Walter Ledermann: Encounters of a Mathematician


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(Manchester: 1946-62)

War experiences and marriage

With increasing anxiety and despair I watched Hitler's stunning successes in the 1930's: The Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, ... ; there was nothing to stop him. Looking back to those fateful years, one understands how lucky Hitler was. The leaders of the West were generally weak and misguided and failed to understand the true aim of the Nazi dictator. In the face of the rapid and powerful rearmament of the fascist countries, many people in the western democracies clung to pacifist ideals and disregarded the Roman adage "if you want peace, prepare for war." But the strongest reason for Hitler's triumphs was the fact that many people in the West believed that Russian communism was their real enemy and, with some justification, they regarded Hitler as their natural ally in their fight against this evil. It was therefore a shattering blow to any hope for peace when, late in August 1939, Stalin accepted Hitler's offer of a non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia, "which could not be cancelled within twenty-five years." (It lasted less than two years.) This was the signal for Hitler to launch the war against Poland, to be followed by the conquests of Denmark and Norway. Then there was a lull in the fighting, known as the "phoney" war, until Hitler began his devastating attack against Holland, Belgium and France in May 1940.

I was very lucky in that just before these events, namely on 11th April 1940, my application for naturalization came through. (After the outbreak of hostilities in the West no further applications were being considered.) The Procurator Fiscal (Justice of the Peace) travelled from the quiet capital of Fife to interview me at St Andrews. He was a nice elderly gentleman; I doubt whether he had ever seen a foreigner before. He was old enough to remember the First World War and naturally was most concerned about the fact that this country was again at war. "Isn't it terrible that we now have another war; so many people will get killed as in the last war," and he added in a subdued voice: "In this war, are you on our side?" I assured him emphatically that I was certainly on his side in this war against Hitler and I should be glad to do my utmost to help in the war effort. He was satisfied and said: "Sign here and swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty, King George the Sixth, His Heirs and Successors, according to law."

I was now a twenty-nine year old male British citizen and was therefore liable to be enlisted in the Armed Forces to serve in the war. First of all I was instructed to report for medical examination at some place in Dundee. This happened to be on the first Monday of a month and on that day all recruits would be sent to the Navy. I was quite looking forward to being a sailor. However, at that time of my life I was rather short-sighted and always had to wear spectacles. When I reached the military establishment where the medical examination was to be carried out, the guard at the door stopped me and said: "No sailor ever wears spectacles. Go down to the basement of this building; there is an army Major who will interview our rejects." The Major looked at my papers. "You are a mathematician?." "Yes, Sir." "Can you drive a car?" "I regret: no, Sir." "Then go back to St Andrews." However, a few days later I received an Enlistment Notice, telling me to present myself at the Royal Army Pay Corps at Perth. The Notice was accompanied by a nicely produced leaflet with two pictures of the smiling King in uniform on the outside and some friendly, helpful and homely pieces of advice on the inside from Anthony Eden, who was Secretary of Sate for War. It began by telling you: "You are about to become a soldier. This will mean a big change in your life." And it continued: "At first, naturally, you will feel rather strange to your surrounding: you will miss your home and friends." But "Learn to obey all orders smartly and without question." The leaflet ends with the resounding: "Once more I welcome you to the Army. Fear God, Honour the King, and May Victory Soon Crown Our Arms!" A postal order for 4 shillings was enclosed "in respect of advance of service pay." I made an appointment with Sir James Irvine, the Vice-Chancellor of St Andrews University, in order to say good-bye before joining the army. When he saw my Enlistment Notice he got angry and said: "Surely, they could make better use of you than putting you as a Private into the Royal Army Pay Corps. Besides, it is a big waste of money. The University would have to supplement your army pay so that it is equal to that of a lecturer, because it has been agreed that nobody should loose money by joining the Armed Forces. In addition, we should have to find a replacement for you in the Mathematics Department, because the teaching programme of the University will have to continue. I shall talk to Anthony Eden, who is a friend of mine and tell him that this would not do." As I was leaving his office, he asked his secretary to put a telephone through to the Secretary State of War. Evidently, Sir James Irvine's intervention was successful, because a few days later I was informed that "in consequence of unforeseen circumstances" my enlistment has been cancelled and I was requested to return the postal order.

