Jakow Trachtenberg

He was born in Odessa, Russia on June 17, 1888. He graduated with highest honors from the Mining Engineering Institute is St. Petersburg, Russia, and began work as an engineer. He became the chief engineer of the Obuschoff Shipyards while still in his twenties.

During the Russian Civil War of 1918-20 (see also, Russian Revolution), Jakow had to flee Russia because he had openly criticized the Communists. He defected to Berlin, Germany and developed a method for teaching foreign languages that is still in use today. He married a countess who had written many books about Russia.

Jakow, who was Jewish, had no idea he had just chosen the worst possible location to defect to. In the early days of the Third Reich, Jakow openly criticized Hitler (or was rumoured to have done so). He later attempted to escape from Germany, but was captured and imprisoned in a concentration camp. There he developed the Trachtenberg system of speed calculation, his most famous work, to help him keep his mind alert. He had no paper or pen, so he did the calculations primarily in his head. An iron nail became his pencil when he could not do a calculation in his head.

His wife, who was not imprisoned because she was a noblewoman, sold her jewelry and began bribing guards to secure her husband's escape. After seven years of being moved from camp to camp, Jakow was slated for execution. He had been spared execution up to that point, despite having allegedly criticized Hitler, because of his intellectual achievements and the social importance of his wife. One of his wife's bribery attempts finally succeeded, and Jakow was able to flee to Zurich, Switzerland, shortly before his scheduled execution.

He founded the Institute of Mathematics in Zurich in 1950, and taught there until his death in 1953.