Stories of mathematicians

In 1929 Zdzisław Krygowski, a professor at the University of Poznań, organised a secret course on cryptology for the best students of mathematics. Krygowski, who came from the famous Lviv school of mathematics, was approached to do so by the Cipher Bureau of the Polish Army, which decided to use mathematics to break foreign codes. Three mathematicians were selected from the course participants: Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Różycki. Not long after, they had a chance to come face-to-face with the Enigma code.

Henryk Zygalski, Jerzy Różycki and Marian Rejewski in Bruno station, near Paris, 1940.


1905 -1980


Despite being the oldest of the three mathematicians trying to crack the Enigma code, he never felt the urge to act as their leader. He used the form ‘colleague’ to address Henryk and Jerzy. Being a quiet and focused person, he was cut out for the task which he was entrusted with in 1929 by the officers of the Cipher Bureau of the Polish Army.

He probably inherited his talent for mathematics from his father – a tobacco merchant from Bydgoszcz. His excellent command of German, thanks to school education, was an additional advantage in completing the task. In January 1929, after graduating from the Department of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of the University of Poznań, he was invited by his mentor professor Zdzisław Krygowski to take part in a secret course on ciphers, and then, along with Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Różycki, he was chosen to take on the challenge of breaking German ciphers.

The first time he broke the Enigma code was at the end of December 1932 in the seclusion of the Cipher Bureau’s office in the Saxon Palace in Warsaw. He invented a cyclometer and the so-called bomba, thanks to which by 1938 the Poles were able to read a large part of the secret correspondence of the German armed forces. The war forced Rejewski to move to France and then to Great Britain. In 1946 he returned to Poland and his family. Although he worked as a simple accountant, hiding his past, he was being followed by agents of the Communist secret police. It was not until the 1970s, when the story of the breaking of the Enigma code was made public, that he gained recognition for his achievements. However, he was not able to enjoy the fame he deserved to the full.




His friends called him ‘Zyga’. He was the son of a tailor master from Poznań, where his parents owned a tailoring studio. He spent his childhood and youth in a tenement house at ul. Mielżyńskiego, which was only a 15-minute walk from St Mary Magdalene Gymnasium he attended. Even though he spoke German fluently and liked to play the piano, he saw his future in mathematics and the University of Poznań. After being discovered by professor Krygowski, his life was forever linked with the lives of Marian Rejewski and Jerzy Różycki.

His letters prove that he had a great sense of humour and a wide circle of friends. Offstage, he was the life and soul of the party. At work, he was a cool-headed professional: he put keeping his mission at the Polish Army’s Cipher Bureau secret first. It was in the 1930s in Warsaw that he designed a system

of perforated sheets, which made decrypting messages encrypted with the Enigma machine significantly easier. In September 1939 he and his colleagues were evacuated from Poland and reached France through Romania. After the war, he moved to Great Britain and began a relationship with Bertha Blofield, a widow of an English officer. Zygalski worked as a maths teacher, however, in order to receive professional qualifications, he had to return to university and repeat his degree in mathematics. To brighten his life abroad, he travelled the world with his beloved Bertha.


1909 -1942


He was seen as being the most clever of the three, and certainly the most cheerful. ‘(…) Wherever Jurek is, there must be a funny, bright, cheerful atmosphere’, he wrote about himself in a letter to his fiancée. He loved mathematics but he found astronomy, languages and geography (he got a geography degree) equally easy to learn. He was born in Olszana, located back then in Kiev Governorate, as a son of a physician and pharmacist, but soon afterwards his family moved to central Poland, running from a revolution.

In 1926 he passed his school-leaving exam in the Coeducational Gymnasium by the Secondary School in Wyszków on the Bug River. To study mathematics, he moved to Poznań, where his talent came to the attention of professor Krygowski and Polish intelligence. He was the youngest of the team trying to break the Enigma code. His great achievement during his work at the Cipher Bureau was devising the clock method, which made the reconstruction of the position of the Enigma’s rotors much easier. It seemed that in the 1930s the world was his oyster: he had a prestigious job, good salary… In 1938 he married Maria Barbara Majka, a teacher at a garment industry school complex, and a year later their son Jan Janusz was born.

The last time Jerzy saw his son was during evacuation in September 1939. He was sent to France along with Zygalski and Rejewski. He did not live to see the end of the war – he died in the shipwreck of Lamoricière when he was travelling from Algiers to France. His wife learnt about his death four months later from Zygalski’s letter.