Obituary: Jacob Nuriel Burbea / Pitt math professor survived Holocaust

Dec. 13, 1941 - June 3, 2008

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Jacob Nuriel Burbea, a young Holocaust survivor who grew up to become a math professor at the University of Pittsburgh, died Tuesday at UPMC Shadyside after a battle with rheumatoid arthritis and lung disease.

Dr. Burbea, 66, of Point Breeze, was hired by the University of Pittsburgh in 1976. He was on medical leave, still hoping to return, at the time of his death.

Born in Italy, Dr. Burbea was taken to the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen with his family when he was a young child.

As many as 50 members of the extended Burbea family survived World War II, something family members attribute to their having British passports. In the early years of the war, Bergen-Belsen was a holding camp for people the Germans wanted to use in exchange for German prisoners.

The family had been granted British citizenship years earlier by Queen Victoria because of help a rabbi in the family had provided.

After the war, the family went back to Italy and in the late 1940s moved to Israel.

"They lived like a lot of the immigrants, in tents and were very poor," said his wife, Claire Moss Burbea.

But Dr. Burbea later earned his bachelor's degree at Hebrew University, his master's at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and his doctorate at Stanford University.

He then taught at Tel Aviv University and, based on his research, made connections at Penn State University where he lectured for two years until he was offered a tenure-track position at the University of Pittsburgh.

Frank Beatrous, another Pitt math professor who co-authored math papers with Dr. Burbea, said he had "very good insight, very good intuition. He was full of ideas."

He described him as "easygoing," yet someone who demanded perfection in the papers they wrote.

Dr. Burbea's area of mathematical research was in complex analysis, doing largely pure mathematics as well as some applied mathematics. He was good at making connections between different elements of mathematics, said Dr. Beatrous.

Dr. Burbea helped many of his son Jonathan's friends from high school who wanted to get into graduate school or medical school.

"He had such a young attitude," said his son, of Boston. "When he decided to help you, he extended his friendship.

"Many people were attracted to him. He was a larger-than-life kind of figure. He fought his way from the Nazis to resettling in Israel, from poverty."

Dr. Burbea traveled annually to Israel where the family has a summer apartment in Shoresh, Jerusalem.

In Israel, he would sit for hours helping nieces and nephews with math, his wife said.

Services and interment will be in Shoresh.

In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Burbea is survived by a daughter, Michelle Burbea Hoffman, of Boston.

Eleanor Chute can be reached at or 412-263-1955.


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