Lett Mat Int (2017) 5:113–118
G for Grothendieck
The mathematical intelligence, the approach to the world, the behaviour of a genius who
broke every rule
Published online: 14 June 2017
© Centro P.RI.ST.EM, Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi 2017
1.1 A family of refugees
Alexander—he was keen on this spelling of his name—was
left by his parents when they left Germany in 1933. He
stayed hidden in a farm until 1938 (and thus until the age
of 10), educated by a teacher according to the principles
of Freinet’s pedagogy, who practiced a “back to nature”
approach. When Hitler came to power, Hanka had emi-
grated to France, where she survived with diﬃculty in the
circles of German emigrants. Back together with Alexan-
der in 1938, she was imprisoned with her son the following
year and lived in relative peace only after the French defeat
in June 1940.
His father, after endless wandering as a revolutionary
and a long series of imprisonments, was reunited with his
wife and his son at the end of the Spanish civil war; then,
like many other anti-Fascist emigrant refugees, he was
interned at the beginning of 1939 in a prison camp in Le
Vernet, before being handed over to the Nazis by Vichy
authorities and disappearing in Auschwitz.
Alexander lived in Chambon-sur-Lignon from 1942
to 1944. This town, normally a holiday village, had a pri-
vate institution, the Cévenol college, which before 1939
had been a place where wealthy young Protestants studied.
Directed in a stern manner by pastor Trocmé, during the
war it became a centre of spiritual resistance to Nazism,
dedicated to the rescue of young Jews. Grothendieck was
ﬁrst a guest of the children’s home “Le Foyer Suisse” and
then later also a student of the college.
1.2 Formative years
Grothendieck took his secondary school diploma and
became a student in Montpellier in 1945. This was the
beginning of the period of his scientiﬁc training. The ﬁrst
Abstract A personal recollection of the turbulent life and
the main mathematical achievements of the great French
mathematician Alexander Grothendieck.
Keywords Alexander Grothendieck · Algebraic
geometry · Sheaf theory · IHÉS
1 The life of Alexander Grothendieck
Alexander Grothendieck was born into a troubled environ-
ment. His mother Hanka Grothendieck—Alexander used
his mother’s family name—hailed from Northern Germany.
In the 1920s she had been in several groups of the extreme
left and experimented with writing. When she met Schap-
iro, aka Sacha Piotr, she already had a daughter. Alexander
was born in Berlin in March 1928.
This paper is an adaptation of the introduction to the essay
“Alexander Grothendieck. Un pays dont on ne connaîtrait que
le nom” , published on the website http://inference-review.
com. It originally appeared in French in the No. 162 of January–
February 2015 of the magazine Tangente, and then, in an Italian
translation, in Lettera Matematica PRISTEM (No. 96—March
We thank the author, the editor of the magazine Gilles Cohen and
the Éditions Pole for the permission to reproduce text and images.
* Pierre Cartier
Institut des Hautes Études Scientiﬁques, Bures-sur-Yvette,