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Alexander Grothendieck, Brilliant Jewish Mathematician, Dies at 86

The French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, who died on November 13 at age 86, was profoundly influenced by his family roots. His father Alexander “Sascha” Schapiro was a Russian Jewish social progressive who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. Grothendieck’s work, finding connections between algebra and geometry, helped to create the field of algebraic geometry. His brilliance is illustrated by the fact that at university, when assigned fourteen difficult problems, Grothendieck returned in six months with solutions which would usually require eighteen years to accomplish, providing enough material for six doctoral theses. Grothendieck is often ranked among the greatest all-time mathematicians, alongside Gauss, Euclid, and Archimedes.

Yet Grothendieck’s productivity gradually declined in the 1970s and 80s, partly due to the sense of social justice that impassioned his parents, who were anti-Fascist activists during the Spanish Civil War. Since 1988 Grothendieck has lived in relative seclusion in a small village at the foot of the Pyrénées mountains in France, where as he wrote in a memoir, “The Key to Dreams”: “I am indebted to my father for having inculcated in me a solidarity with the most underprivileged people, a powerfully held, lifelong belief.”

After rejecting university and research milieus for being corrupted by contracts with military concerns, Grothendieck sought out as interlocutors the “poorest of the poor, represented above all (in France, where I live) by North African laborers.”

In another unpublished memoir available online, “Harvests and Seedings: Thoughts and Testimony on a Mathematician’s Past,” Grothendieck described how he spent the war interned with his mother in a camp for undesirable aliens in the south of France. In the last years of the war, while his mother remained interned, he was housed in La Guespy Children’s Home, a refugee orphanage at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a town in south-central France, later named among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for shielding Jews in Nazi Europe.

There, as Grothendieck recalled: “We were mostly Jews, and when we were warned in advance (by local police) that Gestapo roundups would occur, we went to hide in the woods for a night or two, in little groups of two or three children, without fully realizing that it was a matter of life and death. The region was full of Jews… and many survived due to the solidarity of the local population.” In “Harvests and Seedings,” Grothendieck regretted that at La Guespy, he bullied a couple of German Jewish fellow students: “[Being] under constant threat of a Gestapo roundup of Jews should have inspired feelings of solidarity and respect, but that wasn’t the case… In an era devastated by blasts of violence, although I was horrified by the violence of war and concentration camps and everything associated with them, I still felt entirely justified in making another person subject to contempt and violence for the simple reason that I decided to class him as “unpleasant.” Grothendieck added that he had failed to see that his behavior, and its justifications, “were exactly the same as dyed-in-the-wool Germans of the 1930s towards ‘filthy Jews’ (as I witnessed during my childhood [in Berlin]).”

After the war, Grothendieck formed close friendships with fellow mathematicians, especially Aldo Andreotti, (1924-1980) an Italian specialist in algebraic geometry who “suffered in Mussolini’s Italy as [Grothendieck] did in Hitler’s Germany,” he explained, because Andreotti’s father was Jewish. Nevertheless Grothendieck eventually distanced himself from a working relationship with Andreotti and other colleagues, rejecting organized research and education in favor of individual good works. A turning point was in 1977, when he received a summons from the Montpellier criminal court for having “freely sheltered and fed an illegal alien.”

Grothendieck thus learned of a 1945 French law against helping undocumented foreigners, an edict which “had nothing analogous with respect to Jews even in Nazi Germany.” Stunned and depressed, he suddenly felt “transported back 35 years, when life was cheap, above all the lives of foreigners.” He launched an unsuccessful campaign against the law, first at his then-academic home of the University of Montpellier, and wrote to five leading scientists asking for their support; none replied.

Disillusioned, Grothendieck retired to a village outside Carpentras, a town in the Vaucluse with a long history of Jewish residents. There he discouraged visitors, although Roy Lisker, an American mathematician and anti-war activist, reported visiting Grothendieck in 1988:

“Onto the stone step walked an elderly yet vigorous man. His eyes blinked uncertainly as he inspected me with an intense quizzicalness. His facial skin, weathered and stained, was tough as cured leather, the brow of his elongated head raked with furrows. The lenses of his glasses were thick. Complementing his bald scalp was a flowing grey beard and bold Semitic features calling up a definite resemblance to Allan Ginsberg, (although fortunately more blessed in the I.Q. department). The absence of most of his upper teeth created a staggering hole in a mouth already black with carious rotting stumps. His rough trousers were caked with mud, as was his oversized dark brown shirt dangling over a cord belt.”

According to Lisker, Grothendieck informed him: “I’m not a mathematician anymore… I now devote my days to the transcription of my dreams.”

If so, we may be sure that they were dreams of social justice, following the precedent of his father.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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