Edward Nussbaum, math professor who escaped Holocaust, passes away

| Staff Reporter

Former Washington University Professor of Mathematics A. Edward Nussbaum died of congestive heart failure on Oct. 31. He was 84 years old. Nussbaum taught at the University for 37 years and retired in 1995.

Nussbaum was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany, in 1925. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, his brother was arrested on Kristallnacht in 1938, only to be released, re-arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Nussbaum and his sister escaped to Belgium shortly after Kristallnacht via the Kindertransport train, which carried German children away to safety.

Nussbaum was separated from his sister in Belgium and then fled to southern France and finally to Switzerland. Swiss authorities jailed him, but he fabricated a story and was released. Nussbaum studied mathematics at the University of Zurich. His parents and brother died at Auschwitz.

“I knew that he’d had a rough time in the war, but I never knew any of the details,” said Edward Wilson, a professor of mathematics at the University who knew Nussbaum for 40 years. “For him it was a private matter. It was in the past, and he didn’t want to revisit it.”

According to Wilson and Professor of Mathematics Guido Weiss, Nussbaum arrived in New York in 1947 with little money. He took courses at Brooklyn College and attended Columbia University for graduate work in mathematics. He received his master’s degree from Columbia in 1950, and Columbia appointed him a lecturer only one year later.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” Wilson said. “That means they thought very, very highly of him.”

Nussbaum worked on the electronic computer project headed by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. This electronic computer project led to the building of one of the first computers.

After serving as a faculty member at multiple institutions and receiving his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1957, Nussbaum became an assistant professor of mathematics at Washington University in 1958. He had already published several papers, which most new Ph.D.s do not accomplish, Wilson said. He continued to work in the areas of Hilbert spaces, and he was promoted to full professor in 1965.

Wilson said he was impressed with Nussbaum’s teaching.

“If you were interested in the subject and wanted to really understand what was going on, start in the beginning and build gradually…he gave great courses,” Wilson said.
Nussbaum is survived by Anne, his wife of 52 years, and their children Karl and Franziska.

“We certainly knew him as a very kind, gentle man,” Wilson said.