Fission Girl

On March 12, 1938, German troops crossed over the Austrian border to welcoming cheers and adulation. In one instant, Lise Meitner's veil of protection, her Austrian citizenship, disappeared. Lise Meitner, though she had converted to Protestantism, was born Jewish, and that’s all that mattered. Her lifelong collaborator Otto Hahn, concerned both for her and his standing at the institute, sought the advice of Heinrich Horlein, overseeing treasurer of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, returning with the news that Lise had to leave the institute immediately, never to return.

Scientists outside of Germany, realizing Lise’s desperate position, sent letters requesting her lectureship abroad, a pretense to get her out of the country.

Lise Meitner was a physicist who by this time had already been recognized for her vast contributions to the world of physics, in addition to discovering, along with Otto Hahn, the element protactinium, and the two of them were now working on something far greater.

Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist who developed the orbital model of the atom, was alarmed enough after personally visiting with Lise in Germany, that he wrote to physicists across Europe to find or make a position for her — anything.
Lise’s application for a passport to leave Germany was rejected. “It is considered undesirable that well-known Jews leave Germany to travel abroad where they appear to be representatives of German science, or with their names and their corresponding experience might even demonstrate their inner attitude against Germany. (Wilhelm Frick to Carl Bosch, June 16, 1938).”

Meanwhile, on July 4, 1938 Carl Bosch found out that Germany’s borders were going to be closed imminently. Lise had to leave now if she were going to leave at all.

Fortunately, on Monday July 11, 1938, Meitner received word that Holland would admit her. Dirk Coster arrived late Monday evening, and planned on smuggling Meitner out of the country the next day on a lightly-traveled train route that crossed the border at Nieuwe Schans.

“We agreed on a code-telegram in which we would be let known whether the journey ended in success or failure. The danger consisted in the SS’s repeated passport control of trains crossing the frontier. People trying to leave Germany were always being arrested on the train and brought back… We were shaking with fear whether she would get through or not.” - Otto Hahn wrote in his autobiography, My Life.

The next day, Tuesday, July 13, 1938, Lise Meitner went to work at the institute as usual. She worked until 8 o’clock that night, correcting a paper that one of her young associates was preparing for submission. Otto Hahn went home with her, helping her pack a few of her belongings. While they were saying their goodbyes, Hahn slipped her his mother’s diamond ring. “Keep this. You may need it.”

She said goodbye to no one else, her excursion that night cloaked in utmost secrecy.

Paul Rosbaud, an Allied spy who had successfully relocated his own Jewish wife and daughter to England, drove her to the train station. Though he would help many Jewish families escape Germany, Lise Meitner’s would be his most famous. As they drove closer to the train station, Meitner, consumed with the fear of being caught, and the regret of leaving the only life she had known, begged Paul to take her back, to no avail.

Kirk Coster was already on the train when Lise boarded. They greeted each other as if by chance. The train ride was pleasant enough, but with all her belongings reduced to two suitcases, and her destination unconfirmed, Lise was palpably upset. That upset quickly changed to heart-pounding fear, as Lise’s train approached the Dutch border. Would she be arrested? Or worse?
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This book Fission Girl, is the story of Lise Meitner, her escape from Nazi Germany, her discovery of nuclear fission and her role in the creation of the atomic bomb, known as the Manhattan Project.