Walter Ledermann: Encounters of a Mathematician


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Childhood in Berlin: 1911 - 1920

I was born in 1911, as the second of the four children of William and Charlotte Ledermann. My father was a physician who had a busy medical practice in a humble working class district of Berlin. It was part of his duties to care for the poorest members of the community. All his patients were very devoted to him.

As a young bachelor doctor in the 1890's he started his medical practice in a small apartment on the first floor of a block of flats each consisting of a room and a kitchen. This was all that a working class family could afford at that time. There was no sanitation in the flats, the communal lavatories being situated on the main stairway half-a-level below the living quarters. When my father got married and the children were born, he repeatedly acquired more units of kitchen plus living room, until we occupied the whole of the first floor of the block, about ten rooms in all. Some of the kitchens were turned into bathrooms which were utterly unknown elsewhere in the block. Three rooms were used for the medical practice, comprising a waiting room, an office and a treatment room. These were shut off by a double door from the rest of the flat, which were our private rooms. I was born in this apartment, as were my brother and sisters (hospital confinements were much less frequent in those days) and I lived there until, almost twenty-three years later, I emigrated to Scotland. Thus all my childhood memories and my development into adulthood are associated with this place. The apartment was situated in a corner house. There were entrances either from 75 Wrangelstrasse, or from 17 Cuvrystrasse; we had in fact three main entrance doors leading to the stairs of the building reaching the street level in one flight of stairs passing the communal lavatory. All the rooms were on the same level above the street. They were joined by a long corridor which consisted of two parts at a right angle to each other following the shape of the corner house. We were not unduly troubled by the fact that the apartment was situated in a rather miserable part of Berlin and that an evil smell frequently issued from another part of the building. By way of compensation, there was a large public park in the vicinity where we regularly played with out childhood friends. When our family was complete, seven persons lived in this apartment (I give the year of birth in brackets): my father William (1871), my mother Charlotte (1883), the four children: Erich (1908), Walter (1911), Käte (1914) and Ruth (1922). In addition Aunt Recha (1863) lived with us. She was the eldest of my father's four sisters. Two of them had died as young women; a third sister, Eugenie, had married an American and lived in San Francisco. None of them had children. I never saw Aunt Eugenie: but I have fond memories about her because she very kindly sent us parcels from America after the First World War when food was still scarce in Germany. It was the first time that I saw and tasted chocolate when these parcels arrived. Aunt Recha played an important part in my life. She was a kind of grandmother to me, both my real grandmothers having died in the first year of my life. When I was very young, Aunt Recha took me to the Synagogue on Friday evenings. Little boys were allowed to sit with the women. I was fascinated by the music and thrilled that I was allowed to sip a little wine at the Kiddush. When my parents finally decided in 1938 to leave Germany and join Erich and me in Britain, it was not feasible to bring Aunt Recha with them. She was put in an old-people's home from where the Nazis deported and killed her.

We had a fair amount of social life. My mother had two brothers, Richard and Ernst, and a sister, Hanna. They all had children. So I had uncles, aunts and cousins, most of whom I saw from time to time. I was fond of Aunt Hanna. As a young woman she had married Karl Gärtner. They had a son, Hans (1908). Sadly her husband died suddenly in 1914 and she did not remarry for many years. Hans was my favourite cousin, almost like a second brother to me. When he settled in Israel he changed his name to Jochanan Ginat. In addition to their relatives, my parents had also friends who formed part of our family circle. Thea Jacobius - Aunt Thea to us children - was a life-long friend of my mother. An unmarried lady of high intelligence and warm feeling she taught modern languages at a prestigious girls school in Berlin. It was always a great pleasure when Aunt Thea joined our family. It was tragic that the attempt to obtain for her an entry visa to Britain, even as a "domestic servant" was unsuccessful. The Nazis deported her to the East, where she was murdered.

