When we speak of Jews who are Nobel laureates, we need to begin with talking about people like Elise Meitner – someone who did not receive a Nobel prize, as it was taken from her and given to Otto Hann, the non-Jewish man who used her research to receive a Noble for himself Bias against women in the Nobel has been widely noted, yet to be both a Jew and a woman and receive the prize; you needed to outperform others in truly astonishing ways.
So who was Lise Meitner, and why did some refer to her as “the Jewish Mary Cury”?
Lise Meitner was born to a Jewish family in Vienna, and her father was the first Jewish lawyer in Vienna. She was not well affiliated with the Jewish community and even officially converted to Christianity. In 1907 Meitner began working with a German chemist Otto Hann, who worked together on discovering different aspects of nuclear fission and recoil. Hann took a break during WWI to help the German army develop chemical weapons. He then went on to research with Meitner, and they both became famous for their discoveries in nuclear research. They were both nominated for the Nobel 19 times, but in 1945 Hann was the only one to receive it.
While Hann condemned the national socialist party, as the war began, he became part of Germany’s nuclear research program, working on advancing Germany’s nuclear and lethal capabilities. One can only begin to imagine the horrors of what would happen had Hann succeeded in getting Hitler a nuclear bomb before Germany was defeated.
Meitner was the first woman to become a professor of physics in Germany, a position she would soon lose because of the German Nuremberg laws. By 1938, Nazi persecution was so bad that Meitner fled to Sweden. In the same year, her theory of fission she worked on with Hann was fully developed, published in 1939, and led to the discovery that enabled the development of a nuclear bomb.
Fritz Strassmann showed how enriching uranium could lead to a nuclear explosion. Interestingly, Strassman later received a righteous among the nation’s award from Yad Vashem (a rarity for Germans) for hiding a Jewish woman and her son during the Holocaust. He also said he would rather die than have his work lead Hitler to a bomb.
By 1944 Hann received the Nobel prize for developing this theory, which makes you wonder about the ethics of giving a Nobel that year. Alfred Nobel famously initiated the Nobel prize because his innovation of dynamite led him to be called the Angel of Death. It is hard to understand why the committee would give the prize just a year before the bombing of Hiroshima. In some way, Meitner not receiving this prize was probably more of an honor than a denigration.
In 1945, right after the Holocaust, Meitner wrote the following letter to Hann:
You all worked for Nazi Germany. And you did not even try passive resistance. Granted, to absolve your conscience, you helped some oppressed person here and there, but millions of innocent human beings were murdered, and there was no protest.
I and many others are of the opinion that the one path for you would be to deliver an open statement that you are aware that through your passivity, you share responsibility for what has happened and that you have the need to work for what can be done to make amends. But many think it is too late for that.
These people say that first, you betrayed your friends, then your men and your children in that you let them stake their lives on a criminal war – and finally that you betrayed Germany itself because when the war was already quite hopeless, you never once spoke out against the meaningless destruction of Germany.”
After the bombing of Hiroshima, Meitner became somewhat of a celebrity. She famously got on the radio in New York, where she had moved to, and spoke alongside Elinor Roosevelt, making her way into American society.
Interestingly, when she arrived in New York after the Holocaust, she began telling people she was Jewish. “I am of Jewish descent,” she told Frida, “I am not Jewish by belief, know nothing of the history of Judaism, and do not feel closer to Jews than to other people.” She became a professor but ended up going back to Sweden. As the years went by, Meitner became friends with Hann again, and they enjoyed a lifelong friendship.
While the story of Meitner’s Judaism is not one of pride and devotion, her ability to be highly productive even under the most difficult circumstances, the discrimination she suffered both as a Jew and a woman, and her contributions to science are all very much worth studying. Despite being nominated 49 times and being the one who brought Otto Hann the Nobel, Meitner did not receive the prize. There have been many condemnations, even many decades later, of the Nobel committee’s refusal to give Meitner the Nobel, and the issue remains a bitter issue to this day. The IAEA also later named a department combating nuclear proliferation in her honor.
On the flip side of Lise Meitner being deprived of a Nobel prize by the Nobel committee is Russian Jewish novelist Boris Pasternak who was announced the winner in 1958 but was forced to decline it by Stalinist Russia and was told that if he goes to receive it, he would not be allowed back into the Soviet Union, which probably meant there were other threats in place to him and his family.
No matter how many Jews did achieve and received the Nobel, they always had to face discrimination and work to succeed under difficult odds.
The article is based on my notes for my lecture series “Jews of the Nobel” given in Park East Synagogue, New York.