III. Pre-mathematical CV: on the Art of Surviving in XXth Century

Once I told a French notary that the record on my Polish birthplace was not too exact as (at the moment of that conversation) the place belonged to the Soviet Union. It engaged his attention: “So you're Russian?” Never more (be it France or Brazil) I would indulge into geographical details of a Lithuanian hamlet with hospital services in a neighboring Belorussian town; I'd rather avoid discussion on the real place of my birth.
In fact I was born in the Eastern Protectorate of the Millenial Reich of the German Nation. As a Slav I was predestined to become a slave of the real Aryans and would begin my toil at 12 bringing down trees or working at a munition factory dying before I could reach 20 – but I was lucky to have the Millenial Reich finished before I was 2.

That means: quite lucky but not necessarily happy childhood. When I was some months old, one night there appeared the Freedom Fighters at the hut where my family found shelter in that hamlet. Their nationality does not matter, what did matter at that moment was that they were looking for gold. They didn't like to find out that I was the only man present in the room. They wanted to know where the metal was hidden. The deductive reasoning induced one of the Fighters to conduct the search putting his arm under my body in the box that served as a cradle. Soon he found the only type of gold that could be placed there under the circumstances. In a rage he caught me by my leg and whirled me around in his stretched hand planning to end my trajectory on the wall. But his colleagues pleaded him to change my orbit claiming that killing babies brings bad luck. In consequence, I would never be fond of merry-go-rounds. Besides, I think it correct to note what follows:

(2) Sometimes superstitions work in favor of a mathematician.

As the war ended there came the beginning of the Great Tourism. Some people think that mass tourism was invented in the sixties of XXc. among well-off societies but already in twenties, thirties and forties the communists promoted that activity carrying Ukrainians to the Siberian tundra, Poles to Kazakhstan's deserts and Jews to the grave. Instead of going back home to Vilnius (differently from the rest of Lithuania that city had only 2% of Lithuanians, the rest of the population was of Polish and Jewish origin) my mother had to start her journey to nowhere.

It was the operation of the transfer of the Polish State some hundred kilometers to the west. The work was done in short time, as planned, with a removal of 7 million Germans from Prussia to Saxony and Bavaria, all dissatisfied Poles to Siberia and annexation of obtained lands to the Soviet Union. The plans that I mention were designed in Teheran by Churchill and Roosevelt. Nobody has called them serial killers as such criminals bring death to a dozen or two of persons – and not to millions. Their decision that brought a world catastrophe started with a push westwards applied to Poland and later with a linguistic trick. Everything on one side of a river that crosses Europe would be called “Eastern Europe” and would be given as a present to Stalin, Hitler's former companion. Talking to Stalin the leaders of the US and Great Britain found him agreeable, called him affectionately “Joe” and decided to leave some gifts with him. The fact that a fourth part of the Germany would stay with Russians seemed natural – those who brought the death to 20 million inhabitants of the Soviet Union could count on a revenge. (A part of it were the rapes of German women repeated in a massive scale in the years 1944-46. To-day's techniques of genetics and statistics might make it possible to compare the segment of the German population born in that period with older and younger ones in order to quantify the modification of the genetic pool of the German tribe. It seems that these scientific data on racial composition do not interest anybody anymore – the priorities of that country had changed a lot.) But it is hard to understand why Stalin was not offered a helping of Wales and New Mexico, why it had to be Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, with Estonia and Hungary, with Latvia and Lithuania, with Poland and Rumania.

I myself had no special reasons to complain, I was traveling west, differently from several millions of Ukrainians who were being deported from Germany (“repatriated” was the language of the period, as if Kola Peninsula or Kamchatka were parts of Ukrainian motherland). Those mass deportations to concentration camps – as well as sending there the whole victorious army of the marshal Zhukov, making it join in Siberia the German prisoners of war – all of this had passed unnoticed by the “Western World”. The democratic world was too much busy constructing its wealth that it would reveal 20 years later. It all makes sense. The French didn't want to fight for Alsatia in 1936 nor to die for Danzig in 1939, why should they risk anything for Tallin in 1944, Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968?

Why was it that the destiny decided that I should live in a country called Poland instead of Polish Soviet Socialist Republic with Russian language in schools and offices? I owe it to my ancestors; participating during 150 years in various rebellions treated by statesmen as suicidal and absurd they have convinced Comrade Stalin to have second thought on his generous disposition to incorporate that country into the Soviet Union. Certainly two great fights of Warsaw, those of 1920 and 1944, gave the final touch to his analysis.

