AUGUST 7, 2020
AT THE BEGINNING of Hannah’s War, a gripping new novel by director and screenwriter Jan Eliasberg, Austrian Jewish physicist Dr. Hannah Wiess is in big trouble — trouble as life-threatening as what she faced in 1938 escaping from Nazi Germany. It is April 1945. Hannah has been working at Los Alamos, secret headquarters of the Manhattan Project, an Allied collaboration on a super-weapon, a weapon to end all wars. The lab is in the New Mexico desert, not far from the Trinity Test site, where on July 16, 1945, a blinding flash would mark the first successful test of an atomic bomb.
Hannah played a large part in the development of that bomb. Seven years earlier, with Stefan Frei, a colleague at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, she demonstrated in an experiment that nuclear fission was more than a theoretical possibility. But as a Jewish woman subject to the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws of the Third Reich, she was not allowed to receive credit for her achievement. She could not even publish under her own name, lest her work be dismissed as “forbidden Jewish science.”
What she mostly received was mistreatment, notably from Ulrike Diebner, the socialite sister of Kurt Diebner, a rising star at the Institute, who refers to Hannah as Frei’s “Jewish slave.” When Ulrike drags Frei from Hannah’s lab for an outing to the opera, we assume that she is a cruel, dim, husband-hunting Nazi. But as the reader will soon discover, this impression of Ulrike — like the first impressions of other characters — is deceptive; it does not reveal the fullness of her identity.
To be sure, Hannah has a lot of reasons to hate Germany. Yet in the book’s harrowing opening scene, Hannah is about to enter an armored transport vehicle bound for the prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. There she anticipates a “perfunctory trial and inevitable execution” as — implausible as this sounds — a Nazi spy.
Standing between her and death is Major Jack Delaney, an American soldier wounded during the liberation of Paris and newly ordered to New Mexico to eliminate a security breach at the lab. Jack has been plucked from military duty to work for William (Wild Bill) Donovan, director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the intelligence organization that would morph after the war into the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “I will protect you,” Jack tells Hannah before the van departs, an assurance that neither she nor the reader finds easy to believe.
In New Mexico, Jack reports to General Leslie Groves, the Army Corps of Engineers officer in charge of the Manhattan Project. Groves has given Jack a mere 72 hours to identify and close the leak. To Jack, Hannah is a seductive puzzle, “a beautiful woman working in a world of lonely men.” To Hannah, Jack is a “meticulous and cautious man,” and like Hannah herself, “skilled at the art of keeping secrets.” Their game of cat-and-mouse, fast-tracked by Groves’s deadline, launches a sexy, unpredictable thriller that is impossible to put down.
Eliasberg’s Hannah and Jack are fictional characters, but they inhabit a world with real historical figures, including Donovan, Groves, and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the soulful physicist who ran the Manhattan Project. The novel is also set in real historical places, such as the Los Alamos lab and the historic Trinity Test site. As Americans observe the 75th anniversary of the first nuclear detonation at Trinity this summer, Hannah’s War invites readers to speculate on an unresolved historical paradox: how did the Allies manage to get the bomb first?
The German weapons team — guided by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Werner Heisenberg — was not exactly a bunch of dummies, but their progress lagged in comparison with that of the Allies. In his 1998 play, Copenhagen, English playwright Michael Frayn depicts a 1941 meeting between Heisenberg and his mentor, physicist Niels Bohr, at Bohr’s home in Denmark. The play floats the idea that Heisenberg might have deliberately misdirected his team out of an ethical concern about atomic weapons — speculation that Bohr repudiated when it was advanced in print by a historian in the 1950s. Yet the Nazi team could nevertheless have been thrown off by disinformation from a different source — say, one working at Los Alamos.
Eliasberg raises this possibility through the character of Hannah, a physicist with the expertise to join the Manhattan Project, the conscience to be alarmed by nuclear weapons, and perhaps even the chutzpah to send the Nazis down technical blind alleys.
Nor did Hannah spring purely from Eliasberg’s imagination. She was inspired by Dr. Lise Meitner, an underappreciated Austrian Jewish physicist who in 1938 did, in fact, demonstrate fission with her German colleague, Otto Frisch, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Soon after this breakthrough, however, when Germany annexed Austria, Meitner, like Hannah, had to flee for her life to the Netherlands. Likewise, Meitner’s accomplishments have long been unacknowledged; the Nobel Prize for what was largely her work went to a colleague.
Yet the similarity between Meitner and Hannah is not exact. In contrast to Hannah, Meitner eventually settled in Sweden and did not work at Los Alamos. More significantly, in 1908, when Meitner was 30, she converted to Christianity. Hannah, however, holds tight to her Jewish identity. The idea of authenticity — of owning one’s identity as opposed to passing as someone else — is a central theme in the novel.
Eliasberg uses objects symbolic of Judaism to affirm Hannah’s connection to her heritage, as well as to raise tantalizing questions. Early in the book, when Jack and his spy-catchers search Hannah’s quarters at Los Alamos, they find a lone Shabbos candle in an antique silver holder. Such candles are usually found in pairs, leading Jack to wonder aloud: What happened to the other one? And prompting Jack’s Jewish assistant, Lieutenant Aaron Epstein, to wonder: how does Jack, a squash-playing WASP lawyer who rowed crew at Harvard, know anything about Shabbos candles?
