Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Strange Case of Kurt Friedrich Gödel

Kurt Gödel (b. 1906, d. 1978) is considered with Aristotle to be one of most significant logicians in human history. Although I would assume that his name is not generally recognized, at least by most people in the United States, his mathematical and logical work had a tremendous impact on scientific and philosophical thinking in the 20th Century. If you would like a popularized introduction to his work, please take the time to read the following:

Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

I consider that particular book as one of the most influential I have read in my life, so far. But from the standpoint of genealogy, Gödel presents an example of the problems we can encounter with shifting jurisdictions. 

As genealogists, we need to be acutely aware that jurisdictions change over time, but can change suddenly and without notice. Each time there is a change in jurisdictions, there will be a adjustment to the existing records, as well as future records created by the newer jurisdictional entities. Gödel's escape from Nazi Germany, just at the outbreak of World War II, gives an extreme example of what can happen to an individual as these jurisdictional boundaries change.

Gödel was born April 28, 1906, in Brünn, Austria-Hungary (now Brno, Czech Republic) into the ethnic German family of Rudolf Gödel, the manager of a textile factory, and Marianne Gödel (born Handschuh). See Wikipedia: Kurt Gödel. He studied in Vienna, Austria and did most of his early work on mathematics and logic while a student and unpaid lecturer. In 1933, he traveled to the United States and became a friend of Albert Einstein and until 1939 he traveled back and forth between Vienna and the United States. 

In 1938, Austria became part of Nazi Germany. In the Fall of 1939, as the War started, he and his wife attempted to leave the country for the United States. Due to the fact that the country of his citizenship was Austria and that the country no longer existed, he had great difficulty in obtaining a Visa for the U.S. Ultimately, he had to circumnavigate the globe and travel to the United States by way of the Trans-Siberian Railroad to ultimately reach Princeton, New Jersey where he would be employed during the War at the Institute for Advanced Studies.

When he arrived in the United States, he was a declared an enemy alien and the U.S. Government refused to allow him to leave Princeton without formal permission from the Department of Justice, even to visit a doctor in New York. A more complete description of his difficulties in obtaining U.S. residency is set forth in the following book:

Dyson, George. Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012 at pages 96 to 100.

Since the Kurt Gödel was a naturalized Austrian citizen and his wife was an Austrian citizen by birth and since the U.S. Government had recognized the overthrow of Austria by the German Reich, they were both considered German citizens. The Government based this holding, in part, on the fact that they had obtained German Passports to come to the United States. Finally, he was allowed to apply for permanent residency in the U.S. and immediately became eligible for the Draft and was classified 1A. 

After a great deal of paper work, Gödel was finally allowed to continue his work at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. 

Unfortunately, Gödel's experiences with changing jurisdictions is neither unique nor uncommon. Further, unfortunately, few genealogical researchers avail themselves of the historical background necessary to sort out similar experiences of their own ancestors. It is imperative, when you have immigrant ancestors, to become fully acquainted with the historical circumstances surrounding their immigration. This is sometimes the only way of finding their original records and understanding how and why they came to the United States (or any other country, for that matter). 

Question: Where are Kurt Gödel's genealogically significant records now? Of course, I do not have the answer, but remember he was born in what is now the Czech Republic.


  1. What a wonderful example. Hofstadter's book is one of my favorites, I may need to re-read it!

  2. I'd start checking here
    It lists at lot of the archives now keeping "Austrian" church records.

    Then you have this very interesting website by the Czech State Archive
    I read about it some time ago and ever since wished I had ancestors from Brno (my ancestors are from Pomeria). You can access online all the historic genealogy documents they store in Brno today. (They even started adding some other towns too if I remember correctly.)
    The European Union financed the digitalisation of the records. Service is available in Czech and German.