Fission

“His wife’s dead lieutenant.”

“General ?”

“She’s dead. The British know she’s been dead since ’41 but they’ve been keeping it from him so he stays… stays motivated shall we say”. General Groves sat back in his chair behind his impeccably tidy desk and motioned to his subordinate to stand at ease. There was no trace of doubt or regret in his voice.

“He’s asking for news again sir.”

“My hands are tied lieutenant, this is for the British. Rotblat’s with Chadwick and I don’t think they want that group disrupted. If Oppenheimer needs Chadwick and Chadwick needs Rotblat then our job is to make sure nothing gets in the way of that.”

“Then what do we tell him sir ?”

“Use your initiative lieutenant. Find out what the British are telling him and tell him the same. The Soviets are going to take Poland, it’s a mess. No one knows what’s going on in there. Tell him we’re doing everything we can to establish contact with her.”

The lieutenant fell silent and lowered his eyes to the floor. There was a short intake of breath as if he was about to speak but then thought better of it. Groves noted the reaction implacably.

“Do you know the story lieutenant ?” he asked suddenly.

“Sir ?”

“Rotblat’s story. How he got here.”

“No. No sir, I don’t. He doesn’t talk about it to us.” By “us” Groves assumed the lieutenant meant the military personnel on the project. He nodded briefly in acknowledgement.

“He’s a brilliant man. All of them, of course, are brilliant men lieutenant. We won’t build this thing without that. They need to be able to see this..” he thumped the desk abruptly “…and this…” he rolled a piece of paper between his thumb and forefinger “…in a way we can’t comprehend.” He stood and spread his arms to take in the room. “All of this lieutenant, this desk, this room, you and I, they need to understand all this as matter, as constituent particles, as the building blocks of the universe.”

“I don’t think I understand sir”

Groves laughed.

“I don’t need you to lieutenant. I need you to make sure that nothing distracts them from their task. Rotblat’s mind should be on atoms and nuclei and reactions, not on flesh and blood. They are scientists lieutenant – I need them to deliver the most extraordinary science project man has ever devised not ponder on the nature of humanity.”

“But he keeps asking after his wife sir.”

“Rotblat left Poland two days before Hitler invaded.” Groves paused. He was a practical man and war had hardened his pragmatism but he was not entirely without heart. “She was supposed to come back to England with him lieutenant but she was unwell. He was needed back with Chadwick and left her behind. Way I’ve heard it she was supposed to follow as soon as she was well enough. She never left Poland and our intelligence suggests she died, maybe in Majdaenk, maybe in the Warsaw ghetto.”

Groves sat down again behind his desk and lowered his voice, almost as if voicing his private thoughts aloud, softly.

“He writes to her. He still has hope. He writes to her every week, mailing the letters to his old address even though he’s heard nothing for almost three years. He knows about the camps and he knows what’s happening in his country but he still writes. Hell, somewhere in that head of his he must know we intercept every piece of mail that leaves this base. What does he think ? That we’d allow correspondence from the most important project in the war to a country occupied by the enemy ?” Groves shook his head. “He doesn’t think that. He knows those letters don’t go anyplace. I think he just writes to remember. I think he writes because it’s the only way he can talk to her.”

“So when he asks… ?” started the lieutenant.

“When he asks…” snapped Groves, his precise military tones returned, fixing his stare directly on his subordinate. “…you tell him what the British are telling him and keep his mind on the work.”

……

My dearest Tola,

Forgive my habits but I trust that you understand them well enough by now. I must write to you each week, the thought of you reading my words sustains me through the project and I fear that I need that sustenance now more than ever.

I am a foolish man writing letters that may never be read but I carry their words in my heart and will tell them all to you when we are reunited. It is my intention to return home soon to do whatever I must to find you; the Soviets loosen the Nazi grip on our home daily and surely the war’s end must be near ?

Our work here is close to being done Tola but the nearer we get to completion the more my concerns grow. Chadwick is committed and I owe him so much that it pains me to even contemplate what I am coming to realise I must do. The work itself is exceptional. You would not believe what we have achieved ! It is truly a miracle of scientific co-operation. We have come so far in understanding the power in the tiniest fragments of matter in such a short time. It is overwhelming and impossible not to be caught up in the thrill of such an endeavour.

And yet, at the same time, my doubts grow. They brought us here to contribute to the fight against the Nazis, to unleash an energy never before unleashed in the world. I understood the urgency; we all understood the consequences if the Germans built a fission weapon first but I don’t know that I believe that they can anymore. They still have Diebner and Schumann but everyone else of any standing is here, the sum total of our knowledge of atomic power is here. When I see what we have achieved I can’t believe they could have done so much. How could they without Oppenheimer ? Without Chadwick ? Without Fermi ? Even without Groves. I’ve never seen a man so driven, so certain of an outcome.

Only now I don’t know what outcome Groves seeks. What is he being asked to do ? We dined at the Chadwick’s last week and, quite off-the-cuff, I heard him remark that the project was really designed to subdue the Soviets. He laughed it off but I took something of truth there in what he said. Are we building a bomb to end this war or to start the next one ?

My love I will be with you soon. My mind is almost made up. The price of us being split apart was perhaps worth paying to end Hitler’s menace and free our home but my conscience will not allow for that price to be the end of all things. Patience, sweet Tola. Wait for me a little longer. I will be with you soon.

Always yours,

Jozef

……

Joseph Rotblat was an extraordinary man: winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 and the only person to leave the Manhattan Project on grounds of conscience before its completion. Most of the bare facts in this story are – I hope – true although the devices by which the story is told are all fictitious. I have no idea if Rotblat wrote to his wife but I like to believe that perhaps he did.

This is the second story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. Please share if you liked it. If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page: https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/

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