The search turns up other mysteries, too. They include a newspaper clipping of a “peroxide-blonde” German film star (androgynously sexy, à la Marlene Dietrich) and a cache of postcards signed “Love, Sabine.” The discoveries prompt Seargent Collier, Jack’s creepy underling, to dismiss Hannah’s cards as love poems. “I had a feeling she might be a muff diver,” he sneers.
But Jack sees what Collier misses. The cards contain quotes from Goethe’s Faust, the story of a man who sells his soul for knowledge — an enticement lost on Collier, who greets the news with “lumpen indifference.”
What most intrigues Jack is Hannah’s jeweled hair ornament, a dazzling work of art that seems out-of-place among her understated, functional possessions. It draws attention to itself, pulling the eye toward it. The elaborate comb depicts two night moths with “bodies […] delicately molded from pâte de verre, extended wings almost translucent, carved of onyx and rose gold, and studded with tiny pink diamonds and sapphires.”
None of the objects that Jack notices are throwaways. Each has a provocative story behind it. But rarely are the stories what the reader initially suspects.
Although most of the novel unfolds in scenes, Eliasberg deftly locates the characters in real historical time though a series of “Field Notes,” brief updates that Jack sends to Donovan. The first is dated April 3, 1945 — a date that will unsettle those familiar with World War II. It is nine days before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s shocking death on April 12, a death that placed Vice President Harry Truman in charge of the country, making decisions, including those about the atomic bomb, that FDR might not have made.
Jack’s interrogation of Hannah is not one-sided. It is a dance of mutual self-revelation. He doesn’t just question her; he lets her question him. In the chapters written from her perspective, we learn what brought her to Los Alamos. In the chapters written from his perspective, we see him falling for her — to the point that he reveals his most closely held secret. “Jack Delaney” is an invention. Never mind all the Ivy League trappings. Jack, with his fabricated name, is not the pampered child of Anglo-Saxon Protestants. He grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, above a kosher butcher. He, too, is a Jew.
Hannah presses him to divulge more.
“It began with a girl,” he explains.
“I knew there’d be a girl,” she says. “Every good story begins with a girl.”
Hannah is herself the “girl” in the story she reveals to Jack. The guy is Stefan Frei, with whom she worked on nuclear fission. At first glance — in a world where first glances are deceiving — Frei appears to be the underachieving son of Max Frei, director of the Kaiser Wilhem Institute. But when he and Hannah begin to collaborate, she discovers that he is more than an educated playboy. In their shared lab, they “danced in synchrony” with “a rare collaborative chemistry.” But “the most intoxicating aspect” was “the brilliance he brought out in her.”
Soon their intellectual frisson becomes another kind of frisson, of which the night-moth barrette is a symbol. When Frei first offers her the ornament, she rejects it as a meaningless pricy bauble. But drastic events change her perspective. After the annexation of Austria, Hannah and Frei flee to his family’s country home in the Black Forest. There a butterfly alights on Hannah’s hair, prompting Frei to reminisce about his arid childhood, and the joy he found observing night moths. She understands then that the ornament is more than an expensive trinket; it is the emblem of “a boy protected from the harshness of the world by his imagination, the beating of tiny wings like a delicate shield in the air above him.”
In the well-appointed laboratory at Frei’s family home, the two begin a three-day “cycle of science and sex, sex and science.” This image makes it hard not to imagine Hannah as the beautiful young woman on the book’s cover — not Lise Meitner, who was 60 in 1938, but another famous Austrian Jewish émigré, Hedy Lamarr, who was 24 that year. (Hannah’s age appears to be somewhere between the two.) Lamarr, born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna, was best known as an actress, but she was also an inventor, who obtained a patent for “frequency hopping,” a strategy for transmitting radio signals that involves “hopping” among frequencies to thwart detection or jamming. If Eliasberg and her publisher didn’t want the reader to conflate Hannah with Hedy, they shouldn’t have referenced a famous 1944 publicity photo of Lamarr. The cover identifiably replicates Lamarr’s lips and jaw, as well as her pearl choker and the glittering pattern on her dress.
I will stop now with the spoilers. But I think it’s okay to reveal that the mysterious Sabine is not Hannah’s lover but her cherished niece. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of “muff divers” (as Collier would say) playing key parts in the story.
What sets Hannah’s War apart from other spy thrillers is its moral compass, as well as its probing of Hannah’s connection to her work. The reader debarks from the roller coaster of its suspense plot pondering questions of love, loyalty, morality, and identity. When Hannah and Frei experience their breakthrough experiment, she delights in “all the long-imagined possibilities that lay in the harnessing of atomic power.” But the book’s penultimate scene presages the destruction that lies ahead. It is set at the Trinity Test site, whose structures exude “a skin-crawling aura of dread and wonder.”
Seventy-five years after the infamous test — after the “long, rolling howl” and “deafening choir of oncoming fate” — many readers may not take comfort in the fact that the Allies got the bomb first. Some may question the US decision to use it. But I doubt any reader who has followed Hannah’s ordeal will fail to admire her scientific brilliance and political cunning.
What could be more satisfying than a battered, vanquished Nazi? One who is forced to admit he was “duped by a woman. And a Jew.”
M. G. Lord is the author of Astro Turf, a family memoir of Cold War aerospace culture; Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll; and The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. She is an associate professor of the Practice of English at USC.