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Jewish employees of the Manhattan Project

Read about their contributions in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 7-8
April 1, 2021
John von Neumann and Stanley Frankel with Jumbo

John von Neumann and Stanley Frankel with Jumbo.


A note on the door

About a decade ago, when Jack Shlachter first took his post as Deputy Division Leader of Theoretical Division, he noticed that his boss had left a piece of paper tacked to his door. It was the original roster of the division from May 10, 1945, and it was a veritable who’s who of scientists at the center of the Manhattan Project: Hans Bethe. Richard Feynman. Victor Weisskopf. Robert Serber.

It was an interesting piece of history to observe, but for Shlachter — a full-time physicist and part-time rabbi who is now at Brookhaven National Laboratory — there was something else about the roster that jumped out at him. Six of the eight leaders on the list had Jewish names. 

Investigating further, he saw that there were Jewish names all over the Lab during Project Y: technicians, scientists, soldiers. Some of them were Jewish refugees who had fled Nazi-threatened Europe. He began to research them all. 

Jewish life at the Lab

The Manhattan Project brought together people from all over for intense work in one of the most isolated, secretive places in the world.

For the Lab's Jewish employees, the move came with an additional level of isolation as World War II slammed overseas. They likely received few updates about their families and friends, and, despite the fact they were surrounded by other Jewish people, there wasn’t an active Jewish community they could join.

Not that they were looking for one.

"They were of a generation where it seemed like science and religion were incompatible," Shlachter said. "It's not that they were shy that their heritage was Jewish. They just didn’t choose to emphasize it." 

Laser focused on the scientific challenge of nuclear weapons, they were also working with the assumption that Germans were hard at work on their own. It's difficult to know, said Shlachter, how they truly felt.

"The goal was to win the war," he said. "It's just a very complex issue, what was the attitude of Jewish people."

Snapshots: Jewish employees of Project Y

George Placzek

The only Czechoslovakian citizen with a leading position on the Manhattan Project, Placzek was a physicist who came to the Lab in May 1945. He'd left Europe for Princeton University in 1939, likely due to Hitler's expansion in Europe. 

His work included developing the Landau-Placzek formula for the ratio of diffusions of light, but when he passed away in 1955, he left few published works.

Joseph Rotblat

The Polish physicist traveled to the Lab after studying at the University of Liverpool under James Chadwick.

When he left for the United States, Rotblat's wife, Tola, stayed behind in Warsaw to be treated for appendicitis and planned to join him when she recovered. The war closed off her escape routes; Tola died in a concentration camp.

Rotblat went on to become secretary-general of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

Charlotte Serber

Charlotte Serber

Arriving from Illinois to work in Los Alamos with her husband, Robert, Charlotte was the Lab's only female group leader and built the research library from scratch.

She instituted the first security pass system and was the only person who had the key to the Lab's Santa Fe mailbox, according to the book she wrote with eight other women employees, Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos.

John von Neumann

John von Neumann

Born in Budapest to Jewish parents, von Neumann was considered a child prodigy at the age of 6 — he could speak Classical Greek, memorize entire telephone directories on sight and divide two eight-digit numbers in his head.

He came to the United States in 1930, and joined T Division as a consultant on Project Y.

Jay Wechsler

Jay Wechsler

Wechsler was an enlisted soldier during the war who came to Los Alamos from the Manhattan Project site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and began working as a technician under Otto Frisch. 

"He was one of many soldiers during the Manhattan Project, and perhaps something of a footnote in the project itself," Shlachter said. "But he went on to become a major proponent of the Jewish community in Los Alamos. He was active in the community here for the rest of his life."

Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — is observed by communities around the world, beginning this year at sunset on April 7 and ending with nightfall on April 8. Commemorations include memorial services, vigils, talks, readings, candle-lighting ceremonies and songs.

All images courtesy of LANL's National Security Research Center.