Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Guest Post: Hannah's War by Jan Eliasberg

Please join me in welcoming Jan Eliasberg to Let Them Read Books! Jan's debut historical novel, Hannah's War, was released today, and I'm thrilled to have her here with a guest post about the real-life inspiration for her novel, Dr. Lise Meitner. Read on and enter to win a paperback copy of Hannah's War!

Berlin, 1938. Groundbreaking physicist Dr. Hannah Weiss is on the verge of the greatest discovery of the 20th century: splitting the atom. She understands that the energy released by her discovery can power entire cities or destroy them. Hannah believes the weapon's creation will secure an end to future wars, but as a Jewish woman living under the harsh rule of the Third Reich, her research is belittled, overlooked, and eventually stolen by her German colleagues. Faced with an impossible choice, Hannah must decide what she is willing to sacrifice in pursuit of science's greatest achievement.

New Mexico, 1945. Returning wounded and battered from the liberation of Paris, Major Jack Delaney arrives in the New Mexican desert with a mission: to catch a spy. Someone in the top-secret nuclear lab at Los Alamos has been leaking encoded equations to Hitler's scientists. Chief among Jack's suspects is the brilliant and mysterious Hannah Weiss, an exiled physicist lending her talent to J. Robert Oppenheimer's mission. All signs point to Hannah as the traitor, but over three days of interrogation that separate her lies from the truth, Jack will realize they have more in common than either one bargained for.

Hannah's War is a thrilling wartime story of loyalty, truth, and the unforeseeable fallout of a single choice.

About Dr. Lise Meitner
By Jan Eliasberg

One of the great luxuries of living in New York City is having access to the Public Library’s extraordinary microfilm collection; it was there that I read the issue of the New York Times on the day the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In the Times’ summary of the complex and secret history of the Manhattan Project, one paragraph leapt off the page: “The key component that allowed the Allies to develop the bomb was brought to the Allies by a “female, non-Aryan physicist.’” Who was this woman? And why isn’t her face staring out of every science textbook?

I knew I had to tell her story. So began a ten-year quest that took me deeply into the history of the atomic bomb and the physics that propelled it. My mystery woman was Dr. Lise Meitner, an Austrian female scientist, a Jew, working at the highest levels of research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. I tore through her diaries and letters and discovered that she and her partner, Otto Hahn, were on the verge of splitting the atom when Austria was annexed. Meitner’s privileged position, and all the protections her colleagues had promised, evaporated within six terrifying hours as she fled Berlin within minutes of being captured and sent to the camps.

Otto Hahn, who remained in Berlin, was so dependent on Meitner that he continued to collaborate with her, even after she’d fled to Sweden. He sent her the results of their experiments on postcards via courier. It was Meitner, not Hahn, who analyzed the results and discovered that they had split the atom. Because she was Jewish, the papers published in Germany did not have her name on them; if they had borne her name, they would immediately have been discredited as “Jewish Physics.” It wasn’t surprising to find that rabid Anti-Semitism in Germany had prevented Meitner from getting the credit she had earned.

It was surprising (although, in light of what we now know about scientists like Rosalind Franklin, perhaps it shouldn’t have been) to discover that sexism also accounted for Meitner’s erasure from history. After the war, when Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission, he conveniently left the record uncorrected, robbing Meitner of the Nobel Prize she rightfully deserved. Hahn rationalized her exclusion, and others, including a misogynist Nobel committee, buried her role ever deeper. The Nobel "mistake" was never acknowledged, much less rectified.

What I found as remarkable as Meitner’s genius was the strength of her moral compass. She cared little about ego and credit; she pursued her passion for physics because she loved nothing better, and because she understood that she had a gift she couldn’t squander. She was, in fact, quite ambivalent about her role in the scientific breakthrough that lead to the atomic bomb, as her own words reveal:

“Those blessed with a brilliant mind and a gift for science have a higher duty that comes before discovery, a duty to humanity. Science can be used for good or evil; so it’s incumbent upon scientists to ensure that their work makes the world a better place.”

I wrote HANNAH’S WAR in part to show my daughter and her peers that history is filled with remarkable women of towering achievement and of deep humanism; we need only look beyond the authorized texts to see them. I wrote to shine a light on one of these women, and I hope HANNAH’S WAR will be a beacon for all women, in my daughter’s generation and beyond, to live not only with authenticity and pride, but also with the support and acknowledgment of the wider world.

About the Author:

Jan Eliasberg is making her debut as a novelist with Hannah’s War, bought by Little, Brown in a bidding war, publication date: March 3, 2020.

For readers of The Nightingale and The Alice Network, Hannah's War is a "mesmerizing" historical debut: “I flew through Hannah’s War, a gripping true story of a brilliant woman physicist working to develop the first atomic bomb and the secrets she fights to protect as a military investigator ruthlessly uncovers her mysterious past.” Martha Hall Kelly (The Lilac Girls; Lost Roses)

A glass ceiling-shattering writer/director, Jan’s film and television career began when she was hand-picked by Michael Mann to be the first female director on Miami Vice and Crime Story. Wiseguy and 21 Jump Street soon followed, establishing her at the top of the field. Michael Mann remains Jan’s mentor and collaborator to this day, godfathering her film and television career.


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  1. A captivating and fascinating novel which is memorable and unforgettable. Being Jewish and reading novels set during this era makes this more meaningful.

  2. Very interesting article about Dr. Lise Meitner. I love reading stories about little known, strong, intelligent women.

  3. Sounds great. Big fan of historical books. In love with this cover.


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