The Man Who Out-Sainted Einstein

James Franck Has Never Been Honored in Germany

Meeting of Minds: Scientist James Franck, second from left, sits with Niels Bohr, left, and Albert Einstein, second from right, with I. I. Rabi on the far right-hand side.
Meeting of Minds: Scientist James Franck, second from left, sits with Niels Bohr, left, and Albert Einstein, second from right, with I. I. Rabi on the far right-hand side.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published November 19, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.
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His war hero status became especially significant after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, after which Jews were dismissed from university posts with the temporary exception of Jewish World War I veterans. Amid already visible anti-Semitic public campaigns, Franck righteously refused to enjoy privileged status and resigned his own professorship at the University of Göttingen because of the Nazi “attitude… toward German Jewry,” as he declared in an open letter to the Prussian minister of the arts, sciences and cultural affairs. A local Nazi newspaper reacted with a letter signed by 42 Göttingen lecturers decrying Franck’s gesture as “tantamount to an act of sabotage.” Franck’s action notably differs from some other Jewish colleagues, such as the mathematician Richard Courant, who, Lemmerich writes, took “every possible measure to be able to stay at the university.”

Amid the turmoil, Franck explained himself to another friend, surgeon Max Neisser, who had also resigned, albeit quietly, at the same time: “My decision for publicity… was in order to give many young Jews the feeling that they were not simply being left in the lurch.” Indeed, Franck’s Jewish and even his non-Jewish students admired his courage, sending him a statement of solidarity that they dared not sign, given the political climate. The Hungarian-Jewish scientist Michael Polanyi wrote to Franck: “As long as Jews exist, what you have done to save their honor will not be forgotten.” Yet soon Franck would be on the road to exile, first as a guest at the Copenhagen, Denmark, laboratory of physicist Niels Bohr. The physicist had praised the “wonderful experiment by Franck and Hertz,” which provided a basis for Bohr’s groundbreaking theory of the atom.

Despite the Danish welcome, Franck confessed in a letter to friends that he was suffering from the psychological stress often found in exiles, forgetting “one thing after the next… I’m constantly feeling as if on a voyage and am mentally still waiting for the finality of routine order.” In 1935, Franck’s ongoing voyage would take him to Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, where he taught briefly but was refused the usual retirement pension. Lemmerich explains that the Johns Hopkins treasurer’s “anti-Semitic bias” played a role in this refusal. Before relocating to the less anti-Semitic University of Chicago, Franck found solace in the poetry of Heinrich Heine, as he wrote in 1935 to a friend and fellow physicist, Hilde Levi. He especially empathized with Heine’s lyrical lament of exile, “Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht / so bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht.” (“When I think of Germany at night / I cannot sleep.”)

As the war drew to an end, Franck was among those scientists who unsuccessfully advised America’s government that before using the atomic bomb on Japan, it would be wiser to stage a demonstration in an unpopulated area as a dissuasive effort. Despite the failure of his American-based campaign for mercy toward Germans who were victims of Nazism, Franck had no postwar sympathy for Nazis. In 1947 he refused a university job in Heidelberg, mentioning the enthused Nazis who still thrived in Germany: “As a man unwilling to forget his Jewishness, I cannot lend a helping hand.”

Yet his strongly held belief in ethical compassion encompassed non-Jewish colleagues like his fellow Nobel Prize-winner Max Planck, who told Franck in 1935 that he had canceled any trips to conferences abroad because as a representative of German science, “now I would have to hide my head in shame.” Franck, who died on a visit back to Göttingen in 1964 at age 81, is the epitome of a compassionate thinker whose achievements and extended hand to postwar Germany are overdue for official commemoration and a returned hand from his native country.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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