IV. Wroclaw

In this collection of some 200 authors I include 5 persons from Wroclaw. Would it indicate that the criteria are provincial?

It is a rhetoric question. Certainly the answer is “no”. I do not count, there are 4 more. The only one of them who is in Wroclaw has joint publications with A.Odlyzko (so that his Erdos number is 2) and their paper was cited in Scientific American, so there are all the reasons to include his page into any collection. The merits of three others, who work at well-known US Universities, are also easily argued and in all these cases it is me who has a debt of gratitude for being permitted to reproduce their materials here.

In fact, there is much more to be said on this topic and I just intend to do it.

If you discover that – let us say – Berkeley has an extremely strong scientific center then there is nothing interesting in this constatation. All in all, if California were an independent country it would still stay among fifteen greatest economic powers of the world and could buy a significant parcel of scientists of the world for its institutions. But Wroclaw was never a part of California.

I went to Wroclaw. because I decided to study mathematics. I decided to study mathematics because of three false and one justified convictions. Here are the false ones: (a) studying maths would not demand much time, (b) you can do maths all alone, (c) it has no connection with the crazy world out there. The justified one: mathematical results do not depend on geographic position or political system.

When in Zielona Góra and later as a student, I've often heard the expression Wroclaw School of Mathematics and I've liked to have such a noble background but had never attributed too much value to such phrases, seeing them as a proof of a local pride. The suspicion that I had been too hard descended on me when having left Poland I was realizing bit by bit that Wroclaw had something what I would miss ever since. Even when I had pleasure and honor to visit excellent institutions in France or Germany I could compare them without complexes to those of Poland. The researchers could be really genial, the results could be more impressive but the environment, the atmosphere was different. What did Wroclaw mean?

Well, let me start with maths. Till today there is the illuminating presence of Czeslaw Ryll-Nardzewski and Wladyslaw Narkiewicz. I took part in seminars of Wladyslaw Slebodzinski (no, S.Lie did not invent Slebodzinski derivative, it was the other way round). Sioma Fajtlowicz still had courses of Hugo Steinhaus, some years later I could only respectfully greet him in the corridors. The seminar of Jan Mycielski and Hugo Steinhaus seemed a page from the book “Who's who in logics”. Jerzy Slupecki, Edward Marczewski, Kazimierz Urbanik, Andrzej Krzywicki, Andrzej Hulanicki and Stanislaw Hartman used to take part in nearly all seminars. Sometimes you could take classes with Halina Lopuszanska or Tadeusz Huskowski and enter seminars of Berthold Lysik or Adam Rybarski. One had heard a lot about Stefan Drobot, Andrzej (Andrew) Lelek and Stanislaw Swierczkowski who left for the US and Australia. Abraham Goetz was conducting a four semester course in analysis following the encyclopedia of Fichtenholz (some years later he would go to Notre Dame). Bronislaw Knaster taught projective geometry. And new players were entering the stage. Some of them would stay (Leszek Pacholski, Boguslaw Hajduk), some would go abroad (Wojbor Woyczynski, Edward Neuman, Andrzej Derdzinski, Jerzy Kocik, Jerzy Tomasik). Should I omit Jan Lopuszanski, Jerzy Lukierski, Jan Rzewuski, Jan Mozrzymas only because they were physicists? But they were part of our everyday life: classes, seminars, as theses advisors…

Even the historians of political movements have reasons to study the climate of Wroclaw mathematics. When a sort of “ministry of education” is organized within Solidarnosc, at least three mathematicians, Roman Duda, Boleslaw Gleichgewicht, Jan Waszkiewicz, have outstanding participation in it (I've heard of others too but I have no concrete data on them).

I have no capacity to give a rich historic narrative. I will only give some touches of brush presenting some recollections that can convey something of the environment. Many of those informations could be kept in personal memories without being ever registered in a written form. But are they really “informations”? The technical data can be found using google, what I am talking here about is the moral and intellectual climate.

I've got quite a few more details to count so for a moment I leave the Institute (in fact, two institutes belonging to two Universities but integrated and inseparable) and take a look at Wroclaw. There were many fascinating places in that world that deserve a long narrative: Leningrad, Prague, Budapest, Novosibirsk, Cracow – but I knew well only one of them.

