Letter from Los Alamos: The Nuclear Jewish Family
Jewish refugee scientists from war-torn Europe gathered in this desert terrain determined to beat Hitler’s Germany in achieving nuclear capability.
The rabbi directs the classified research of 350 physicists and engineers. The synagogue’s religion chairperson explores the interface of biological and inorganic materials; the president is an MIT-trained computer analyst in America’s most important defense laboratory. The local Hadassah president works on radiation detection. Welcome to Los Alamos, New Mexico, population 18,000. To get there, drive two hours north of Albuquerque, 35 miles beyond Santa Fe, through the conical hills of the volcanic Jemez Mountains. Today, road signs point the way, but in the past residents pretended their town didn’t exist. Contemporary Los Alamos is hospitable and modest: it has mostly low-frills, one-story ranch houses spaced close together. There’s a public Olympic-size swimming pool, a mountainside skating rink and a doughnut bakery where discussions thrive over mugs of steaming coffee and herbal tea. Hiking paths curve through pine, spruce and cottonwood trees revealing wind-shaped volcanic rock looming over pink and rose canyons. Below, the winding Rio Grande River courses by.
From 1943 to 1945, the allies’ most gifted scientists—most of them Jewish refugees from Europe—congregated in the center of this rugged terrain. They were working to fashion a weapon that would halt the relentless conquest by the Axis forces. Nazi Germany occupied much of France, defeated the British at Dunkirk, boasted troops and weaponry superior to the British and was annihilating millions of Jews. And between 1901 and 1932, the year before Hitler came to power, German scientists won 33 Nobel Prizes, the United States only six. Impelled by the terrifying ramifications of the Nazis achieving nuclear capability first, scientists in Los Alamos were determined to beat Hitler to the atomic bomb.
Six decades after World War II, Los Alamos is still a company town. After the war, Congress decided to keep the well-equipped laboratory and establish the civilian Atomic Energy Commission. The Los Alamos National Laboratory (affectionately referred to as “the Lab”) has been moved from downtown to a nearby mesa. Gray and beige utilitarian-looking buildings cover 43 square miles of forests and canyons. Inside is a plutonium processing facility, Technical Area 55, not accessible to visitors. Today, the main mission of the Lab is maintaining the safety and reliability of weapons. It is also geared to respond to biological and chemical terrorism, as well as being a center for basic scientific research for such military spinoff sciences as robotics, genomics (Human Genome Project) and nanoscience research.
Like those who paved the way for them, today’s resident scientists speak idealistically about their work both in pure scientific research and in defense research. Hadassah chapter president Karen Hirsch, 34, a petite, athletic physicist, wanted to be a rabbi when growing up in Pittsburgh before she became enthralled by the creativity of science. “I came here to do something to make the world a safer place, and I believe that’s what I’m doing,” says Hirsch, whose doctorate explains the phenomenon of the Northern Lights. She now works on the detection of radiating materials, often on international programs, and is part of the Institute of Nuclear Management. How much does the sense of the past impact on modern history and her work? “In Jerusalem you’re not constantly thinking of the city’s past, but it is there all the time, you never exactly forget it. That’s the way it is here,” she says.
Ubiquitous old petroglyphs by nomads and Indians are sketched in the soft volcanic stone, but Los Alamos’s modern history reaches only as far back as 1911, when the area was homesteaded by Harold Brook. He sold land to a businessman named Ashley Pond, for whom the natural pool in the town center was named. Pond opened the exclusive Los Alamos Ranch School for boys in 1918, combining studies with vigorous outdoor living. Students slept in unheated log cabins and rode horses on pack trips up the mountains.
Among the school’s young visitors was Julius Robert Oppenheimer, a slender, gifted teenager from a prosperous Jewish family in New York. His father, a textile importer, sent his son west with a teacher to improve his health. Oppenheimer often rode across the valley from Santa Fe to Los Alamos.
After graduating from Harvard University, Oppenheimer traveled to the prestigious university in Gottingen, Germany, to study with the great physicists exploring applications of the quantum theory to the structure of atoms. He earned his Ph.D. under the eminent Nobel laureate Max Born. In March 1933, three months after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, the civil service dismissed all Jews. According to Jean Medawar and David Pyke, authors of Hitler’s Gift(Arcade Publishing), “Of the 33 scientists of the four physics and math institutes at Gottingen, only 11 remained.”
Leaving Germany that first year were 2,600 scientists and scholars, most of them Jewish. As Nazi power spread, they fled other European countries; among them were Victor Weisskopf, Edward Teller, Niels Bohr, Hans Bethe, John von Neumann, Enrico Fermi (not Jewish himself, but married to a Jew), Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls. Many would meet again on the mesas of Los Alamos.
On August 2, 1939, Teller, with Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, who worked on the Manhattan Project mostly out of Chicago, drafted a letter, signed by Albert Einstein, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt apprising him of the nuclear research in Germany. They warned him that uranium could be turned into a “new and important source of energy” and that the situation called for “watchfulness, and if necessary, quick action…because extremely powerful bombs of a new type might be constructed.”
Roosevelt appointed a commission to study the question, and on January 1, 1943, the University of California at Berkeley was chosen to operate a new laboratory. The government turned to Oppenheimer, then at the university, to head the team. He suggested Los Alamos with its sparse population, dense forest, distance from the nation’s coastlines and its soul-enhancing beauty for a secret laboratory site.
In October 1944, New Yorker Jacob J. Wechsler, 21, was pulled from his infantry unit to take a science test. He passed easily. Before enlisting, he had been studying engineering and physics at Cornell University. After a concentrated physics course, Wechsler was shipped out to “somewhere” in New Mexico, arriving at what looked like a hard-up military base where soldiers were interviewed for technical jobs. Word was that the interviewer was tough. When Wechsler’s turn came, across the table sat a dignified man of 40 who spoke with an Austrian accent.