I consider Russian language truly beautiful and till today I am able to quote by heart some lines of Pushkin, Mayakovsky and Erenburg but it was good for me to use in my everyday life another language, more ugly, nasal and complicated, a language that gives a lot of work to its poets to put things together. Some of them make it work, as the cases of Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska have shown.

During those displacements of several months that were to take me finally to Szczecin there was an episode that I'd like to tell. The train travels were uncomfortable (cargo wagons with benches around the walls and luggage placed in the middle) and dangerous. The world was full of Freedom Fighters who used to stop trains putting mines under crossties. As a measure of protection, in a composition a locomotive used to follow two open platforms but it didn't help much under the explosion suffered by the train that carried me: a piece of a rail some meters long torn up from the crossties took up a parabolic trajectory between a platform and the locomotive and went down in the middle of my wagon. It thrust through the ceiling, its end landed on the floor and the piece slowly went down cutting the ceiling without hurting anybody. My mother and my grandmother told me that everybody present knelt to me because nobody doubted – as I was the only toddler there – that it was me destined by the Lord to stay alive. Without any doubt one can conclude here that

(3) For a mathematician some curves are more advantageous than the others.

All that followed later was an easygoing, simple and placid life. A dozen of serious child diseases, two assaults (along the same script: three with a knife against me), molestations by secret police, some moments of my stupidity at the wheel – all of this passed without leaving too visible scars. Comparing me to some billions of dwellers of our planet I may consider myself a permanent buyer of winning tickets.

Going back to my tender years: the most neatly inscribed memory of that period is nicely smelling kasza (Polish rice, they call it here) that fell to the floor when my fingers of a three year old kid lost hold of the plate. For the next 50 years I attributed the strength of the recollection to the lack of good food at that time but reading the diary of my deceased mother I have discovered that in that town on that day my family was joined again by my father who had passed two years working in a mine close to Moscow. He was not a miner. He was a journalist and the experience didn't cost him too much, only the tuberculosis. If the Russians got him before the coming of Germans, he would be dead, as those of Katyn or those of Magadan. (Roman Duda has told me that in London archives he had seen some documents of the Russian Red Army that were captured by the partisans of Armia Krajowa. They listed the professions and types of persons to be arrested. The thirteenth category was of stamp collectors. Sure. They knew to read and besides they had some contacts abroad.) But the later rape of Polish intelligentsia, after the flight of Germans, had another character. Due to this difference 10 years later I could get from my father the books On the traces of Pythagoras and Lilavati that should have contaminated me with some mathematical germs already at that age.

(The important part of those books of Szczepan Jelenski is not only what stands there but also what does not. At no moment there appears any suggestion that Lilavati faced her challenges getting a hunch of the future teachings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Yes, in those times one had to have a lot of courage not to dedicate the work to Generalissimus Comrade Stalin.)

My next recollection isn't as much connected with mathematics as with the worldwide madness. I am 5 and I get a package with a marvelous can of condensed milk, the delicious dried fig and a fantastic box of crayons. It is Christmas. It is UNRRA – The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. (Till today I have a penchant for condensed milk, dried fig and crayons.) The miracle had no repetition on other Christmas dates – there came the Cold War there and I thought that UNRRA was over. But 25 years later at a camp of the group Makusyny I've discovered that the food stocks that the army gave us had “UNRRA” stamp on them. Well, it started making sense. The military guys of the Western world had to have an enemy to confound their own societies, so they furnished the food to the army of the opposite side in order to let it save money to be able to produce the armaments.

(4) A box of crayons or a book with mathematical histories - which is a better gift for a child? If the child is small, give it both of them. If a child is over 30, buy it the book Ą la recherche du maths perdu.

The way to school in Szczecin passed through a mile of ruins. In fact, two school buildings were the only preserved ones in the terrain of several square miles. There were many bombs and one of my colleagues had bad luck to discover that any bomb can explode one day. Some less gloomy landscapes could be appreciated during frequent school excursions into the fields – we were catching there the potato plague, the Colorado beetle. Our newspapers and books told us that it infested our socialist land parachuted by North-American imperialists. There were grown-ups who dreamed that one night the Americans would parachute the sleep powder and waking up we would not be in Russian hands any more – but in that part of Europe people always overestimate the North-American technology.

