A short biography of the obscure figure of Ukrainian anarchist Sacha Piotr-real name Alexander Schapiro, active in the Ukraine, Russia, Belgium, France and Germany. He fought with the anarchists in Spain and was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Father of the gifted mathematican Alexander Grothendieck.
Alexander Schapiro was born into a Jewish family with a Hasidic background in Novozybkov in the Ukraine on October 11th 1889 or 6th August 1890. This is the date given by his son Alexander, but it is not clear whether this was by the Julian or Gregorian calendar! In addition the Red Cross report of 1957 on him give two different birth dates, one of 10/11/1889 and one of 11/10/1889! He should not be confused with the other more famous Alexander Schapiro, who also participated in the Russian anarchist movement and who also went to Spain during the Revolution and Civil War (the wikipedia aricle on Sascha, partly based on this entry, puts the words of the other Alexander Schapiro on the Constituent Assembly into the mouth of Sascha). This small town which was predominantly Jewish, was in a region that bordered with Bielorussia and Russia. From an early age he felt more sympathy for the peasants and the poor than for his middle class family.
In 1904 at the age of fourteen he joined an anarchist group and left his town. Sacha was passionately committed to anarchist politics throughout his life. Two years later he and the rest of the group were rounded up. All of the others were executed. Sacha Shapiro, only 16, was spared because of his youth, as had Nestor Makhno in a similar situation. However during three weeks he expected to be put in front of a firing squad at any minute. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The Czarist regime incarcerated him in a dungeon in Moscow to die a slow death. This would certainly have happened were it not for the intervention on the part of an influential friend that resulted in his transfer to Yaroslav'l, where conditions were not as bad. Sasha remained there for 12 years. In 1909, in one of several attempts to escape, he was shot in the left arm, which was later amputated (he did not lose his arm in the Spanish Civil War as some accounts state). He unsuccessfully attempted suicide. The hardest year for him was in 1914, when he was placed in solitary confinement for a year.
In 1917 Sacha Schapiro was released and feted as a revolutionary hero. He was a friend of the anarchist Lev Chernyi, later murdered in a Cheka cellar, and of the fiery anarchist Maria Nikiforova, later shot by the Whites. He fought at the head of a heavily armed independent anarchist band in the Ukraine with links with the Makhnovists. A Sasha Shapiro is mentioned in a Cheka report as being a member of the Underground Anarchists which had organised a secret network in Moscow to carry out attacks on the Bolsheviks and who was sent by them to organise a similar network in Ufa in the Urals. This may be the same man as the subject of this biography.During these tempestuous years between 1917 and 1921 he had an equally tempestuous love life. His first wife was a Jewish woman called Rachil and he had a son with her called Dodek. He fled to Minsk in 1921, after the Bolsheviks began searching for him, where he met up with Alexander Berkman who supplied him with money (he met Berkman again later in Berlin in 1925). He was then aided by a Jewish woman called Lia across the Russian-Polish border. He left with false papers under the name of Alexander Tanarov (he was deported to Auschwitz under this name). Within the movement he also used the name Sergei.Between 1921 and 1924 Sacha lived in Paris, Belgium and Berlin.
In Paris he was friendly with the novelist Scholem Asch and the painter and journalist Aron Brzezinski. The latter made a bronze bust of Sacha. He also frequented the Café Dome, the haunt of many artists. He had occasional contacts with Makhno and his circle in Paris.
He was very active in anarchist circles in Berlin in the 20s under the name of Sacha Piotr (or Sascha Pjotr). He befriended Durruti and Ascaso in Berlin in 1928. He also became friends with the Italian anarchist Francesco Ghezzi who had fled repression in Italy and attended the Berlin congress of the International Workers Association in 1921. Ghezzi died in a Soviet concentration camp in Siberia in 1942. In May 1924 Sacha was one of several anarchists including Sébastien Faure, Ugo Fedeli and Walecki (real name Isaak Gurfinkiel) who founded Œuvres Internationales Des Editions Anarchistes (International Works of Anarchist Editions) based in Paris and run by the anarchist Severin Ferandel.He contributed at least two articles to it. Sacha was linked to the libertarian writer Theodor Pievier who dedicated his novel Stienka Rasin (1927) to him.
It was through the anarchist movement that he met his wife, Hanka Grothendieck. She came from a middle class family in Hamburg, which had come from Holland in the previous century. She worked as a journalist for the progressive newspaper, Der Pranger, (The Pillory). She gravitated to the Berlin anarchist movement where she met Sacha. He had to earn a living by working as a street photographer. This had first been suggested to him by anarchists in Belgium as a way of making a living. They had a son together called Alexander in 1928. He went under the Dutch name of his mother because of the increasing anti-Semitism in Germany.
In 1933 the young Grothendieck was entrusted in the care of a middle class family sympathetic to progressive causes, the Heydorns, while his parents moved to France because of the menace of Nazism. Both Sacha and Hanka moved to Spain in 1936 with the coming of the Spanish revolution and fought with the anarchist movement. There under the name of Sacha Pietra he addressed an assembly of foreign anarchist militias where he said that he was not a militia man, had lived through the Russian Revolution and had seen what they had done to the anarchists there. (Supplement to CNT/FAI Information Bulletin Barcelona 19.6.37) With the defeat of the Spanish Republic both Sacha and Hanka crossed the border to France. From the age of 5 to 11, Alexander was raised in Berlin. The Heydorns finally notified his parents that it was too dangerous to keep him any more. In May 1939, just a few months before France entered the war, the Heydorns put Alexander on a train to Paris and his parents.. Sacha was imprisoned in the concentration camp at Vernet with the outbreak of war in 1939. Vernet had the worse conditions of all the camps set up by the French government to intern refugees and exiles. The anarchist May Picqueray describes in her autobiography visiting Vernet to support her friend the anarchist sculptor Fernando Gualdi. She saw Sacha there and was able to pass food to him. She took a photo of him behind the barbed wire which she later passed to his son in Paris after the war.
In 1940 Hanka and her son were interned in the Rieucros camp near Mende. Later they went into hiding in the Cevennes mountains in the south of France. Sacha was deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where he was murdered by the Nazis.
Hanka and Alexander survived the war and settled in Montpellier. She remained in the south of France while he went on to become famous at universities in Nancy, Strasbourg and Paris. She died in 1957 of pulmonary tuberculosis contracted in the concentration camp. She wrote a novel Eine Frau ( A Woman) which was never published, a thinly fictionalised account of the years in Berlin, in which Sacha has a principal role. Alexander, known as the “Einstein of mathematics“ threw up a brilliant career and now lives somewhere in the French Pyrenees in almost complete obscurity.
Sources Marianne Enckel, CIRA ( entry on Piotr in forthcoming Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement libertaire en France
Winfried Sharlau's work on Alexander Grothendieck at http://www.math.jussieu.fr/~leila/grothendieckcircle/biographic.php