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"The Marburg Semesters"

Excerpt from

Hel Braun

A Woman and Mathematics


Springer-Verlag 1990


...back to good health again, but short on money as always. So it was understood that I was riding my bike to Marburg.

The Marburg Semesters

Hel Braun
Hel Braun 1941

In spite of their not-so-rosy circumstances, my two semesters in Marburg - the Wintersemester 1935/36 and the Sommersemester 1936 - were the highlights of my academic career. My abode wasn’t anything fancy – I wouldn’t have been able to afford it anyway – but instead a “camaraderie house.” My father and his friend found it practical, and it was paid for by the student union along with lunch in the cafeteria. Today the building – which is located pretty high up on the Burgberg – is a dormitory for female students. Of course there was much more compulsion then than nowadays. My mother often said: “You didn’t perceive it – whatever it was – that way.” Of course. If you have strong feelings in a particular direction, the feelings in other directions are simply less strong.
My essential feeling was a "correct" and "free" time as a student, in a different environment. It’s surely similar nowadays when young people move out from home. But the fact that they remain in the area, and - apart from their parents - remain in touch with people they know, this is a small change. But the people are also younger, often still in school.
Contact with home was limited during my time in Marburg to laundry packages, occasional letters to my brother, and frequent letters to Peter. People didn’t phone, that was too expensive.

In the Camaraderie House


   In the camaraderie house we had a “Führer” girl who was faithful to the (Nazi) party line, but she had little influence. As it goes with girls, she fell in love and the boy was interested in another girl. So she didn’t have enough élan to play Führer. We had little respect for her because she was not interested in her studies - she studied some sort of humanities subject. I myself was, of course, an outsider due to mathematics alone. My girlfriends studied medicine and half of the dorm-mates were med students.


One of my friendships has remained intact the entire time – almost 50 years. Gerda is one month older; at that time she was preparing for her intermediate examination in her medical studies, and she is still a pediatrician. We each valued those characteristics in the other that we did not have ourselves. We were probably only “balanced” on our evening walks in the woods nearby, which were very refreshing.

Bettinahaus Gemeinschaftsraum
Bettinahaus Gemeinschaftsraum

We all ate breakfast and dinner together. I don’t remember how many of us there were; there must have been around 40 or 50 of us. We had mostly double rooms. But as an upper classman Gerda and I had single rooms with a view onto the Lahn River Valley. Dinner was not a big meal, but it was peaceful. Breakfast was entirely different! Not much for breakfast, either, but it was at 6:30 a.m. And before that the “flag was hoisted” and a song was sung. The girls were not expected to demonstrate more political conduct beyond that, nor was it really desired.

Zoology and Botany

Some lectures started at 7 a.m., for example zoology and botany, lectures for medical students and education majors. I had a lot of “biology” to work my way through, i.e., zoology and botany. So after 6:30 a.m. I skedaddled with the first-year med students up over the mountain since that is where zoology and botany classes were. It wasn’t like I had expected it to be, getting to know plants and animals, just somewhat more in-depth and systematic than in school. But it was interesting, at least interesting enough for me to earn several “diligence certificates.” But that was just on the side. Since the rest of the day I devoted to mathematics and physics.


In addition to theoretical physics there was a lot of practical training we had to do, and there was one that was for eight hours a week. I was partnered with a boy who was a “real” physicist. So he did the experiments and calculated using the slide rule while I was struggling just to get the right formulas. Physically the assistants were quite satisfied with us, but we were too silly for them. Especially when the teaching assistant (Geheimrat) named Grüneisen was around. Of course we called him Geheimeisen Grünrat; Reason enough to laugh like little children. Strange how little substantive content of classes remains when you don’t study them seriously. It passes you by too fast, at the speed of light in 14 days, the wind tunnel and magnetism took a little longer. How many formulas I learned and could cite in my sleep - and since forgotten. You may think that you can learn everything again when you “need to” or if it “interests you.” But now I am at an age where short-term memory and long term memory spark you to think. Many people believe that thinking is very closely related to one’s personality, but age probably also plays a vital role here, too. And when short-term memory starts to fail and you focus on long-term memory, you realize how many things worth remembering you’ve forgotten and how many absolutely irrelevant things you’ve remembered. It’s good if you can take it with a sense of humor, when it happens to yourself and to others.


Alte Mensa
Alte Mensa

One of our colleagues has eaten in the cafeteria since his days as a student. Since retiring he has lived in the immediate vicinity of the cafeteria so that he wastes no time and can still eat in the cafeteria when his strength starts to fade. For me the one year of cafeteria food was enough for my whole life. By the way, not much has changed over the course of the last 50 years except for the prices. I haven’t been to the Marburg cafeteria for a long time, but I was recently in the cafeteria of another German university. The cafeterias in the big cities are an exception because they usually have to compete somewhat with the local pubs. But in smaller or more rural universities there is hardly any selection. You get in line, take a tray, serve yourself or wait to be served at the counter. In some places the trays come on a conveyor belt all set. Cafeterias are like that wherever you go around the world. But what you get varies. Recently I had a lukewarm soup, unidentifiable, a small bowl of salad where you could not tell if it was fully or only halfway rotten, and a bowl of compote, likewise dubious. Main course: Meat, gravy, one dumpling. Small portion, salty, peppery. In Marburg there was only a main dish and dessert. Something with lots of brown gravy or red sauce. But: Back then, like today, there was one day a week where a dish tasted ok. The cafeteria food also helped me to feel like a real student among other students in Marburg. In Frankfurt, on the other hand, I always rode my bike home for lunch. In Marburg I sat together with other students and we jabbered away. Mostly about what all had transpired earlier in the day, which was always interesting when talking with the med students.