“We kind of hit it off right away,” recalls Wechsler, now 81. His interlocutor was Otto Frisch, the renowned scientist who, with his aunt, Lise Meitner, recognized and named atomic fission and later, with Rudolf Peierls, determined that an atomic bomb was possible. “Frisch told me we would be a group. He would be group leader and I would be alternate group leader. He sent me off to check out equipment to build a physics lab.”
The enterprising spirit Frisch saw in Wechsler also contributed to the start of a Jewish community. Wechsler requested a motor pool truck to drive to Albuquerque for High Holiday services. Half a dozen G.I.’s showed up. They became known as the “the Salami Club,” after the food gifts one of their mothers dispatched to the mysterious post office box to which all Los Alamos mail was sent.
Long before the term “interdisciplinary” was coined, Oppenheimer insisted on free discussion among departments to facilitate creative thinking. On July 16, 1945, 28 months after scientists arrived in Los Alamos, they tested the first atomic bomb. Three weeks later, on August 6, the second man-made nuclear explosion occurred over Hiroshima. Testimony taken from Japan’s military leaders following the war revealed that despite the destruction of Hiroshima, Japan was prepared for a long resistance. On August 9, America’s remaining atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered unconditionally five days later.
By the spring of 1946, Wechsler, who was among 302 discharged soldiers who had been rehired as civilians, returned to Los Alamos. (Until 1957 only families that worked there could enter the fenced-off town. His future wife, Carol, a native of South Dakota, was working as senior secretary to the laboratory director.) Housing was scarce and Jewish food scarcer. Matza meal and chicken fat for Passover were ordered from Chicago; 110 people attended a communal Seder.
Wechsler discovered a Torah in a portable Army chapel used by the United Church. “The Jewish Welfare Board supplied Torah scrolls for units, and I had a feeling there might be one in that building,” he recalls. “When we opened the altar door, sure enough, there it was inside, safe and sound despite its bumpy journey to Los Alamos.”
Wechsler successfully pressed the AEC for land for a synagogue building. In January 1963, the Los Alamos Jewish Center opened at 2400 Canyon Road (telephone: 505-662-2140; www.lajc.org). It serves the community for worship, education, life-cycle events and social gatherings; services are held every Friday night and alternate Saturday mornings. The A-shaped structure is brown and white and has a menora embellishing its outside wall. It features a woodenbima beautifully wrought by a moonlighting draftsman-designer who worked at the Lab. Outside, mule deer and coyote provide the occasional distraction.
A second Torah scroll was donated by a stranger from Albuquerque who had spent Rosh Hashana in Los Alamos and later asked Wechsler to meet him in the parking lot. In his trunk was a 100-year-old Torah, purportedly from the man’s disbanded congregation. No one got his name.
The history of Los Alamos is recorded in a small local museum, and public events are still held in the lodge of the old Ranch School, where Oppenheimer once gathered his team. The ice house, where parts of the first atomic bombs were assembled, still stands.
Los Alamos feels small town in the sense that it’s easy to hitch a ride from the supermarket, but it also boasts some of the best public schools in New Mexico and a terrific local bookstore. Nonetheless, downtown still has something of an unplanned, unfinished look about it, as if the residents have tried to disturb the natural beauty of the mountains as little as possible. A new amphitheater will offer outdoor concerts against a backdrop of pastel canyons.
The Lab remains the town’s largest employer, so even those who do not work there often have some connection. Philadelphia-born Andi Kron, a freelance cartographer who first came on a field trip from Syracuse University, serves as the welcoming committee for visiting Israeli scientists.
Kron studies Hebrew every morning, driving to Santa Fe each week for lessons, and through Hadassah has taught beginning Hebrew to Jews and non-Jews. The drive to Santa Fe is the only time all week she uses a car; like many of the locals, she and her husband are outdoorsy and energy-conscious. Her attitude sums up the local esprit de corps: “I love the mountains, nature, the small-town ambience, the lack of traffic. I love the members of our community and the fresh air with trails outside my door.”
Los Alamos Hadassah (Karen487H@earthlink.net) was formally organized in 1947, but even during the war years women made diapers, blankets and baby clothes for Palestine. Today the chapter conducts educational activities, rummage and bake sales and publishes a cookbook with cake recipes scientifically adjusted for the 7,000-foot altitude of Los Alamos. There’s an active Young Judaea. Some 80 families and singles are on the membership list for the Los Alamos Jewish Center.
“I’m proud to work in Los Alamos and of the role of Jewish scientists,” says chemist Andrew Dattelbaum, 30, who teaches the pre-bar mitzva classes. Synagogue president Bob Newell became interested in Judaism while working in North Dakota. He taught himself Hebrew and Aramaic, and every morning at 5:30 he studies a daily page of Talmud, in keeping with the international Daf Yomistudy cycle.
Jack Shlachter, a young scientist with degrees from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the University of California at Berkeley, moved to Los Alamos in 1979. He realized that his Conservative Hebrew school education and singing could add to the do-it-yourself congregation. While preparing Torah study sessions, he discovered “that Judaism wasn’t just for children—that it had substance and was as intellectually rewarding as anything else I’d studied.” He married Kate Bowman, a local freelance book indexer, and they have two children.
When Jewish Renewal rabbi Gershon Winkler moved to New Mexico, Shlachter enrolled as a private student and was ordained in 1995. He aspires to reveal the “beauty and complexity of Judaism,” he says. In the meantime, Los Alamos’s first rabbi has risen to head of the Physics Division of the Lab. “I don’t see much of a dichotomy between religion and science,” says Shlachter. “God gave us minds to use, and that’s both a privilege and a responsibility.”
That’s the spirit of Los Alamos.