Great Scientists Against Terrible Odds

Physics in a Mad World

edited by M. Shifman and translated from the Russian by James Manteith
World Scientific, 540 pp., $34.00 (paper)
The physicist Friedrich Houtermans, Göttingen, Germany, 1937
Giovanna Fjelstad
The physicist Friedrich Houtermans, Göttingen, Germany, 1937

In the 1930s German and Russian scientists of Jewish origin were treated quite differently. The German scientists were automatically “guilty” if they had more than one eighth Jewish “blood.” In Russia they had to be guilty of doing something. Until October 1941 Jews were encouraged to leave Germany and most of the prominent scientists did so, though not without great difficulty, since they were allowed to take very little money out of the country. The Russian scientists, on the other hand, were not allowed to leave. Many were arrested and forced to “confess” to crimes. After having done so they were either imprisoned or summarily executed. In both cases the amount of scientific talent destroyed was beyond calculation. Here are two examples from German science.

Herman Mark was born in Vienna in 1895, making him an Austrian citizen. His father had been born Jewish but converted to Lutheranism upon marriage. A highly decorated World War I veteran, Mark became a very distinguished polymer chemist and was at the IG Farben company in Germany until the Nazis came to power in 1933, when he returned with his family to Vienna. But after the German annexation of Austria in 1938 he was arrested by the Gestapo. He was released without his passport, which he retrieved with a bribe of almost a year’s salary. He then left on a “ski trip” to Switzerland with his family, in a car with skis on the roof and a Nazi flag on the hood. He had bought some $50,000 worth of platinum wire that he fashioned into coat hangers. His wife had knitted covers for them. He ended up at the Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, where he assembled a noted group of chemists. His son Hans, who was on this “ski trip,” became a physicist and served as the secretary of the US Air Force.

The nuclear physicist Hans Bethe is another example. He had two Jewish grandparents, so according to the first racial laws that were promulgated in 1933 he could not hold a university position. He was at the time at the University of Tübingen and was immediately dismissed. His former professor Arnold Sommerfeld—a very great teacher of physics—made strong efforts to find jobs abroad for his Jewish students. Bethe found a temporary job in Manchester and then got an offer from Cornell, where he spent the rest of his career. He won the Nobel Prize in 1967. During the war he was head of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos. Late in his life he said he regretted that the Manhattan Project had not made the bomb earlier so that it could have been used against Germany.

Much has been written about the fate of Jewish scientists in Soviet Russia, but I have never seen anything…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.