Of a Strange and Distant Time

Strangers in Strange Lands

A gypsy of a strange and distant time
Travelling in panic all direction blind
Aching for the warmth of a burning sun
Freezing in the emptiness of where he’d come from

Left without a hope of coming home.
Gypsy — Moody Blues

He didn’t want to be a gypsy, he wasn’t really a gypsy by nature, but he left without a hope of coming home.

The world and himself made him a gypsy, an exile: a stranger in strange lands.

But he did push for the burning sun.  It technically is called RADIATION.  Order AND Disorder.

Lichtquant — Albert Einstein
A Photon — a light quantum

And every one, except one of his mentors, his older fellow exiles, including Einstein, eventually disagreed with Teller Ede, making him an exile three times: a stranger in strange lands, all his life.

Teller’s memory was of hunger— and a new concern. “My father told me that the communists would soon fall,” he recalled, “and that anti-Semitism would follow. ‘Too many of the communist leaders are Jews,’ he explained, ‘and all Jews will be blamed for their excesses.’” Events would confirm the elder Teller’s premonition. “Within the first few years after the demise of the Hungarian Soviet,” Teller wrote decades later, “5,000 people, most of them Jews, were executed, and many tens of thousands more fled to other lands.” By age eleven, Edward had experienced war, communism, revolution, counterrevolution, anti-Semitism, and fascism. “Having seen the end of Hungary as I had known it, I could imagine the end of Western civilization.”  — Marton, Kati (2006-10-17). The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World (pp. 37-38). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

“In this ground-breaking book, The Great Escape, acclaimed author Kati Marton brings to life an unknown chapter of World War II: the tale of nine men who grew up in Budapest’s brief Golden Age, then, driven from Hungary by anti-Semitism, fled to the West, especially to the United States, and changed the world. These nine men, each celebrated for individual achievements [based on their unique individual Temperament and Circumstance], were actually part of a unique group who grew up in a time and place that will never come again.”

One of those nine, was Teller Ede.

Edward Teller, Fieldmarshal Rational, (Hungarian: Teller Ede; January 15, 1908 – September 9, 2003) was a Hungarian-born American theoretical physicist who, although he claimed he did not care for the title, is known colloquially as “the father of the hydrogen bomb“. He made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, spectroscopy, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics.   [Wikipedia, revised]

Ede Teller was born in Budapest, Hungary (then Austria-Hungary), into a ethnic Jewish family in 1908. His parents were Ilona (née Deutsch), a pianist, and Max Teller, an attorney. Teller later on became an agnostic. He developed the ability to speak later than most children but became very interested in numbers, and would calculate large numbers in his head for fun.

… the anxious boy found a way to calm his fears. “Finding the consistency of numbers is the first memory I have of feeling secure.” Calculating the number of seconds in an hour or a day, he would drift off to sleep. Edward’s father noticed the ease with which the boy tackled his sister’s algebra problems. He turned to a friend, a mathematics professor at the University of Budapest, for advice. Give him a copy of Euler’s geometry, Professor Leopold Klug advised. “He read Euler,” Teller’s sister Emmi recalled, “the way I read love stories.” [Great Escape, edited]

‘EDWARD TELLER was rocked by the turmoil of 1919 [The beginning of Hungary, the break up the Austro-Hungarian empire]. Five years von Neumann’s junior, Teller was a first-year student at the Minta, another of the city’s [Budapest] great secondary schools. The communist marches, their gigantic, unfurled red flags, and their enormous posters frightened the eleven-year-old Teller. “On one of them,” Teller remembered half a century later, “a stern man with his arm extended and his fingertips as large as if it were an inch from my nose said, ‘You, hiding in the shadows, spreading horror stories, you, counterrevolutionaries, TREMBLE.’ The finger seemed to follow me wherever I went.” Although Bela Kun’s communist regime lasted only four months and ten days, that was long enough to mark Teller for life. “My father could no longer practice law,” Teller recalled. “In fact, we became social outcasts. A lawyer was clearly a capitalist; and unlike a doctor… ” [Great Escape, edited]

Budapest’s Legendary Cafes of the 20’s

‘The great moment in which four young men forged friendships that would change the world was about to come. “During my last two years in gymnasium,” Teller wrote later, “I became acquainted with three young men from the Jewish community in Budapest who were studying and working in Germany as scientists…. Probably my father mentioned to their fathers, whom he knew, that I was also interested in science and would benefit from meeting them…. I looked forward to spending a few hours with them [in the Budapest’s cafes] when they were home during academic breaks. The only topic we discussed in those days was physics…. Most of the time I simply listened to them, but they were willing to explain if I asked, a privilege I used sparingly.” They were, of course, Leo Szilard [Inventor Rational], Eugene Wigner [Architect Rational], and John von Neumann [Inventor Rational]. This astonishing trio would have an immense influence on Edward Teller. [Great Escape, edited]

ON JULY 14, 1928, carrying a backpack full of hiking gear, Edward Teller, age twenty, jumped off a Munich streetcar just as it accelerated. As he hit the road, he was run over by a second streetcar, which severed his right foot above the ankle. For the rest of his life, Teller wore a prosthetic, walked with a limp, at times using a large tree branch as a cane. Despite this accident, Teller considered “my years as a young scientist in Germany… the most satisfying.” He was, he recalled, “part of a great enterprise.” For a while, physics provided a safe haven from the gathering madness. “Saturated with the delight of having understood atoms,” in Teller’s words, “none of us realized how great and imminent our current danger was. We managed… to ignore the contradictions in German politics, the turmoil of the world finances, the festering aftermath of World War I, and the prophets of racial superiority.”

