Outstanding as an experimenter, theorist, and teacher, Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) established himself as the pre-eminent expert on neutrons, formulating the beta-decay theory, discovering “slow neutrons,” making significant contributions to quantum statistics, devising the first nuclear reactor, contributing to the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, and working on the Manhattan Project.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1938 for “demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons.” He created the first self-sustaining chain reaction in uranium at Chicago in 1942; worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos; and later contributed to the development of the hydrogen bomb. The chemical element fermium of atomic number100 was named for him.
Several months before receiving the Nobel Prize, Fermi, a non-Jew whose wife was Jewish, wrote to a colleague in the United States, imploring him to consider accepting him for a research position in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He mentions the threatening atmosphere of anti-Semitism in Mussolini’s Italy and his concern for his wife and children.
While on a day trip in Lugano, Switzerland (where his message had a better chance of avoiding censorship or interception), Fermi, in an understated and gracious tone, informs his correspondent that “the case is by no means an urgent one,” even though history, as well as the portion of this letter pertaining to Fermi’s wife, Laura, shows that this was far from the truth.
The fascist Manifesto of Race, which declared that Italians, but not Jews, are members of the pure Aryan race, was published in Italy on July 14, 1938. Only a few weeks later, Italy enacted the first racist laws, which were initially applied only to foreign Jews but on September 2, 1938 were also made applicable to Italian Jews.
The correspondence exhibited here, written only a day earlier, on September 1, dates to a most critical time in the physicist’s personal life and career as he prepared to receive the Nobel Prize and to depart his native Italy for a fresh start in the United States. Fermi writes as follows (emphasis added):
Since the last time I wrote to you, several things have changed in such a way, as to let me regret not to have accepted the Ann Arbor position that you had offered to me last spring. It is so far very difficult to foresee in what sense the situation is going to develop. But despite my natural optimism, I must confess, that I expect rather difficult times in the years to come. In my personal case, my wife being of Jewish origin might lead to a disagreeable situation for the children. I am writing to you this, mainly in order to inform you that in case there should be in America a convenient position for me, I would gladly accept it. I would greatly appreciate if, in case you should know of some suitable opportunity for me, you would let me know of it. Please understand, however, that the case is by no means an urgent one, and that I can wait as long as I wish [sic] without any trouble. I am writing this letter from Lugano where I have come for one day. Tomorrow I shall join Laura and the children. My best greetings to Jane and to Esther and to you. Yours, Enrico Fermi.
It’s interesting to note that while Fermi did not consider his children Nell and Giulio be Jewish – he refers only to “a disagreeable situation to the children” arising out of their mother’s Jewishness – the Nazis certainly did, under the applicable Nuremberg Laws and otherwise.
It is also telling that Fermi wrote this letter from Lugano, “where I have come for one day.” He wrote this letter, and others like it, in complete secrecy, fearing that the authorities would prevent him and his family from leaving Italy if they learned of his intentions, and he posted them all in different towns so as not to arouse suspicion.
In any case, Fermi and his wife, Laura Capon (1907-1977), did successfully leave Italy in 1938 and emigrated to the United States, where he worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. Fermi led the team that designed and built Chicago Pile-1, which went critical on December 2, 1942, demonstrating the first artificial self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.
Left behind was Laura’s father, an admiral in the Italian navy, who was gassed at Auschwitz on October 23, 1943 after refusing an offer from Enrico’s older sister, Maria, to join other Jews taking shelter at her home outside Rome. Sadly, the admiral believed his high position would protect him from danger.