Jews and the Atomic Bombby Judith Fein May 28, 2018
A few months ago, with considerable apprehension, I visited Hiroshima in Japan. Maybe you have heard of the peace park with its mound of ashes of 70,000 unidentified bodies and a paltry 814 who were identified. And perhaps you know about the stone coffin that contains a registry of 300,000 names of victims of “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb that exploded on August 6, 1945. Above the coffin is the stone shape of an ancient Japanese house; it is meant to shield the poor victims’ souls from the rain.
And in the nearby museum are the clothes of a few of the 7,000 young children who were murdered by an indifferent explosion.
As I rode the bullet train from Hiroshima to Tokyo, I sank into sullen silence as I contemplated the atomic genii that was grown in Los Alamos, New Mexico, about 40 minutes from where I live. And I knew it was important that this summer, the Santa Fe Opera is presenting “Dr. Atomic,” the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was put in charge of developing the weapon of mass destruction exactly 75 years ago. The once remote and secret mesa-top town of Los Alamos is visible from the opera, and I cannot imagine any place on earth where a production of the opera would be more resonant or timely. The music, by John Adams, and the libretto, by Peter Sellars, will soar out into the star-laden New Mexico night sky, and waft towards the very place where the Manhattan Project changed the history of the world.
The opera focuses on the nuclear scientists and the anxiety-fueled last hours before the detonation of the bomb at the “Trinity” test site in Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 15, 1945, a few weeks before it was dropped on Hiroshima. Oppenheimer (“Oppie”), down to a gaunt 98 pounds, is on the verge of nervous collapse. The bomb was originally developed to defeat Nazi Germany, but that evil empire has expired, and now the target is Japan.
Other scientists express grave concern about the morality of the bomb, and want to write to President Truman to urge him not to use it, but Oppie insists they shouldn’t get involved in political pronouncements. His focus is atomic, not ethical. And the libretto, which is based on a vast amount of original source material from declassified secret documents to technical manuals of nuclear physics, includes terrifying talk of a possible chain reaction that could destroy the entire earth’s atmosphere.
I became obsessed with finding out how Oppenheimer, who emanated from a rich, ethical Jewish background, could unleash incalculable destruction. My search led me to Rabbi Jack Shlachter, a New Mexico rabbi and plasma physicist who also happens to be Division leader of the Theoretical Division of Los Alamos National Lab, which was first created in 1943 by Oppie. He has been giving talks about Jews and the Manhattan project, and I was stunned to learn that not just Oppie, but 25 percent of the brilliant scientists in the Theoretical Division and all of the leaders were Jewish. Their average age was late 20’s. The seniors were in their 30’s.
Oppie was born in New York, and, like most of the other physicists, came from a non-observant Ashkenazi household. At the age of l8, he was sent to New Mexico to recuperate from colitis, and he claimed that physics and the desert were his two big loves. It was said of Oppie that he was an inspirational leader, but he had “sitzfleisch,” a Yiddish word meaning he couldn’t sit still. He studied the Hindu religion, and after seeing the bomb detonate in Alamogordo, he spoke the words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Hans Bethe, leader of the Theoretical Division and purportedly a jovial fellow with a great guffaw, was born in Germany, and lost his job because his mother was Jewish. When Hitler rose to power, Bethe’s mother may have converted and Bethe didn’t identify with being Jewish. Because of his German birth, he had no access to his own published work at Los Alamos because he didn’t yet have clearance. He won a Nobel Prize in 1967.
Victor Weisskopf came from a middle-class, highly cultured Viennese environment. He said his favorite occupations were Mozart and quantum mechanics. He was excluded from high positions under the Nazis and left Europe in 1938. He was one of the few theoretical physicists to witness the explosion at the “Trinity” site; it was thought that theoreticians didn’t need to be present. He went on to head CERN, the highly respected European Center for Nuclear Research.
John von Neumann was a child prodigy who came from a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest. At six years old he exchanged jokes in Classical Greek and at eight he had mastered calculus. He had broad interests, was a terrible driver because he read while behind the wheel, and rode down the Grand Canyon on a mule while dressed in a three-piece pinstripe suit. On a bet, he drank l6 Martinis in a row.
Sir Rudolf Peierls came from Berlin and worked for the British government before arriving in Los Alamos. Robert Serber was born in Philadelphia to parents with a Leftist Jewish orientation. His wife was the only woman to head a technical division as a librarian. And Nobel laureate Fred Reines became interested in science when, as a kid, he was bored in Hebrew school.
