-Speaking Academic Culture" is on view at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York, until January 5, 2014.


Liz Denlinger curates a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and is at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.

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