One day there appeared an article in the Swiss journal Neue Zürcher Zeitung suggesting that the only economical miracle in the post-war Europe had not been the reconstruction of its industrial power (as it was a consequence of investments brought by the Marshall Plan, no miracle about that) but bringing Wroclaw back to life by Poles. The argumentation was this: there you have an enormous and modern city but completely destroyed, passing into the hands of another nation that had only few cities of that type before the war. Most of the specialists who knew to run the cities had been exterminated, some by Germans, some by Russians; the few who had survived were in strong demand in Warsaw, Cracow, Poznan… It was believed that the city (with its malarial climate) would soon become covered by weeds and forgotten. But surprisingly it had made a swift revival and with the migrating labor force from Poznan region and intellectual elites that left Lvov fleeing Russians it came back to the map and even stronger than ever.

Jan Waszkiewicz, one of unforgettable figures of its mathematical milieu, has had a simple interpretation that fact. If he were to express it today he might cautiously measure the words, as an eminent politician should, but several years ago he used to put things in a plain language: “it is a difference between national mentalities and Polish disposition to improvise that is frequently misunderstood for an anarchy. If you told a German infantry captain that next day he would be promoted to the rank of colonel serving with an artillery unit, the reply would be «thanks but I cannot accept it, it is not within my domain of competence». But if you were to offer a Polish butcher the immediate post of director of a psychiatric hospital, the answer would be «and how much will I earn?»”.

At that time there were some 600 thousand inhabitants in the vast terrain occupied by the city that continued to shows the scars of the war, of Festung Breslau. A typical student might lose more than two hours per day in buses and streetcars because the classrooms were dispersed - one taught wherever one could find an unoccupied auditorium, no matter which University the place belonged to. How many universities? If the Superior Schools of Music and of Arts are counted in then there were 7 of them. Plus the Military Academy. Plus Pedagogical Superior Course (Studium Nauczycielskie). Plus two Faculties of Theology (in a communist country? That's right.) In that city of heavy and diverse industry there was a mass of some 80 thousand of university students and professors. So there had been a critical mass strong enough to support an Opera, Philharmonic Orchestra, three excellent professional theaters, one (even better) student theater, some twenty huge cinema halls (yes, there was a censorship. Liberation of Mr.Jones would enter there, S.Kubrick would not), some student cinemas (“Cinematographic Discussion Club”, any film could find its way in there), the “experimental” Theater of 13 Chairs of Jerzy Grotowski, the Pantomime Theater of Henryk Tomaszewski. Each year there was held well represented Jazz on Odra River – and each year one could meet the cream of amateur theaters from all over the world, the Festival of Festivals of Student Theaters. Nearly each week a recital of famous musicians in the University baroque hall Aula Leopoldina. Abstract paintings expositions? Museums? A choir with Haydn or a composition of Penderecki in a church? As much as you please.

Therefore when some years later I found myself in Paris I was not overwhelmed by the richness of the options. It was a change in quantity but not in type or quality.

Few of our professors owned cars. Usually they could reach that luxury level after getting an invitation to Stony Brook or Baton Rouge; they would pass a year there in a state of privation, living as if they never left Poland. With the savings of one year's “western” salary they could buy on their homecoming a car, an apartment, they could offer a bit of comfort to their families (for example: a washing machine).

While students, we could meet our Masters in overcrowded streetcars and in supermarket lines (“they're selling a cheese today”) but also in lines for tickets to a symphonic concert, a recital, a play presented by the visiting Old Theater from Cracow. They were poor. They were refined. They were models of ethical behavior.

Poland of seventies proved that pauper's salary at the University did not prevent from reaching an impressive level of research. Brazil of seventies proved that prince's salary at the University did not guarantee a decent level of teaching.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention one more place of natural encounters with our Masters. The Russian bookshop in the center of the city.

The Russians were the oppressors? Yes, some of them. The others were oppressed. There was no analogue in Poland to the slavery that existed in kolkhoz. But at the same time Russia was the country of 4 million registered chess players. The nation of bards and poets. And a superpower in science. Do you want to remind me of Lysenko? I did not forget him but I imagine that when the scale of national education is considered then he had less importance then North American creationists and fundamentalists had.

