A must read: ‘Hannah’s War’

This pandemic’s emphasis on social distancing has provided me with much opportunity to read. Just plain read! Last week, I recommended one of my “finds” to you: the self-written biography of a nice Jewish boy who made it from rags to riches despite being blind. An inspiration to us all, of course.
But this week, I want to tell you about a very different kind of good reading — a novel of fiction based on all-too-true reality. It is Jan Eliasberg’s fascinating account of the making of the atomic bomb, the blast that ended World War II. And the woman who was at the heart of it all.
“Hannah’s War” is what happened after the author, a writer and film director who delights in uncovering stories of women who have contributed much to history but received little recognition for their efforts, discovered Dr. Lise Meitner. Hannah Weiss is Eliasberg’s truth-based but fanciful recreation of “the woman who discovered nuclear fission,” she says, “but has been erased, as so many great women have been, from history.” This book gives us names of real people (Dr. Werner Heisenberg, J. Robert Oppenheimer) set in a real place (Las Cruses, New Mexico) as it recreates our country’s hush-hush rush to beat Germany in a race for the ultimate weapon: the atom bomb.
Eliasberg was driven to learn more when she happened upon this quote that ran in The New York Times Aug. 7, 1945 — the day after two Japanese cities were destroyed by this new, war-ending weapon: “The key component that allowed the Allies to develop the bomb was brought to the Allies by a female, ‘non-Aryan’ physicist.” Non-Aryan meant Jewish. And after the author had studied up on her discovery, she created her own vision of such a woman: a young Jewish woman who brought her brilliant mind to the United States when she could no longer use it in her native Germany — a mind that just happened to be embedded in a body of alluring temptation to all the men working in some way on that top-secret “Manhattan Project.” A mind so keenly attuned to everything around her that — in Eliasberg’s re-creation of Meitner — was even able to ferret out the very non-scientific fact that one of the U.S. Army personnel assigned to the project was himself an undiscovered, unidentified Jew.
There is nothing in factual history to paint Lise Meitner as a femme fatale — but the author is very creative here, making her Hannah the atom-splitting sexual magnet in a seething sea of male scientists and military men — desired by all, but wanting none. When we meet her at the book’s beginning, she is awaiting trial and sentencing for a suspected crime: She has been accused of spying for her native country, sending back encoded quotations to Hitler’s own atomic scientists. So we as readers learn quickly that Hannah’s titular war is very much her own, and related as closely to the physical as it is to physics. But we also know from history, since it is 75 years later as we are reading this, that Germany never even got close to producing its own atomic bomb in the real war that involved the whole world.
Eliasberg’s writing style is perfect for this story: It’s told in less than 300 pages, broken up into 52 separate chapters — some of them as short as one succinct paragraph conveying a military order of some sort. And we as readers are moved quickly along a path that brings several wars together: the real battle as it is being fought between the Allies and the Axis powers — the war for possession of atomic knowledge in the time of the bomb’s creation — and Hannah’s own fight to guard the truth of herself. All in all, a masterful piece of reality-grounded fiction.
“Hannah’s War” is a paperback from the Back Bay Books imprint of Little Brown and Company. Cost: $16.99, and well worth it!

Leave a Reply