Remembering Rolf Noskwith, the Jewish Cryptographer Who Helped Beat the Nazis
The cryptographer Rolf Noskwith, who died on January 3 at age 97, proved that “The Imitation Game” could be followed by the hosiery game. As a key member of the team of mathematician Alan Turing, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the Oscar-nominated film “The Imitation Game,” Noskwith helped break German military codes to win World War II.
Noskwith was born to a Jewish family, originally named Noskovitch, in Chemnitz, Germany. His father, Chaim Noskwith, originally from Lodz, Poland, transplanted a textile manufacturing company to England after the German federal elections in 1932 advanced the Nazi Party. Along with other mathematics students at Cambridge University, including several Jews, Noskwith was recruited to work at Bletchley Park, Winston Churchill’s secret intelligence and computers headquarters located at the former home of Sir Herbert Samuel Leon, an English Jewish financier and Liberal Party politician.
Toiling under the supervision of Turing, Noskwith was assigned to break codes used by the German Navy. In “Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park” Noskwith observed that the work was “often so enthralling that the analyst due to go home at the end of the shift would be unwilling to hand over the workings.” Through his fluent grasp of the German language, he was able to guess meanings of corrupted messages from the enemy. The project’s tragic context was always evident, especially when he decoded a message about the Struma disaster. In 1942, a ship carrying Jewish refugees to Mandatory Palestine was sunk, claiming the lives of 800 passengers, including over 100 children. The researcher Martin Sugarman, chair of the Hackney Anglo-Israel Twinning Association, specified years later that Noskwith “remembers the Struma tragedy causing him much distress.”
There were also victories, as in 1941, when Noskwith deciphered a system of colored flares used for identification by the German navy, thereby breaking a major code used to communicate between German naval headquarters and U boat commanders at sea. As a result, Nazi military positions could be known to the Allied navy. Of this time, Noskwith later recalled in “The Bletchley Park Codebreakers’:
“Robert Harris’s ‘Enigma’ is a very good novel but it paints far too drab a picture of life at Bletchley. No doubt the meals served in the canteen featured dried egg, Spam, and other wartime delicacies: they may have been stodgy but they were perfectly palatable.”
Meanwhile his father Chaim (later Charles) showed his own wartime initiative by counteracting wartime slowdowns at his hosiery and lingerie firm, Charnos, an abbreviation of Charles Noskwith. In 1945, the elder Noskwith “braved the U-boats in the Atlantic to travel to Pennysylvania,” a company history reveals. His mission was to buy state-of-the-art American knitting machines and relaunch the firm even before peace had been declared. After the war in Europe was over, Noskwith remained as a codebreaker assigned to Japanese and Yugoslav secret writing. In 1947, he met his fellow codebreaker Walter Eytan, by then a diplomat working to establish the state of Israel. Noskwith volunteered his services as a cryptologist to the new Jewish state, but Eytan retorted: “Code-beakers we have plenty of!”
Instead, Noskwith returned to work for his family company, where he remained for the rest of his professional life. Thereafter daily concerns became less a dramatic matter of life and death. In 1997, when he gave a lecture entitled “Rolf Noskwith on Survival,” the subject was not the Holocaust or life as a refugee, but rather the “experience of Charnos provid[ing] a case study on how to survive and prosper in hosiery and knitwear.” The resulting reflections were published in “Knitting International.” Earlier, in 1983, Noskwith was interviewed by “The Financial Times,” not about wartime derring-do but to give him the opportunity to opine: “We have been trying to encourage women to look on hosiery as make-up for their legs.” Even so, he never forgot the times of peril, especially the diligence and inspiration of his fellow codebreakers. When the mathematician Shaun Wylie, his immediate supervisor at Bletchley Park, died in 2009, Noskwith wrote to the “Times of London,” recalling:
“At some time in the early 1990s I was totally defeated by a particularly fiendish Times Listener Crossword. The prize winner was Shaun Wylie. When I wrote to congratulate him I said that, after 50 years, he was still ‘il miglior fabbro.’”
In this reference, a German Jewish refugee felicitously co-opted a phrase famously used to express mutual appreciation between two modern literary anti-Semites. The poet T. S. Eliot dedicated “The Waste Land,” to Ezra Pound, “il miglior fabbro.” Eliot was quoting Dante Alighieri’s “Purgatorio,” in which Dante praises the troubadour Arnaut Daniel as the “finest craftsman.” Noskwith further observed:
“I had a happy time at Bletchley, not only because of the work but because [it] was always a friendly place. There really was a spirit of camaraderie among the cryptanalysts and a sense of a common purpose. I can recall no personality clashes or big outbursts of temper. I attribute this to the fascination of the work, the satisfaction of getting results, exemplary leadership and, above all, the personalities of the individuals.”
In 2013, the University of Nottingham acknowledged this camaraderie by conferring an honorary doctorate of laws upon Noskwith. He was honored alongside Julia Allison, head of faculty of midwifery at the University of East Anglia. Having acted as a sort of midwife for the Allied victory in Europe, Noskwith could not have been in more appropriate company.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.