Alte Mensa Essensausgabe

Kurt Reidemeister

Kurt Reidemeister
Kurt Reidemeister 1934-1955

  While mathematics in Frankfurt happened quietly, mathematics in Marburg was a stimulating and exciting affair. That had everything to do with Kurt Reidemeister, whose nickname was Mucki (pronounced Mooky). Something was always going on with Mucki, at least in the 40-odd years I knew him. Even in the year when he died I had a rough exchange of words with him; other friends had even rougher ones. He thought he could prove something having to do with the continuum hypothesis; even though you could easily see that it was wrong. Well, those kinds of things happen easily when you’re over 70. But he wanted to have this work published no matter what. Things were said like: “You foolish person!” or: “I’ve never known a cleverer woman.” And three witty sentences in between. That’s how our last conversation went – not unlike our first one. During my time as a student in Marburg there were three mathematics professors there. I believe one of them, Kraft, was not a full-fledged professor. But he could write two different texts with both hands at the same time on the board; and at home he had four little sinews. I didn’t take his lecture. The oldest one was Neumann; his lectures were well attended and boring. I attended them and struggled against falling asleep. He had all the examination candidates, but I was not yet thinking about examinations.


Franz Rellich
Franz Rellich

My favorite colleagues were Mucki and Professor Rellich. They were teaching a seminar together on Kähler’s treatise on differential forms. At first there were two students; one was a young male who soon fled, and I was the other one. Apart from Reidemeister, Rellich and the two of us, Reidemeister’s people also participated; they jokingly referred to themselves as his “servants.” Probably one of them was his assistant and two were research fellows. Of course I also attended Reidemeister’s lecture class. Rellich was not there, but it was otherwise the same audience. The subject was topology. Hensel was still living in his big house when I studied in Marburg. He invited foreign guests and music was made. But I myself ran into him only one time. Nonetheless people would see each other in Marburg in town! That was entirely different in Frankfurt. There you would only see each other near the university and when something was going on through the university. I myself always came by bike; Schneider came by motorcycle. After class you’d go home and there you would have your interaction with other people. That was entirely different in Marburg. Back then there was only one café and few restaurants. Everything, including the cafeteria, was in one street, where most everything in life took place. There you met up automatically. I was quickly known among the young mathematicians. All were still unmarried – and I was used to going out from my time in Frankfurt. Soon after I started studying in Marburg, Moufang and Magnus were invited to present at a colloquium.

Villa Hensel, Wohnzimmer
Villa Hensel, Wohnzimmer

Mucki und Pinze

On this occasion I was invited along with a small group of other guests to Mucki’s home, where I met his wife, who went by Pinze. People didn’t go by first names back then, but if someone was of interest for the younger folks, he would be referred to in the conversation among young people by first name or nickname. So we spoke of Mucki and Pinze. For math couples, they were a particularly elegant pair. I know from old photographs that she looked dreamily romantic in her younger years. During my Marburg stint they had an intellectual appearance; they were both around 40 years old. Pinze photographed; Mucki contemplated. They lived in a large and spacious apartment and had friends from all departments. Pinze was not at all into housework. In those days that was no problem; you could always find assistance at affordable rates. When I would run into Mucki he always liked walking a little with me or he would even treat me to a cup of coffee and start talking over my head right away. It was really bad when he would think for a second about his listening audience and he would construct an example to illustrate the philosophical thought he had just talked about. I recall one of his examples having something to do with an umbrella, and I replied to Mucki’s efforts only by saying, “I don’t understand the example either.” In such instances he could become hopeless, irate, or he may burst out with laughter. One time he laughed out loud at me for several minutes in the street. Fortunately I was not the type of person who easily cracks at the seams. Und what was it that I had not understood and dared to look at him questioningly? He had just said that he would hold his next differential calculus lecture non-Archimedeanly.
Well, a female student in her sixth semester was hardly able to understand that without any clarification. Mucki just laughed at me, he didn’t leave me standing there but kept talking lovingly and incomprehensibly. This is how we became very good friends. He didn’t even hold it against me that he had to hold the lecture on topology for my sake; he had originally planned on cancelling it due to low enrollment.