Richard Feynman’s mother said of her Queens-born prodigy son, that he couldn’t decide whether to be a comedian or a scientist so he combined them both. He cultivated a low class, rough and tumble personality. When he was at Los Alamos, his wife was sick with TB in Albuquerque. He faked her presence—by putting her nightgown and powder and slippers in his bedroom– so that he wouldn’t have to accept a roommate.
George Placzek, from Brno, had a rabbi grandfather who corresponded with Darwin and had a relationship with Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics. He famously brought 1,000 condoms to his Soviet colleagues, along with chocolate and soaps. He delivered the edibles and soap and forgot the condoms in a taxi.
Rabbi Shlachter spoke to Murray Peshkin before he died in September 2017; he had been a soldier with a scientific background at Los Alamos. He said he never heard a Jewish joke or any Yiddish spoken. All of the physicists around him in the Theoretical division were assimilated Jews.
Additional genius level Jews worked in experimental physics and other divisions. Many of them went on to win Nobel Prizes, make important discoveries and rise to the top of their fields. But only one that Rabbi Shlachter spoke about, Sir Joseph Rotblat, expressed grave reservations about the bomb. He left the Manhattan project, became a physics professor, and worked on medical and biological uses of nuclear power. In 1995 he won a Nobel Peace Prize “for efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international affairs and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms.”
I was so baffled by the participation of Jews in the development in the world’s most terrifying weapon that I had a long talk with the rabbi. He said that, “their Jewishness was coupled with the moral obligation to protect your family, your relatives from being slaughtered. In 1943, when Oppie assembled the lab, they were afraid the Nazis were working on the bomb and would get there first. Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, said that Jews do not have the teaching to turn the other cheek.”
The rabbi went on to speak of his own father, who fought in World War II in Europe. “After D-Day, he was sent home on leave and then headed to Japan when the bomb was dropped. I think the bomb saved his life. He and so many more soldiers would have been killed; it would have been a deadly, protracted experience to bring the war to a close. When my father came to New Mexico once, we went to the Atomic Museum in Albuquerque. They had a mock up of the bomb and my father pointed to it and said, ‘that changed my life.’”
When I protested that there was evidence that Truman’s military advisers told him not to drop the bomb because the Japanese were almost on their knees and the war would be over in a matter of weeks, the rabbi sighed. He didn’t necessarily agree with that version, and he said that, “Nuclear weapons are not supposed to be the way to solve a problem. They are intended to be a deterrent. They were the way to end the war without additional loss of servicemen’s lives.”
After a beat, the good-natured rabbi went on to talk about the Talmudic story of two people in the desert. One had enough water to sustain him and the other didn’t. If they shared the water, both of them would die. The Talmud says that, “the one who has the water has the water. Judaism does not say that under no circumstances whatsoever can you hurt someone.”
I told the rabbi that so many Manhattan project scientists arrived as teens or in their early 20’s. When I was their age, I left the country because of the Vietnam War. I went to Paris and became part of the anti-war movement. Why didn’t they protest? Where was their sense of humanity, of morality?
“I don’t think these moral and ethical considerations were part of the conversation at Los Alamos. There was no Jewish debate of the subject. They were under extreme pressure, on a crash scientific endeavor. They didn’t stop to think about it. In an ideal world, there would be no nuclear weapons, but we’re not living in that world. There are bad actors out there and I understand the need for nuclear deterrent. Since 1945, there hasn’t been a world war, and much of what Los Alamos does is nonproliferation and counter proliferation. You know, I’m not an exceptionally astute humanist. I can imagine getting swept up in the war, and not having the luxury of debating like this. I don’t think I would have been any different in their shoes.”
“Dr. Atomic” deals with the anxieties, pressures and tensions Oppie and those close to him were experiencing. The portrayal of the scientists is not black and white. If you want to get as close as you can to the locus of the Manhattan project, see the opera, and visit related sites in Los Alamos, come to Santa Fe. Twice a year, they even open the “Trinity” site, where locals demonstrate to draw attention to illnesses they suffered from the detonation. In your mind, project yourself back into the past and imagine for all of us a better future.
For Further Info:
Go to YouTube and search Jews and the Manhattan Project by Rabbi Shlachter.
Santa Fe Opera: Santafeopera.org
Judith Fein, formerly of San Diego, is an award-winning travel journalist and speaker. Her website is