My paternal grandfather was Jakob Ledermann. He died before I was one year old. From all the accounts I have gathered he must have been a remarkable man. As a young man he was a teacher in a small town in an Eastern province of Germany which later became part of Poland. Many of the children spoke Polish, and my grandfather was bilingual. Indeed, I was told that he was fluent in six languages and that he had taught himself to play the violin and was proficient in short-hand writing. Being dissatisfied with his profession, he moved with his family to Berlin. There he was engaged as a secretary by the banker Baron Bleichröder, who was not only Bismarck's personal banker but also his confidant and friend. It would seem that sometimes Bleichröder used my grandfather as a secret agent. On one of these occasions he sent him to Venice in connection with an intrigue designed to prevent the marriage of Bismarck's son to a lady of whom Bismarck strongly disapproved.

Around 1870 my grandfather went to Britain. I do not know what the purpose of his visit was; but he returned full of admiration of what he had seen and experienced. "This is the country in which I should like to live," he declared, "there is freedom and respect for everybody, including Jews." Shortly afterwards his only son (my father) was born. He gave him the English name William. His plan to move to England with his family was not carried out. But by a twist of fate, my parents did in fact come to England when fleeing from the Nazis. They joined my brother and me here. Thus my grandfather's wish has been fulfilled to the extent that all his male descendants live in England.

My mother's background was very different from that of my father. Her father was Sigismund Apt, a wealthy metal merchant. He lived in a fashionable part of Berlin and also owned a country house in the Harz Mountains in the centre of Germany, where members of the family and their friends would foregather during the summer holidays.

Although I was only four years old when the First World War started, a few vivid memories remain: the sadness when my father was called up to serve as a medical officer in the German army; the jubilation when Russia was defeated and I was allowed to take part in a torch light procession; I remember the revolution following the defeat of Germany. For a time Berlin was ruled by revolutionary gangs. When my father returned to Berlin after demobilization, the officer's insignia were torn from his uniform (he had the rank of a captain), but he was allowed to keep the ceremonial sword, because he had paid for it with his own money. I was told that we no longer had a Kaiser and I could not believe that life without a Kaiser would be possible.

We were always conscious of being Jewish; but we were truly assimilated into German culture. We regarded ourselves as Germans until the time when the Nazis seized power. Only pure German was spoken in our family; we were not acquainted with Yiddish. We belonged to the association, whose members described themselves as "German citizens of the Jewish faith." My father had a somewhat orthodox upbringing. Throughout his life he went to the Synagogue on the High Holidays when my brother or I would accompany him and he fasted on Yom Kippur. But we did not celebrate the Sabbath; nor did we insist on kosher food. However, every year some distant relatives invited us to Seder on Passover. Both my brother and I had bar mitzvah ceremonies, curiously in my case it was held one year later than usual, when I was fourteen years old. My performance at the synagogue was minimal: I only had to say the Blessing in Hebrew and then took no further part in the proceedings. But my parents gave a party to celebrate my bar mitzvah and I received many presents from relatives and friends of the family. My mother appeared to have no interest in the Jewish religion. At her father's request she was exempt from taking part in Jewish instruction at school because it was his opinion that "if my daughter wants to pray to God, then she can pray in German." Initially, my parents did not support Zionism. But when the threat from the Nazis became ever more real, my sister Käte joined a Zionist youth group, and Ruth followed her in due course. They both emigrated to Palestine/Israel as soon as it was possible and settled there. We are very pleased to keep in touch with our family in Israel.

I started school at the age of six, as was the custom in Germany. This was still during the First World War. I attended the Preliminary School of the Köllnische Gymnasium (how odd that the Germans use the word gymnasium for a Grammar School, whereas in fact it means a place where naked boys are engaged in physical exercise). Incidentally, in mediaeval times, Kölln was a twin town with Berlin; it had nothing to do with Köln, or Cologne, the principal city in the Rhineland. I do not remember much about my early school years, except that our teacher was a kind old gentleman. I was often absent on account of illness, because I had contracted chronic asthma when I was two years old. When I was seven, I was taken out of school for a whole term and put into care of a farmer and his wife in Upper Silesia, close to what was soon to become the Polish frontier.

I settled down well in the rustic surroundings. My task was to look after the geese, and the church warden gave me some lessons in writing and reading. When three months later my mother came to take me home, she could hardly understand me, because I had picked up the local accent so thoroughly.


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(Mathematical awakening and musical abundance: Berlin 1920 - 28 )

JOC/EFR May 2009