I had now been rejected both by the Navy and by the Army. But a new opportunity soon presented itself: the University of St Andrews was chosen to house an Initial Training Wing of the Royal Air Force, where the cadets attended a fairly intensive course of theoretical instruction before they moved on to be trained as pilots. The group was led by a nice and cultured Wing Commander who had been wounded in the battle of Britain a few months earlier and was unable to carry out flying duties. The course included some work on navigation which required a certain amount of mathematical expertise. Dan Rutherford, Freundlich and I were appointed to be part time instructors. Dan received the rank of a Flight Lieutenant, whilst Freundlich and I remained civilians. (It did not seem the worry the authorities that two out the three instructors were former foreigners.) I continued with my normal university teaching; now most of the students were women, the men having been called up for military service. My commitment for the Royal Air Force for the remaining four years of the war was quite intensive, with only six days holiday in the year. But I enjoyed the work. Since at any time the group of cadets was not large we were able to get to know the students individually. During the short break in the teaching Dan sometimes arranged excursions to the Highlands. Some of the boys who had come from the South of England had never seen a mountain and found hill climbing the most strenuous part of their training.

There were other ways in which I was able to make some very modest contributions to the war effort. The Royal Army Education Corps engaged lecturers who would go to remote military establishments and talk to the troops on some entertaining and perhaps mildly educational topic. I was invited to be one of the speakers. But I pointed out that being a mathematician my own subject would certainly not be entertaining and would be unwelcome. However, I offered to speak about some memories I had as a child in Berlin, during the twelve months 1922/3 when Germany suffered "hyperinflation" which resulted in the almost total destruction of the currency. Bank notes were printed day and night to keep pace with the rapid devaluation. When the nightmare was past and a new currency was introduced one "new" mark was equal to one million million "old" marks. Of course, the old bank notes had no monetary value. At that time I was twelve years of age and I collected the obsolete money as a toy and to this day I have box filled with these bizarre mementoes. I passed them round my audience during my lecture on The German Inflation and I related some of the sad stories about the hardships suffered by innocent victims of this upheaval. A gave this lecture at several military establishments; but the reception was at best lukewarm. At one artillery unit overlooking the Firth of Forth the attendance was particularly small: I learned later that the Commandant had designated my lecture a "defaulters' parade", that is to say attendance was compulsory for soldiers who had misbehaved in some way. However, one day a more attractive opportunity seemed to arise: I was asked to give my lecture to group of WRNS (Women's Royal Navy Service), and I was looking forward to spending an afternoon with the young ladies. I went to "His Majesty's Ship" actually a disused school house on the banks of the river Tay in Dundee. The Commandant, a woman in an elegant uniform received me in true naval tradition by handing me a glass of rum. After some polite conversation she said: "Please remind me what your lecture is about." I told her that I shall speak about the German inflation. After a few seconds she replied: "Ah, I see. Would you mind if the girls bring their knitting?" Despite this anti-climax I enjoyed the afternoon.

From time to time The Royal Army Education Corps provided Refresher Courses for the teachers in the Education Corps so that they could consolidate their knowledge and become acquainted with new topics. The Major who was in charge of the course asked me to contribute with some lectures. I told him that I was very willing to help but that I did not think mathematics would be a suitable subject. However, in a low voice as if to divulge some mystery he said: "I understand that there are two kinds of fraction: vulgar fractions and decimal fractions. Do you think you could explain their difference?" I assured him that I would do my best to satisfy his request. I went straight to the book shop and bought a copy of Brush up your Arithmetic in order to get some idea about how to treat such an elementary topic. The Major was pleased with my lectures on fractions. He came to see me again and said: "Well done. Could you continue and get as far as LOGARITHMS?" I told that I did not think this would be feasible and I made no further contributions to the Refresher Course.

I joined the First Aid Team which had to go into action in the event of an air raid alarm. A doctor trained us in rudimentary care such as the use of the stretcher and how to get wounded persons out of rubble of a bombed house. Fortunately, we had very few alarms at St Andrews. But I remember one occasion when in the middle of the night with no lights I had to go on my bicycle to the assigned station, which was the girl students' Hall of Residence. I spent some pleasant hours there until the All Clear was sounded in the morning.

During the latter part of the war, units of foreign troupes were stationed for retraining in some parts of Scotland, including St Andrews. I spoke to the Minister of the Church of a neighbouring village about this matter and he said: "Oh yes, we had foreign soldiers billeted on us already last year. It was clear that the chaps had more interest in our girls than in their military exercises. Indeed, nine months after their arrival we had a 'lambing season'." At that time I was warden of a men's Hall of Residence at St Andrews. One night I was rung up by a man who spoke with exited foreign voice: "Are you doctor Ledermann? Please come to me at once. My wife is having a baby." I conveyed to him my best wishes on this happy event; but I told him that I could do nothing about it. He got very angry: "You are a doctor and it is your duty to come and help my wife." He was in no mood to listen to my explanation of academic degrees. His final fling was: "But you have been so warmly recommended!" Fortunately, I was able to give him the name and address of a 'real' doctor, who would surely do what was expected of him.

