A Stateless Giant

Alexander Grothendieck

was undoubtedly one of the highly influential mathematicians
of the 20th century. 

 by Damoon Robatian

Damoon Robatian is PhD candidate at Polytechnique School in Mathematical engineering

Damoon Robatian is PhD candidate at Polytechnique School in Mathematical engineering

This eminent mathematician was born to an anarchist family a decade before the Second World War. As a child he experienced an ultimately volatile life due to the war and his parents’ characters. His father, Alexander Schapiro, was a Russian-Ukrainian born activist of Hasidic Jewish descent, who at the age of fifteen fought for the Russian revolutionaries against the Russian tsars. 

Alexander Grothendieck, Montreal, 1970 Born: 28 March 1928 Place of Birth: Berlin, Prussia, Germany Nationality: stateless, French Awards: Fields Medal (1966) Crafoord Prize (1988)- Denied

Alexander Grothendieck, Montreal, 1970

Born: 28 March 1928
Place of Birth: Berlin, Prussia, Germany
Nationality: stateless, French
Awards: Fields Medal (1966)
Crafoord Prize (1988)- Denied

In 1907 he and many of his comrades were captured and sentenced to death. While his comrades were all shot by firing squad, Schapiro was given life imprisonment because of his youth. He was in prison for ten years before he escaped during the October Revolution in 1917. This was not the end of the fight for the passionate young anarchist. He continued to fight and was captured and escaped several times, on one occasion losing his left arm. After his first marriage with a Jewish woman and giving birth to his first son named Dodek, he eventually managed to escape to Berlin and later to Paris in 1921. In exile he alternately used different names Alexander Tanarov, Sascha Piotr and Sergei to hide his Jewish origins.

Grothendieck's mother, Johanna (Hanka) Grothendieck, was born in Hamburg, Germany. She was also a very active person in left-wing political groups. She first met Alexander Schapiro in Berlin, where they gave birth to their son Alexander (known as Schurik) a bit after. Alexander’s birth name was recorded as Alexander Raddatz since, at the time of his birth, Hanka was still officially married to Alf Raddatz, her first husband. A year later in 1929, Alf and Hanka were divorced. Alexander Schapiro (who still called himself Alexander Tanarov) and Hanka lived with their son Schurik and Hanka's daughter from her first marriage in Berlin from 1928 to 1933. During this time they made a living running a photographic studio.

In 1933, after the beginning of the severe persecution of Jews led by Adolf Hitler, Alexander Schapiro, who was hiding his Jewish origins, considered Berlin too dangerous for a Jew to live. So, he left his family and returned to Paris in May 1933. A few months later, five-year-old Alexander was fostered by the pastor Wilhelm Heydorn in Hamburg as her mother Hanka also left him in order to participate in the Spanish Civil war (1936-39) together with Schapiro supporting the Spanish Republicans. Schurik, meanwhile, finished his elementary education in Hamburg and stayed with the Heydorns until 1939. After finishing school, he finally joined his parents in Paris in the same year. However, the poor boy’s family never seemed to be granted a calm life. According to the recently passed French law, all Germans living in France, including Schurik’s family, were sent to special internment camps designed for “undesirables”. During the following years, Hanka and Schurik frequently were being sent from one camp to another, but all far from the camps Schurik’s father was being kept in. The young boy and his mother never met Schapiro again.

Miraculously, Schurik managed to attend the famous Collège Cévénol, where he got his baccalauréat in 1945. He would hide in the woods every time the authorities came round looking for Jews. Meanwhile, in 1942 his father had been handed over by the French Vichy government to the Nazis who took him from the Camp du Vernet to the Auschwitz extermination camp where he perished. Some years later, Hanka died after a long-lasted suffering from tuberculosis contracted in one of the internment camps.

According to recordings, Schurik was never satisfied with the school mathematics program. He, very soon, began to express his clever critical viewpoints towards math content and, particularly, the way it was taught at high school. After entering university, he found little difference in there too [jackson]. Despite this fact, he did not give up and started to study high level mathematics at the Montpellier University almost all on his own. After being graduated from Montpellier, Schurik, who was by then called Alexander Grothendieck (his mother’s surname), spent the year 1948-49 at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. He continued his researches in the University of Nancy and presented his doctoral thesis “Produits tensoriels topologiques et espaces nucléaires” in 1953. Later in 1956, Grothendieck became a member of the secret group of mathematicians “Nicolas Bourbaki”.

Grothendieck effected fundamental advances in algebraic topology. He introduced the idea of K-theory, revolutionized homological algebra and was awarded a Fields Medal in 1966 for his fundamental contributions to algebraic topology. But now, Grothendieck was strongly pacifist in his views and, as a political protest against the military built-up of the 1960s, refused to travel to the International Congress of Mathematicians held in Moscow (1966), where he was supposed to make his presentation before receiving the medal. At the Congress, Léon Motchane, director of IHES, received the Fields Medal on Grothendieck's behalf. Grothendieck made no public statement about the reasons for not going to Moscow but he declared himself a citizen of the world and requested United Nations citizenship. In November and December of 1967 he visited North Vietnam which, at that time, was being bombed by the Americans:

“Grothendieck's first lectures - which he describes as "general orientation talks" — were given in Hanoi. But because of intensified bombing of the capital, a high-level decision was made to move everyone to the secret location of the Faculty of Mathematics of Hanoi University. It was a remarkable event in the history of mathematics: one of the giants of 20th-century mathematics delivering a short course on homological algebra in a remote forest hideout in a desperately poor country that was being "bombed back into the stone age" (U.S Air Force General Curtis Le May's phrase) by the most powerful military force the world had ever known.” [1]

Between 1980 and 1990, Grothendieck wrote literally thousands of pages some containing his mathematical thoughts and others containing non-mathematical meditations. He remained a political activist all his life. In August 1991 he left home suddenly, without informing anyone, for an unknown location.


[1] N. Koblitz, Grothendieck’s 1967 lectures in the forest in Vietnam, Math, Intelligencer 35 (2) (2013), 32-34