Chaïm Perelman’s Childhood and Education
Chaïm Perelman (born in Warsaw, Poland, on 20 May 1912) came from an affluent, well-educated middle-class family: his mother had a Hasidic Jewish background; his father was born in Warsaw of a Maskilim family, heirs of the Haskalah, the Jewish Englightenment. After turning his hand to a variety of different professions, his father became a diamond trader. The contacts he had in Belgium encouraged him to choose Antwerp (Belgium) as a destination. The Perelman family settled there in 1925, a few days after Chaïm’s bar mitzvah in the synagogue in Warsaw. Chaïm was the oldest child, followed by his sister Ghana Sozia (Sophie), Dora and Joseph David. Chaïm, who had followed the Polish education system at Haschola, the Jewish secondary school in Warsaw, pursued his secondary studies at the Royal Secondary School of Antwerp followed by the central jury. He then began University at sixteen years of age. As a student at the Université libre de Bruxelles (Belgium) (ULB), he was a militant in the Association des Étudiants juifs [Association of Jewish Students] whilst at the same time studying Philosophy, graduating in 1933, and Law. Struck by his exceptional gifts, Marcel Barzin involved him in his work and in his teaching before he had even finished his studies, and went on to get him a research fellow grant for the National Fund for Scientific Research. This enabled Perelman to complete his doctoral thesis, between 1935 and 1938. After winning first prize at the University Competition in 1936, Perelman received a grant from the University Foundation and decided to spend a year at the University of Warsaw, reputed for its school of logic. It is during this academic year that Perelman became close to the great Polish logician Kotarbinski, a friendship which never failed him.
Back in Brussels, Perelman rapidly moved up in the world of academia. After defending his doctoral thesis in philosophy, which was on the logician Gottlob Frege, he went on to become an assistant in 1938 and a lecturer the following year. While he was mobilised by the Belgian army, he continued to give the class on encyclopaedia of philosophy and private coaching in Dutch for the class in moral philosophy. As a consequence Perelman was the first person to lecture in philosophy in Dutch at the ULB. The young Chaïm Perelman was also a dedicated Zionist. It was at this time that Léon Kubowitzki created the Brussels-based representation of the Congrès juif mondial: le Conseil des Associations juives de Bruxelles, [World Jewish Congress: the Council of Jewish Associations of Brussels] where one of his assistants was none other than Fela Perelman. His desire to defend the ideas of the Jewish Congress resulted in him creating a body, La Tribune Juive [The Jewish Tribune], in which Chaïm Perelman pleaded, in those difficult times, in favour of Jewish dignity. Two problems emerge from these first articles that he devoted to the Jewish question: antisemitism and assimilation.
Source: Schreiber Jean-Philippe, “Perelman, Chaïm (baron)”, in Dictionnaire biographique des juifs de Belgique: Figures du judaïsme belge XIXe – XXe siècle, Brussels, De Boeck et Larcier s.a., 2002, p. 271-272. Translated from the French by Catherine Hall.