Paul Epstein was brought up in a Jewish family in Frankfurt where his father was a professor at the Philanthropin Academy. After submitting a thesis on abelian functions, he received his doctorate in 1895 from the University of Strasbourg. The city was German at this time (and called Strassburg) and it had been since it was annexed by Germany during the Franco-German War of 1870-71. From 1895 to 1918 he remained in Strasbourg, teaching at the Technical School and also at the University where he had been appointed a Privatdozent. During World War I he did military service. At the end of the war in 1918, however, the city of Strasbourg reverted to France, and Epstein, being German, was forced to leave Alsace. He returned to his native city of Frankfurt.
Epstein was appointed to a non-tenured post at the university and he lectured in Frankfurt from 1919. Later he was appointed professor at Frankfurt. On 30 January 1933, however, Hitler came to power and on 7 April 1933 the Civil Service Law provided the means of removing Jewish teachers from the universities, and of course also to remove those of Jewish descent from other roles. All civil servants who were not of Aryan descent (having one grandparent of the Jewish religion made someone non-Aryan) were to be retired. However, there was an exemption clause which exempted non-Aryans who had fought for Germany in World War I. Epstein certainly qualified under this clause and this allowed him to keep his lecturing post in Frankfurt in 1933.
Decisions at the Nuremberg party congress in the autumn of 1935 made it clear that non-Aryans would no longer be able to keep their posts even if they had served in World War I. Siegel writes in :-
Epstein voluntarily relinquished his teaching position before the Nuremberg laws went into effect. As he explained to me, he had wanted to save the German authorities the trouble of doing to him what the French had done back in 1918.
Epstein did not attempt to emigrate. He was 64 years old and had he emigrated he would have lost all his money except 10 Marks. There was no prospect of a 64 year old obtaining a post. On the Kristallnacht (so called because of the broken glass in the streets on the following morning), the 9-10 November 1938, 91 Jews were murdered, hundreds were seriously injured, and thousands were subjected to horrifying experiences. Thousands of Jewish businesses were burnt down together with over 150 synagogues. The Gestapo arrested 30,000 well-off Jews and a condition of their release was that they emigrate. The Gestapo broke into Epstein's house but found that he was seriously ill and could not be moved. At this point Epstein must have known that his only chance was to leave Germany. It would have been posssible for :-
... one of his sisters had emigrated earlier and could have supported him. But despite the possibility of escape, he hesitated leaving his books and his native city.
He moved to Dornbusch and was visited there by Siegel :-
... we sat in the sunny garden of the house he was living in then. ... he pointed to the trees and flowers in the garden and said "Isn't it lovely here".
About a week after Siegel's visit, Epstein received a summons from the Gestapo. He knew what had happened to others who had received such a summons, many had been tortured and killed. He wanted to avoid the suffering so he took a lethal dose of Veronal. The Gestapo later claimed that they had only summoned him to get him to sign a document to fix a date on which he would emigrate.
His work was in number theory, in particular the zeta function. He also worked on the history of mathematics. Perhaps we should mention one other of Epstein's talents which was music, and he took part energetically in the cultural life of Frankfurt.
Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson