By – May 29, 2020

Jan Elias­berg is a vet­er­an film and tele­vi­sion writer, and her expe­ri­ence shows amply in her first nov­el Hannah’s War. Part love sto­ry, part Holo­caust tale, part thriller, the book resists easy cat­e­go­riza­tion; Eliasberg’s del­i­ca­cy of lan­guage and thought sur­pass­es any genre.

Hannah’s War explores the wartime life of a bril­liant Jew­ish female physi­cist, Dr. Han­nah Weiss, but based on a real (and large­ly unsung) genius named Lise Meit­ner. Work­ing at the Kaiser Wil­helm Lab­o­ra­to­ry in 1938 Berlin, Han­nah, despite her remark­able abil­i­ty, is grad­u­al­ly rel­e­gat­ed to the base­ment of a nation­al oper­a­tion to cre­ate the atom­ic bomb. Her research is increas­ing­ly uncred­it­ed and co-opt­ed by her Aryan cohorts. Although her sci­en­tif­ic prowess is need­ed, she is Jew­ish, at a time when Jews were grad­u­al­ly becom­ing non-per­sons. In the course of her base­ment-bound work, she meets super­cil­ious (but dis­turbing­ly charm­ing) Ger­man fel­low sci­en­tist, Ste­fan Frei, son of one of the lead­ing men of the Reich.

Han­nah will not remain anyone’s infe­ri­or for much longer. Hav­ing over­heard Ste­fan ban­ter about the many Jews who have been co-opt­ed to slave” for their supe­ri­ors (in pow­er, but not brains), she is bold enough to con­front him about the Reich’s unearned sta­tus in the sci­en­tif­ic world. You should be split­ting atoms that have more than one neu­tron,” she says, in one exam­ple. When Ste­fan replies, But Von Laue already tried that, and the result­ing — ” Han­nah cuts him off: His work was incom­plete…. I can’t give you a sim­ple answer, Dr. Frei, par­tic­u­lar­ly if I’m not allowed to par­tic­i­pate in the exper­i­ments. But that’s what I’d have my Jew­ish slaves work­ing on, if I were you.”

Soon, the plot takes an unex­pect­ed turn, as Ste­fan seems to become more com­pas­sion­ate toward the beau­ti­ful and bril­liant Han­nah. She, in turn, begins to trust him — even allow­ing him to help her young niece, Sabine, escape the camps — which leads to the oth­er part of the plot.

In New Mex­i­co of 1945, now work­ing on the Man­hat­tan Project with Robert Oppen­heimer, Han­nah is sus­pect­ed of send­ing secrets to Ste­fan Frei — an act of trea­son for which she faces exe­cu­tion. The war is end­ing, and the secrets of the atom bomb must not fall into ene­my hands. Do Hannah’s notes to Ste­fan reveal her to be help­ing the Nazis? Or is Ste­fan, with Hannah’s help, giv­ing the Nazis mis­lead­ing infor­ma­tion, thus lead­ing them on a blind path? Is her love affair real, or has she been duped, risk­ing not only her own life, but her adop­tive country’s exis­tence? Did Ste­fan lead Hannah’s niece Sabine to free­dom — or to a cer­tain death?

In Hannah’s new Amer­i­can milieu, Han­nah meets an Amer­i­can oper­a­tive, Jack, who must decide on her inno­cence or guilt. Fas­ci­nat­ing­ly, Jack, too, har­bors a com­plex and painful past, which unfolds in lay­ers under Hannah’s keen gaze. Even as Jack explores Hannah’s affair with a son of the Reich, Jack slow­ly becomes aware of his own cyn­i­cism about the world — and more par­tic­u­lar­ly, about romance.

That a nov­el that deals flu­ent­ly with physics, espi­onage, and Jew­ish tragedy can also become a deeply affect­ing emo­tion­al tale — with a tran­scen­dent, redemp­tive vision of love— is a trib­ute to its huge­ly gift­ed author.

Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford grad­u­ate, is the author of five books, includ­ing the acclaimed sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” mem­oir, The Watch­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, and the nov­el, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Van­i­ty Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Peo­ple and The Chica­go Tri­bune, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a nov­el about the Zohar, the mys­ti­cal source of Jew­ish transcendence.

Discussion Questions

At the begin­ning of this sus­pense­ful tale of espi­onage and romance, we meet Dr. Han­nah Weiss (loose­ly based on the real-life Dr. Lise Meit­ner, the unher­ald­ed Aus­tri­an Jew­ish physi­cist who was part of the team that dis­cov­ered nuclear fis­sion), who is about to be led away in chains from Los Alam­os, the site of the Man­hat­tan Project, to Fed­er­al prison.

We then learn the back­sto­ry: the Amer­i­cans and Ger­mans are in a des­per­ate race to devel­op the atom­ic bomb; the fate of the world depends on it. Han­nah, one of the refugee sci­en­tists work­ing with Dr. Robert Oppen­heimer on the project, is accused of shar­ing secrets with the Nazis. But noth­ing is as it seems, and as the tale switch­es back and forth between 1945 Los Alam­os and Hannah’s life in 1938 Berlin as a female, Jew­ish sci­en­tist at the Kaiser Wil­helm Insti­tute for Physics, Elias­burg peels back the lay­ers that reveal what Han­nah and Major Jack Delaney, who has come to New Mex­i­co to inves­ti­gate her, are hiding.

This imag­i­na­tive, his­tor­i­cal­ly rich, thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat. Read­ing­Jan Eliasburg’s engross­ing debut nov­el leaves one with the dis­tinct feel­ing that the sto­ry would make a ter­rif­ic film or tele­vi­sion series. Indeed, this is no sur­prise giv­en Eliasburg’s illus­tri­ous career as a screen­writer and director.