Playboy did not reach the Soviet society, nor did Newsweek. But all scientific news were immediately translated, supplied with intelligent commentaries and additions – and published in quantities that might dizzy someone not accustomed to great numbers. A university textbook edition could run over million copies. The monographies of some very specialized areas gained circulation of only 10 or 20 thousand. And a nice part of it used to reach Poland. At bargain prices.

I've just checked it up on the Internet. I can (can I??) buy the “Course in Arithmetics” by Serre for $50. Plus handling and shipping expenses. I still have a Russian paperback copy of 1972. It cost 0.51 ruble. The equivalent of a city bus ticket.

Has there appeared anything interesting at Springer Verlag? We had to take it easy. In a year's time any student would be able to buy it – on ugly paper, in Russian. Fine. A personal library of 300 or 500 volumes was not at all rare among the students.

The copyright? Oh, sure. The author could come to Moscow and get his money in the Russian bank in Russian currency. His editor could file the protest memoirs to the United Nations.

It's funny how intertwined are these things, great and small ones, the questions of billions of dollars and of half a ruble… Cheap books and the elimination of the illiteracy were the technical components of their religion.

In his study on reading habits in France of XVIIc. R.Darnton writes that one could read but not write; and first in Latin and then (if ever) in French. One had to develop the capacity to read Pater Noster and Benedicite. The new religion – communism – saw itself as a scientific theory, deduced from social laws. The comment of Jan Mycielski on the meeting organized by Bierut, that I have mentioned, touches the key point: “don't forget that the dictators of that time believed that they were rationalists. They used to think that scientists backed them. In fact they managed to secure the support of artists only (for a limited time).” In order to pray as they did, following The Communist Manifesto, the society had to worship the Manifesto's natural environment, science. Do you remember the phrases: “the man is the measure of things”, “the writers are engineers of human souls”, the “construction of communist society”? No revelations with metaphysics, the stage was prepared for economy and physics. Within few generations they managed to create a society with the level of education next to unattainable for North Americans - but spelling the faith in measurements and calculations they created a society capable of thinking on any topic.

Who or what brought the end to communism, the economy? Gorbachev? The war of Afghanistan? The Pope? The Solidarity? Yes; yes; yes; yes; yes. But it is also true that it brought its own end when it had got to its own kernel: the society was ready to measure the size of its supposed greatness.

Am I talking about things that go far beyond the narrow belt of my competence? Sure. I'd best return to anecdotes from the Institute.

Enough is enough. What is the use of talking of the melted snows. There is no XXth century any more. A marvelous century, it got started in Nanking in 1864 and ended in Kosovo in 1999. If I tried to summarize the meaning of XXc. I would use only one question of Bertrand Russell. In his “16 Questions on the Assassination” that are reprinted in his Autobiography of 750 pages, the fourteenth question is a killing one. Russell writes: “Oswald's description was broadcast by the Dallas police only 12 minutes after the President was shot. This raises one of the most extraordinary questions ever posed in a murder case: Why was Oswald's description in connection with the murder of Patrolman Tippett broadcast over Dallas police radio at 12.43 p.m. on November 22, when Tippett was not shot until 1.06 p.m.?

To be more exact: what scares me is not the question but the lack of any attempt to answer it by authorities that could and should know. The Berlin Wall went down, the Last Fermat's Theorem went down, the Middle East peace accord went down – but this question stays firm and repugnant, directing its very bad smell straight into the future.

Was I lucky that instead of living in Colombia or Angola I could take advantage of the life in Wroclaw? Most certainly that's true but I don't know whether that life still exists. This year I've read that there appeared the outdoors publicity in Poland saying “It's not only in yogurt that you can find culture” – the Ministry of Culture tried to publicize some cultural events. But there came Danone, it used its influence and without going to courts it managed to force removal of the slogan from the streets. Don't ask me since when Danone has a decisive voice in cultural questions but I would hesitate to treat as a progress the passage from communist dictators to the lawyers of the corporations. I do not know whether it is a step forwards or backwards but certainly it is a great step towards a madhouse. So perhaps Stanislaw Lem is right: “When will it be better?” “It already was.”

Anyway, what is left is this collection. It has no price. There was a Russian bookshop downtown there where I came from. Here's my warm invitation, come on in:
meet the authors       see the topics
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