By Karel Pacner, a partial transl. by LM
It's another Hiroshima anniversary and this article is rather interesting, I thought.
The only Czech who was assisting during the birth of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima
Almost nobody knows that one emigrant from Czechoslovakia was called to the narrowest team of the Manhattan Project by Robert Oppenheimer. His name was George Placzek.
A photo from Leipzig, 1931. The unsung hero of physics George Placzek sits on the left side from Bohr.
He was born in Brno, Moravia, in a mostly German-speaking Jewish family but the family was a proper Czechoslovak family which means that they spoke Czech at home, too.
Placzek would leave his homeland long before the Second World War. He would never return back. All his (Jewish) relatives were murdered in the Nazi concentration camps. And he knew way too much about the atomic bombs so he just couldn't be allowed to move to a country where communists were taking over.
In summer 1938, Placzek and Victor Weisskopful would spend a week on Robert Oppenheimer's ranch in New Mexico. A year earlier, they would visit the Soviet Union for several months and they had stories to tell Oppenheimer.
The original plan was to work for a much longer time in the country devoted to communism. Placzek would already have spent half a year in the middle of 1933 in Lev Landau's institute in Kharkov (nothing Ukrainian about that institute!) and he liked it over there very much. Alex Weissberg (?) would be a boss of a department in the Physical-Technological Institute over there. However, both of them could see various people disappearing. Rumors were spreading that those people had been arrested by the secret police and nobody was sure that he wouldn't disappear during the night, too. The air was full of fear. Nevertheless, they were convinced that as foreigners, they were safe.
When Placzek was asked in Kharkov what conditions he would demand to accept a job over there, he enumerated four expectations that were normal in the West and added: "And the chassain has to disappear." The Hebrew word meant the dictator Joseph Stalin. Barbara Ruhemann was both a wife of a German physicist who worked there as well as a staunch communist. So she informed the secret police about that quote. Placzek and Weisskopf were "punished" – they were kicked out of the USSR.
They were lucky. Austrian communist Alex Weissberg who would work in Kharkov would be less lucky. He was accused of constructed charges and convicted to 3 years in prison. Albert Einstein, French communist Frederic Joliot-Curie, and others would send heart-breaking yet futile letters to Joseph Stalin. Later, he was able to escape as well as survive the resistance in Warsaw as well as a Nazi prisoner.
Both physicists Weissberg and Placzek would originally be leftists which is also why their looks were attracted to the Soviet Union. Their last visit of that country has cured them. They realized that socialism founded by Lenin and Stalin was based on terror. When they were telling Oppenheimer about their experienced – and he had even been a member of a communist cell in California – even he was said to have sobered up. The signatures under the friendship treaty between the communist Moscow and the Nazi Berlin as well as the subsequent division of Poland between both empires has completed the transformation of these physicists. They have arguably become anticommunists at that time.
George Placzek was born on September 26th, 1905, in the center of Brno (Brünn) on 3 Grosser Platz (now the Square of the Freedom) in the family of a German-speaking Jewish entrepreneur. His dad Alfred bought a textile factory in Alexovice (now a part of Ivančice) from the co-owner Lous Skene in 1913.
During the winter, the family would live in Brno. They would spend the summers in Alexovice. George had a younger brother Fritz and a sister named Edith. The family would speak Czech as well and the kids would have friends among the local boys and girls. The family was deeply socially sensitive, supported the poor, and that's why they became honorary citizens of Alexovice.
After the final high school exam George would leave for Vienna and he has also attended the German University in Prague for three semesters. He didn't plan to become the boss of the factory. The younger brother seemed a better pick for that job. He was probably pushed towards science by Dr Baruch Placzek, the rabbi of the Land of Moravia who was an amateur scientist at the same moment and who was a friend with the founder of genetics, Johann Mendel, and was also exchanging mail with Charles Darwin, the father of evolution.
The student defended his dissertation about electrostatics, perfect grades, in July 1928 on the University of Vienna. Dr Placzek went to the world.
He would first work in Utrecht, the Netherlands. While writing down his studies and research, he would always greatly suffer. Each page had to be written many times and the paper destroyed and thrown to the trash can before he found formulations that would finally satisfy him.
Two years later, he went to Leipzig to Prof Werner Heisenberg who was already recognized as a leading theoretical physicist. The picture of the visiting scholars who would later contribute to the development of the bomb in the U.S. Manhattan Project was taken in late 1930. While everyone was looking to the camera self-confidently, Placzek's eyes were looking towards the floor. "He was a bit different than others," Italian man Gilberto Bernardini would later remember. "He was unusually good a brilliant as a physicist and his cultural and intellectual interests were surprisingly broad."
In Winter 1931-32 Placzek would spend some time in Rome, under Enrico Fermi, where he befriended Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and Edoardo Amaldi. He would meet most of them during the Manhattan Project a decade later.
The young Czech had an enormous talent for languages. He would be able to communicate in the local language in all countries he visited. A legend has it that he learned Italian overnight by reading Decameron, a classic book. Aside from Czech and German, he could speak English, French, Spanish, Italian, Danish, Hebrew, Arabic, about 10 languages in total. He also had a weakness for women which forced the poor man to find a lover at every place he would visit.
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