There was more to Szczecin than the bare sea of ruins. In its Palace of Youth I participated in the group of photography (it was one of a dozen of possibilities) and conducted thrilling experiences in the group of chemistry. One of them, with the use of red phosphorus and made at home, nearly ended in a tragedy but again the bad luck was stopped at the “nearly” level. Yes, all youth had an access to the Palace and everything was free of charge. “Payed amusement” would sound like a heresy.

When I moved to Zielona Góra (identified by MacTutor as “Zielona”, the birthplace of Pitiscus), I was seen as a natural candidate for a later study of chemistry and I participated in some Chemistry Olympiads. The course of my education had changed when my school organized an excursion to a cellulose factory. Ten kilometers before reaching it we knew we were close to it. Immediately the chemistry went down some steps in my preferences. Note that

(5) The mathematics does not stink.

Zielona Góra was much smaller than Szczecin with sixty odd thousand inhabitants and if it were a French or Brazilian town the size would guarantee the nonexistence of any cultural life. But in that part of Europe “the size is not a document”, as Brazilians say; there was a good theater, some concerts of a philharmonic orchestra that was being organized – and there were Helena and Wladyslaw Korcz. She taught me history at school and he did the same at their home. His credentials were the degree of “docent” (the degree unknown in the US, one more step after Ph.D.) and several years in Soviet Gulag. He didn't tell much about that experience – it was too terrible to narrate the details – but what he had told me was enough. And he lent me all the volumes of Bertrand Russell published in the thirties.

Later there appeared at school another historian, Zbigniew Czarnuch. Today he is a legend and a textbook example on education but at that time he was a history teacher at a high school. A thankless task for an honest and thinking human being.

One of my greatest intellectual frustrations has happened at his class. He made me explain to my classmates what was the “chartist movement”. I had no inkling of it and started improvising by inventing a colorful biography of a Chart, a mass leader. I didn't know well in what period I should assent him but Czarnuch's nods were confirming that he was following me so I just went on and on. Only some minutes later he applied coup de grāce informing me that the question concerned Carta Magna.

One of his educational techniques – fully applicable in mathematics – was to ask a pupil to describe a phenomenon using precious few key words. Unluckily, if you use it with persons who think that “mathematics = calculations” the effect tends to be comic.

I passed my matura (the final exam of Polish high school) without knowing to say the difference between sine and cotangent. I didn't care about the distinction. I passed because it would be strange if two of rather eminent students failed – but the other said in an interview printed in a weekly of wide circulation that matura was just a slip of paper on his way to the (well-known) Lodz Film Academy. The relative size of my sins was instantly diminished and I did pass. (Basically it was my speciality to say things that drove people crazy but when Wojciech Gielzycki came from Warsaw to our school to interview all my classmates, the fate sent me a timely flu and I will never know what type of statements I had been able to make at that time.)

I had to choose a University course as I preferred to lose 5 years staying at a university than 3 years in the army. (My past, although short, was already well marked in the secret police's files and that guaranteed being incorporated in a unit with 36 month's service instead of the usual one of 24.) In the meantime I was working at the reception desk in a hotel dwelling on what to choose – and one day I found in one of public libraries the translation of What is mathematics? by Courant and Robbins. I've read it and knew what to choose. And the example of Sioma who used to come back from Wroclaw for his week-ends always satisfied with his life suggested that one might survive that course.

Czarnuch was visibly disappointed hearing that I intended to study mathematics. He wanted to direct me to sociology or some other useful stuff. When he saw that I was determined, he found a consolation in advising me: “yeah, the mathematics has many applications to sociology”.

To make the long story short. I was poor but so was everyone. I had various options to widen my horizons – and everyone had them. Even the radio programs used to broadcast theater pieces with faultless artistic touch. Today I am a part of the “middle class” and earn much more than a salesperson at a shop but I cannot afford to pay for my kids the entry to those clubs, groups and summer camps that in Poland used to be accessible to kids of any salesperson. But my kids have something I did not have: around the clock Cartoon Network. And also so called “youth” programs presented by commercial robots that in in order to mislead the public are camouflaged as attractive blondes and carry nice feminine names.