Women's History Month'She was brilliant, her talents couldn't be suppressed'

When women – and Jews – were forced out of sciences, this Nazi-era pioneer persisted

Gertrude Goldhaber fled the Holocaust to become a renowned US researcher and women’s rights activist. Her son is gifting a treasure trove of documents to NYC’s Leo Baeck Institute

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Gertrude Goldhaber in her office in this undated photo. (Gertrude S. Goldhaber Collection, Leo Baeck Institute)
Gertrude Goldhaber in her office in this undated photo. (Gertrude S. Goldhaber Collection, Leo Baeck Institute)

NEW YORK — Although Gertrude Scharff Goldhaber’s father wanted her to study law, she was having none of it.

“I want to understand what the world is made of,” she once told her father, according to her son Alfred “Fred” Goldhaber.

It turned out the world held both incredible opportunities and unimaginable obstacles. The German-born Goldhaber came of age during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, but persevered and eventually became the first female physicist at the United States’ Brookhaven National Laboratory and the third female physicist in the National Academy of Sciences.

Soon, any member of the public who wishes to view her papers will be able to do so thanks to Goldhaber’s son, who donated them to the Leo Baeck Institute at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. The papers, which will be available in the Lillian Goldman Reading Room, represent the center’s single largest collection created by a female scientist.

“The materials give a picture of what it was like for her and for Jews in Germany during this period and then what she faced in the United States when she got here,” Fred Goldhaber told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview from his Long Island home.

Among the archival treasures contained in the collection’s160 boxes are Goldhaber’s nuclear fission research conducted in the 1940s as well as documentation of her advocacy efforts for women in STEM fields. There are notebooks and papers from her years as a student in 1930s Germany and correspondence from her parents, who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Fred and Suzan Goldhaber. (Courtesy Suzan Goldhaber)

“Gertrude Goldhaber’s papers and those of her husband, Maurice, are among the most important science-related collections we hold. What is absolutely extraordinary is here is a woman scientist who earned a PhD in physics in Germany at a time when so few women were getting them,” said Renate Evers, the Bruno and Suzanne Scheidt Director of Collections at the Leo Baeck Institute.

Born to Otto and Nelly Scharff in Manheim, Germany in 1911, Goldhaber wanted to study math and physics from a very young age.

What is absolutely extraordinary is here is a woman scientist who earned a PhD in physics in Germany at a time when so few women were getting them

“Her report cards show brilliance. Her marks in chemistry, math and physics were extraordinary,” Evers said. “She clearly was so talented that she couldn’t be suppressed.”

Her father softened his stance; he and Nelly fully supported their daughter’s pursuit. But she had two strikes against her — she was Jewish and she was a woman.

Front row: Maurice Glodhaber, his father Chaim (Charles), and his brother Gerson.
Second row, standing: Gertrude Goldhaber, Gerson’s first wife, Shula. Photo taken on December 21, 1964. (Courtesy of Suzan and Fred Goldhaber)

Nevertheless, Goldhaber persisted.

She completed her PhD at the University of Munich in 1935, the same year the Nuremberg laws were enacted. Closed out of a postdoctoral fellowship in Germany and sensing the dangers to come, she left for London. There she found a position in the laboratory of George P. Thomson, who won the 1937 Nobel Prize in physics with Clinton Joseph Davisson.

Once in London, Goldhaber reconnected with Maurice Goldhaber, an Austrian-Jewish postdoctoral student in physics whom she’d met at the University of Berlin during her studies in Germany.

“They might have had an eye for each other when they were in Berlin, but I don’t know if they were thinking in terms of the long-term. Though once my father was in England he wrote to her and told her she should come,” Fred Goldhaber said.

Among the things Goldhaber brought with her to London was a Leica camera. She sold it after arriving and lived on the money for six months, said her daughter-in-law, Suzan Goldhaber.

Goldhaber married Maurice in 1939 and immigrated to United States, where Maurice joined the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Goldhaber wasn’t so lucky.

Title page of ‘Spontaneous Emission of Neutrons from Uranium,’ received for publication on May 18, 1942, but voluntarily withheld from publication until 1946 so as not to potentially give away secrets during wartime. (Gertrude S. Goldhaber Collection, Leo Baeck Institute)

Strict interpretations of nepotism laws meant she was refused a paid position at the university. The only way she could remain active as a researcher was working as an unpaid assistant in her husband’s lab. And so Goldhaber continued her work in experimental physics.

In 1942 she discovered that spontaneous nuclear fission is accompanied by the release of neutrons. Her discovery remained classified until 1946, after World War II had ended.

Goldhaber’s papers are also important because they reflect the struggle of women in STEM and are part of the Center for Jewish History’s mission to highlight the roles of Jewish women, said Rachel Miller, chief of archive and library services at the center.

“Her papers highlight her path from being ostracized for being Jewish in Germany in the ’30s, discriminated for being a woman in the US, and then ultimately, her acceptance as a Jewish person and as a woman,” Miller said.

Her papers also show what it was like to be a displaced German Jew during this era.

In 1933, two years before Goldhaber fled Germany, her younger sister Lisette also left Germany. Her parents went to Switzerland, but concerned about their business, they returned to Munich.

Between 1940 and 1941 Nelly Scharff posted several letters to her daughter. Many of her letters are rather light in tone — she discusses the weather, inquires after everyone’s health, and thanks Gertrude for sending a picture of her new baby, Alfred.

Gertrude Goldhaber in an undated portrait. (Gertrude S. Goldhaber Collection, Leo Baeck Institute)

But another box of correspondence — one which hasn’t yet been given to the Leo Baeck Institute — reveal the Scharffs’ frantic attempts to secure Cuban visas and ship passage, and to confirm that money wired for the visas was received.

“These letters tell the excruciating story of [Goldhaber’s] parents’ attempt to get out of Munich,” Suzan said.

In November 1941, Nelly and Otto Scharff were deported and put on a train reportedly headed to Riga, Latvia. On November 25, 1941, the train was halted in Kaunas, Lithuania. Local Nazis forced the passengers from the train and shot them.

Neither Goldhaber nor her husband Maurice talked much about this period, Fred said.

“They just went onward,” he said.

In 1950, the Goldhabers accepted positions at the newly established Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York. Goldhaber was finally allowed to take on a full-time position. Maurice later became the director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory from 1961 to 1973.

While at Brookhaven, Goldhaber studied nuclei in excited states and made important contributions to what became the collective theory of nuclear motion, for which Aage Bohr and Ben Mottelson received a Nobel Prize.

“I saw her very much as a pioneer. She faced considerable challenges and she didn’t give up. She stood up for her rights. She didn’t always win, but she wanted women who came after her to have an easier path,” Suzan Goldhaber said.

Elected to the American Physical Society in 1947 and to the National Academy of Sciences in 1972, Goldhaber served on many professional committees, including several that sought stronger recognition for women in science and promoted science education for all.

“The vicious cycle which was originally created by the overt exclusion of women from mathematics and science must be broken… [I]t is of the utmost importance to give a girl at a very early age the conviction that girls are capable of becoming scientists,” Goldhaber wrote.

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