My Grandfather: The Math Genius Who Fled the Nazis
Karl Gruenberg was a leading light in algebra, and I wish I knew him better.
Two years ago, I visited Vienna for the first time — the city of my ancestral roots and birthplace of my grandfather. But I wasn’t just there to soak in its abundance of culture. I’d gone to acquire Austrian citizenship.
Being British, the Brexit debacle — its attendant deceit, manipulation, and greed — saddened and frustrated me. Among numerous negative consequences, millions were deprived of the freedom to live and work in Europe. However, thanks to a twist of fate, the gates of the continent were opened to me once again.
For most people, it’s not easy to become an Austrian citizen. Naturalization is only possible if you’ve lived in the country for a minimum of five years and can speak serviceable German. What’s more, you have to renounce any other citizenship you hold.
Three years ago, the Austrian parliament amended the Austrian Citizenship Act. This was motivated by the recognition of its historical responsibility towards persons persecuted by the Nazis and their descendants. In the lead-up to the Second World War, the UK implemented the Kindertransport: an organized rescue of over ten thousand predominantly Jewish children from European countries. I’m now an official Austrian because my grandfather was swept along by this mass exodus.
Alone, confused, and afraid, Karl Gruenberg left all he had ever known — family, friends, and what remained of his childhood — and prepared, as best as a small boy can, to live in a foreign country. When I try to picture him on that boat, surrounded by strangers, unsure if he would see his mother again (she would later join him in England), I wonder what was going through his mind.
The holocaust is something I struggle to comprehend. Evil may not exist in an absolute sense, but history has repeatedly shown that humans are capable of committing absolutely evil acts; that, when a certain kind of pressure is applied within specific conditions, adults can execute children under orders. I wonder what my grandfather thought about all this.
Truth be told, I know very little about his early life. He never talked about his escape from…