One curious consequence of the war was my acquaintance with The Lady Elisabeth Babington Smith. One of my colleagues at St Andrews was Bernard Babington Smith. He was a lecturer in the Department of Experimental Psychology and a specialist in statistics. Occasionally, we had talked about mathematical aspects of his work. Some time after the outbreak of the war he said to me: "I am leaving St Andrews in order to join the Royal Air Force. Please do me the favour of looking after my mother when she needs company." His mother was the daughter of the 9th Earl of Elgin, who was viceroy of India in the last decade of the 19th century. One member of his staff was Sir Henry Babington Smith, an eminent civil servant and a renowned expert on international finance. In 1898, at Simla, Sir Henry married Lady Elisabeth Mary Bruce, the family name of Lord Elgin being Bruce, a descendent of the Scottish King. Evidently it was a happy marriage; they had ten children. Sadly, Sir Henry Babington Smith died in 1923, a few days after the twenty-fifth anniversary of their wedding.

When I met The Lady Elisabeth she had been a widow for about twenty years. She lived in a small cottage on the outskirts of St Andrews adopting a very simple style, also in her outward appearance. One could not guess that she was a member of one of the oldest aristocratic families of Scotland. I do not know whether she had a domestic servant during the week, but Bernard had asked me to visit his mother every Sunday evening, so that she would not be alone then. I enjoyed these occasions very much. She cooked a simple supper for us: two pigeons which she boiled in a casserole. I was fascinated to listen to her stories which she told in a beautiful melodious voice. As a young woman when her father, Lord Elgin, was the Viceroy of India, she sometimes had to be the hostess at official functions, when her mother was unwell. Her husband was financial advisor to the Turkish government for several years. She was obviously very popular there; she received the Highest Order of the First Class. Our meetings took place in the middle of the war, when our thoughts were with Churchill. I asked her: "Have you met Churchill?" She replied: "Yes, as a young man, he was on father's staff," and she added with a smile: "Mr Churchill is clever; but he is not wise."

In her Will she left for me a beautiful book case and a ring. (A ring from a descendant of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland -- should I have claimed the Throne of Scotland?)

With the divers activities and obligations the last two years of the war passed rather quickly, especially since it became increasingly likely that Hitler was going to be defeated (we did not think of an atomic bomb). When finally the longed-for Victory in Europe Day came after Germany's surrender on 7th May 1945, there was enormous relief, although the war in the Far East was still going on. Freundlich said to me: "Ledermann, now that the war is over, you should get married." I replied: "You may well be right, Professor. But it takes two for such a step." Freundlich was prepared for this query: "I know exactly the young lady who, I hope, will be your wife." When Freundlich was working in Prague he met Alice Low-Beer, whose husband Walter Low-Ber was a wealthy business man. Alice and Rushi were cousins, their fathers being brothers; but there was a considerable age difference between them, Alice being Rushi's senior by eighteen years. After the fall of Czechoslovakia the Low-Beers settled in a beautiful house in Epsom (Surrey). Sadly, by that time Walter had suffered a stroke and had become an invalid. Rushi often stayed with her cousin in Epsom. Freundlich also visited the Low Beers and evidently had met Rushi there and (understandably!) was very impressed by her. Some time during the summer vacation of 1945 he invited Rushi to come to St Andrews, although he must have known that I was then staying with my parents in London. Our joint paper on the relativistic light-deflection was then in the process of publication and both authors were required to read the proof sheets for corrections and return them to the printers. He gave Rushi my London address and asked her to give me a set of proof sheets in person. Thus on one afternoon in the summer of 1945 she appeared at my parents; flat at 10 Church Crescent, Muswell Hill, London N. She introduced herself and said that Professor Freundlich had asked her to pass on some papers to me. We soon found that we had much in common. There was a nice piano in my parents' flat and we started playing sonatas for violin and piano straight away. We met several times in London and I visited her at Tunbridge, where she had a position as a social worker at a child guidance clinic. We decided to get married in the spring of next year, 15th March 1946. Our marriage took place in the morning of that day at the Registry Office in Epsom, since neither of us belonged to a synagogue; but in the afternoon we had a beautiful religious ceremony at the Low-Beer's house. It was conducted by Rabbi Eschelbacher, an old friend of the Stadler family who, I was told, had officiated at the marriage of Rushi's parents in 1913.

We spent the first University term of our married life in furnished rooms at St Andrews. This was not particularly comfortable. Moreover, since St Andrews is a small town, it had no Child Guidance Clinic, where Rushi could find work. She was offered part-time employment in Dundee; but this was inconvenient as it involved a tedious journey. So we decided to move to more stimulating surroundings, preferably to a city with a flourishing cultural life and a cosmopolitan atmosphere.


Previous chapter
(Start of my academic career )
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(Manchester: 1946-62)

JOC/EFR May 2009