Exhibition on German Jewish mathematicians to open Oct. 4 at Crerar Library

The award-winning international exhibition “Transcending Tradition: Jewish Mathematicians in German-Speaking Academic Culture,” will be on display at the John Crerar Library from Oct. 4 to Dec. 18.

The exhibition, which most recently visited Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem in Israel, was produced by the History of Science Working Group at Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It presents the life and works of such mathematicians as Richard von Mises, Max Dehn, Emmy Noether, Richard Courant, Otto Blumenthal, Felix Hausdorff and John von Neumann.

"There is no doubt of the importance and value of this exhibit, of seeing a set of individuals of remarkable achievement, within a community and age of complexity and challenge, and in a historical context from which we can only hope that the world has learned something," said President Robert J. Zimmer.

The public is invited to an opening celebration of the exhibition from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4, on the first floor of the Crerar Library, 5730 S. Ellis Ave. The program will begin at 5:30 p.m. with the following speakers: Judith Nadler, director of the Library and University Librarian; University President Robert J. Zimmer; Silvan Schweber, professor of physics and the Koret Professor Emeritus of the History of Ideas, Brandeis University, who will speak on “The Bethes and German Jewish Culture”; Robert Fefferman, dean of UChicago’s Physical Sciences Division; Christian Brecht, German consul general to the Midwest; and Moritz Epple, professor of history of science at Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main.

A reception and exhibition viewing will follow the program from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

The exhibit originated in Frankfurt am Main, a city near to Fefferman’s heart. His late mother, Liselott Ruth Stern Fefferman, was born and raised in Frankfurt, and emigrated from Nazi Germany in 1939 following the horrors of Kristallnacht. During this “Night of Broken Glass,” scores of Jews were killed, and tens of thousands more were arrested, while synagogues and Jewish businesses were vandalized or destroyed.

Influence on Chicago mathematicians

“This exhibit is an intimate look at the lives and struggles of some of the greatest mathematicians of their time, many of whom interacted significantly with members of our faculty,” Fefferman said. Among the UChicago faculty members influenced by mathematicians highlighted in the exhibit was the late Saunders Mac Lane, a highly influential 20th-century mathematician and a recipient of the National Medal of Science.

As a PhD student at Göttingen in the early 1930s, Mac Lane studied under David Hilbert, whose faculty and students at the Mathematisches Institut included many Jews. Among them were Emmy Noether, Paul Bernays, Alfréd Haar and Hugo Steinhaus.

Although Hilbert retired in 1930, he lived to see the Nazi purge of his close colleagues at Göttingen three years later. Noether emigrated to the United States, while Bernays returned to Zurich. Haar died of stomach cancer in 1933. Steinhaus survived the war in hiding. The work of Steinhaus and especially of Haar later became a major influence on Fefferman’s research.

Spanning a 150-year period, the exhibition illuminates the lasting legacies of these and other Jewish mathematicians. It also documents their emergence from segregation into the academic limelight and recalls their emigration, flight or death after 1933.

Jewish mathematicians played a key role in German-speaking academic culture before 1933, in teaching and research, in professional organizations and throughout academic and popular mathematical culture. The exhibition’s wealth of pictures and documents trace many moving lives: young researchers who helped shape modern mathematics and physics, scholars who went beyond mathematics and made their mark in literature or philosophy, and the story of Emmy Noether, the most important female mathematician of the 20th century.

“The interdisciplinary research in mathematics and science, history and philosophy, literature and Jewish studies that are on display here makes the University of Chicago Library an ideal choice for hosting his exhibition,” Nadler said. “Our broad and deep collections in each of these fields provide an environment that can enable further research.”

Epple recounted the grim historical statistics of German Jewish mathematicians at the exhibition’s opening in Tel Aviv last November. In 1933, at the end of the Weimar Republic, Jewish mathematicians held 20 of 94 full professorships at German universities, according to Epple, and the number had gone as high as 28 in the preceding years.

“Soon after 1933, there was not a single Jewish mathematician still in office anywhere in Nazi Germany. The extremely successful German-Jewish culture of mathematics had been abruptly and brutally destroyed. Like other Jews, these mathematicians were dismissed, persecuted, driven out of the country or murdered,” Epple said.

Lectures in November, December

Two additional lectures associated with the exhibition will be offered at the John Crerar Library. Hanna Holborn Gray, President Emerita and the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emerita at UChicago, will discuss “European Émigré Scholars and the American Academy After 1933,” on Nov. 5 at 5:30 p.m. Sander Gilman, Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University, will lecture on Dec. 3 at 5:30 p.m.

The exhibition was produced with support from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the German Federal Foreign Office, the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Research of the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung, and the Hausdorff Research Institute for Mathematics in Bonn. Further support has been received from the Leibniz Prize funds awarded to Wolfgang Lück. Sponsors of the opening and lectures are the Library, Center for Jewish Studies, Physical Sciences Division, Department of Germanic Studies, Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, and Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine, all at UChicago; the John Crerar Foundation and the Goethe Institut.

A comprehensive catalogue is available from the international publisher Springer. For further details, see tt.lib.uchicago.edu and www.gj-math.de.