ON THE SURFACE, life in Berlin still crackled with excitement. Szilard, who lived minutes from the Romanische Café on the Kurfürstendamm, still loitered on its terrace… Here, in several languages, Szilard argued late into the night. By 1930, Szilard sensed the change in the air. “The occasion was a meeting of economists [in Paris],” he recalled, “who were called together to decide whether Germany could pay war reparations. To the surprise of the world, the president of the German Reichsbank took the position that Germany could not pay any reparations unless she got back her former colonies. This was such a striking statement that it caught my attention, and I concluded that if he believed he could get away with it, things must be rather bad.” As usual, Szilard acted on his fear. “I wrote a letter to my bank and transferred every single penny I had out of Germany into Switzerland.”

Another astute observer, German diplomat, man of letters, and defender of Weimar’s shaky democracy, Count Harry Kessler, agreed with Szilard’s forecast. “The country is coming apart,” Kessler wrote in 1932, “the struggles between the radical movements [Communists and Nazis]… are bitter armed disputes between two ideologies which exclude compromise…. While we spent Sunday driving through the lovely countryside, the unbridled, organized Nazi terror has again claimed seventeen dead and nearly two hundred wounded as its victims.” Brown-shirted Nazi students prowled the streets looking for “foreign” elements.

For the first time since they left Budapest, the Hungarian Jews felt vulnerable in Germany. Reluctantly, they began to make plans for a second exile. For Edward Teller, “The fears of my childhood— war, destruction and death— were being made reality, but the German people around me were unprotesting.” Teller brooded that his best years were ending. “A period of beauty and excitement… a refuge for mind and spirit, was being destroyed. I was full of anger and anguish.

Returning to Budapest was not an option. Just look at what was happening to von Neumann. Between 1929 and 1934 this young man, among the greatest mathematicians of the century, was rejected by the country of his birth for three different positions, including membership in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. That was sign enough for him and his friends.

For the second time in their young lives, the four scientists had to abandon all that was familiar. “I left behind a piece of my connection to literature when I left Germany,” Teller recalled. “But, greater loss by far, the unique and wonderful community that was German physics in its golden years was destroyed.” Germany never recovered from the loss of these revolutionary intellects. The country never again regained its preeminent position as the most intellectually creative place in Europe. In attempting to destroy the Jews, Germany ultimately would destroy itself. [Great Escape, annotated]

OSWALD VEBLEN, a celebrated Princeton University mathematics professor, was looking for some of Europe’s brightest minds in the late 1920s. Veblen offered more than an American safe haven as enticement to refugees. Armed with a multimillion-dollar grant to establish a world-class center for science and mathematics, Veblen had created a gabled neo-gothic sanctuary that “mathematicians would be loath to leave,” in Princeton, New Jersey, near the university. It would become world-famous as the Institute for Advanced Study, the home of Einstein, and many other geniuses. The offices had carved wooden paneling, hidden files, and blackboards that opened like altars. Each lavatory had a reading light, of particular appeal to von Neumann, who, since childhood, was in the habit of taking two books with him on such trips. After Einstein signed on in 1933, the Austro-Hungarian (born in Brno, today the Czech Republic) mathematician Kurt Gödel and German physicist-mathematician Hermann Weyl followed him. English was spoken in many accents at the institute, which rapidly became the new Göttingen. Looking for star power in the younger generation, Veblen fixed his sights on John von Neumann. But Veblen was hesitant to invite a lone member of this exotic Hungarian tribe, so he added Eugene Wigner. “Promising as I might be,” Wigner noted, “it was clear to me that Princeton thought of me mainly as ‘the companion of Jancsi von Neumann.’”

Von Neumann continued to spend his summers in Budapest. When his marriage to Marietta, the mother of his only child, Marina, broke down in 1938, he returned to his hometown where he found a new Hungarian bride, Klara Dan. Von Neumann invited [Stanislaus] Ulam [a Polish Jew] to join him on what he assumed would be his farewell trip home. “Johnny showed me Budapest,” Ulam recalled, “a beautiful city. After dinner at his house where I met his parents we went to nightclubs and discussed mathematics!” Before leaving, von Neumann had some debts to pay. “Johnny also took me to a pleasant mountain resort,” Ulam recalled, “to visit his former professors Leopold Fejer and Frederick Riesz, who were both pioneer researchers in the theory of Fourier series…. Fejer had been Johnny’s teacher. Riesz was one of the most elegant mathematical writers in the world, known for his precise, concise and clear expositions…. Of course,” Ulam noted, “the talk also concerned the world situation and the likelihood of war.”

Taking his leave of von Neumann, Ulam’s Warsaw-bound train snaked through the Carpathian Mountains. He recalled an earlier conversation with his Hungarian friend. “Johnny used to say that all the famous Jewish scientists, artists, and writers who emigrated from Hungary around the time of the First World War came, either directly or indirectly, from these little Carpathian communities, moving up to Budapest as their material conditions improved…. Their names abound in the annals of mathematics and physics today. Johnny used to say that it was a coincidence of some cultural factors which he could not make precise: an external pressure on the whole society of this part of Central Europe, a feeling of extreme insecurity… and the necessity to produce the unusual or else face extinction.” It is striking that, well before the Holocaust, a privileged, successful youth from one of Europe’s centers of civilization could contemplate the extinction of his kind.


to be continued…

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