Mucki’s Servants

Mucki’s “servants” usually sat in the row behind me. They were all Ph.D’s, were working on their post-doc qualifications, and understood what Mucki was saying. Only once in a while would they jot something down, while I was struggling to write everything down. Whenever I didn’t understand anything at all, I turned around to them seeking help. But sometimes Arnold Schmidt’s paper was filled with elephants. One next to the other, all of them standing on their heads. Should I maybe draw the same thing and then think about it real hard at home? But often a friendly “servant” could be found who’d go walking with me in the afternoon and try to explain Mucki’s thoughts to me. It was never Arnold Schmidt because I didn’t like him. But I liked the rest of them all the same.
The Mucki seminar was a bigger disaster than the lecture because I had to speak and do every third presentation. There was no point in asking Mucki any questions, so I first asked Rellich, the co-organizer of the seminar. He was also unmarried at the time, answered most willingly and often invited me out in the evening. Unfortunately Mucki pounced on me during the presentation as soon I had sought help from Rellich. But if I asked Rellich or one of the other servants any questions before a presentation, it became clear that their views radically differed. That made everything more difficult, even though I was willing to learn everything I could, to be good and memorize things and write it on the chalkboard nice and pretty so that everyone could read it. But as it turned out, my only choice was to look pretty standing at the chalkboard, which I did, and to rely on my voice, which was not ugly. So the seminar concluded with everyone happy. Mucki confessed to me many years later that he wanted to propose a dissertation topic following the seminar and keep me in Marburg.

Peter’s Newspaper

   Peter’s newspaper was still around in Frankfurt for as long as I was in Marburg. While I had gotten used to dealing with Gerda and the young male colleague, he was going out with other young women to concerts and theater premieres for which he had to write reviews. But over the breaks I was in Frankfurt and together with Peter. I don’t know exactly when his newspaper had to be shut down, but I assume it was 1937 or 1938. After 1933 things worsened slowly but surely, not overnight. For Peter there was no question as to whether he should change his political alignment and apply with a party newspaper or if he should make it through these times some other way. In 1933 he was only 23 years old but very stable. So he moved to a small attic and after his newspaper was out of operation, he starved his way through the war as a freelance journalist. - I believe we were both pretty idealistic back then.

Semester Breaks in Frankfurt

Ruth Moufang
Ruth Moufang

   As soon as the semester break arrived and I was back in Frankfurt, one of the first places I went was to the Frankfurt Mathematical Pronkfurt Seminar. As was the case with Christmas break in 1935. I was expecting to run into Schneider, Moufang or Magnus since classes were still in session that day.

Siegel’s Return

But it was Siegel I ran into on the stairway. He had returned to Frankfurt for the Wintersemester 1935/36. I was pretty surprised that he addressed me by my name. (Later I was no longer so surprised since I likewise could easily remember the names of nice or particularly good students.) Hellinger had probably told him about my disagreements with the NS students.

Offer for Doctoral Studies

Carl Ludwig Siegel
Carl Ludwig Siegel

He even took me into his office. He didn’t say much, but it was clearly an offer! He said I could come to him whenever I wanted to sit for the exam, ideally with the clear intention of proceeding with doctoral studies. Since I had at that point never considered doctoral studies, I of course made a fitting objection and expressed my opinion that I was probably not capable of completing a dissertation. He dismissed that with the greatest of ease. Not with a “Of course you’re capable,” but with: “If it doesn’t work out, you can still use what you’ve written for the state examination.” That immediately made sense to me. Since I didn’t feel comfortable in his presence, I fled with an “I’ll think about it.”   

Examination Regulations

    I should add something here about examination regulations. Nowadays they are a big deal and much time is wasted on them. Back then they were of secondary importance. If you wanted to become a school teacher, you had to pass a state examination; for teaching in Frankfurt you needed three subject areas. It wasn’t until 1941 (?; Or maybe 1940 or 1942) that a tertiary degree in mathematics (Diplom in Mathematik) was introduced. You “could” take a doctoral exam after studying six semesters, two of which had to be at the relevant location. If you “could.” A dissertation was necessary, as were oral examinations. So at that time I didn't take Siegel's proposal seriously, though it did give me self-confidence. But I didn’t forget it either. This was probably because I understood Reidemeister so poorly. While I constantly avoided Siegel, I got along quite well with Reidemeister on a personal level and felt very comfortable around him. But with Siegel I understood every single word, even when it sounded outlandish; but with Reidemeister I understood nothing, even when it sounded perfectly normal. Later the two of them were, by the way, close friends for several years, though they would later be enemies for the rest of their lives.
How long would it take to complete the state exam with Mucki? Would that work financially? Would there be political difficulties in Marburg, too? The student organization was not that great. But in the spring semester of 1936 it also leaked through in Marburg that I was “politically unreliable.” Which meant that I would no longer receive a scholarship. - Yip! Summer in Marburg was so beautiful. Sunny and full of roses. With lots of friends and happy occasions. But then the thought that it would all come to an end.

Back in Frankfurt

   So I left Marburg shortly before the semester even ended, to look up Mr. Siegel in the institute in Frankfurt. He was always knows for leaving town as soon as the semester ended. The students knew that much about him – not much more.



Zuletzt aktualisiert: 20.05.2016 · lochmana

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