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Rose Bethe’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Rose Bethe and her husband, Nobel Prize winner Hans Bethe, moved to Los Alamos in early 1943 when Hans was appointed leader of the Theoretical Division for the Manhattan Project. During the initial stages of the Project, Rose worked in the housing office, where she assigned incoming scientists and their families to houses and showed them where site facilities were located. When Rose became pregnant with her first child, Henry, she resigned her position to help physicist Bruno Rossi wire electronics boards. Mrs. Bethe recalls raising her children at Los Alamos and some of the relationships she developed with many of the project’s most famous scientists. She also discusses her childhood years in Germany and how the rise of Hitler forced her and many of her close friends to leave the country.

Date of Interview:
June 11, 2014
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and I’m in Ithaca, New York. It is Wednesday, June 11, 2014. And I have with me Rose Bethe. And I’m going to start by asking Rose to tell us her name and spell it.

Rose Bethe: My name is Rose Bethe. It’s spelled B as in boy, E, T as in Tom, H, E.

Kelly: Good. All right. We’re going to talk today a little about your life and your role in the Manhattan Project. So, let’s start with what year is your birthday and something about where you were born and your parents.

Bethe: Well, shall I start with the first day? Because it fell interestingly for my arrival in Los Alamos. My birthday is on the 20th of March and I was twenty-six years old then. So, a few days after that, I left for the west and arrived in Los Alamos on probably about the 24th or 25th of March. I came from Boston where we had moved from Ithaca in the fall of 1942 because Hans, my husband, was to work at MIT and at the moment I forget the name of the war project.

Kelly: The Radiation Laboratory? Was he working at the Rad Lab, so called The Radiation Laboratory?

Bethe: No, not at the Met Lab. That was in Chicago.

Kelly: No, no, Rad.

Bethe: Yes, Rad Lab. That’s it. Even the Rad Lab was still in its infancy, but it had been going for about a year, I suspect, because we had been there in May and it was in full swing then. But then we had other things to do and so we didn’t return until the fall. And we rented an apartment in Cambridge, which had all black walls. It was quite eerie and it was a very cold winter. So cold that standing, waiting for the streetcar, I really felt that I was freezing solid.

So we got a fur coat, a big fur coat made of skunk pelts, and they still smelled a little of skunk, which was a great pleasure to my son later on. When he was about two and three, he would come and nuzzle into this. But for me, it was a lifesaver. And it was [cold] later on in Los Alamos as well because while Los Alamos is very dry in contrast to Cambridge, the cold is even fiercer than in Cambridge, but it isn’t as disagreeable.

So, to go back to Los Alamos, I had a ticket to go from Boston to Chicago, and from Chicago into Santa Fe to Lamy. On the train, I met another person who was going west and we both kind of hedged and hemmed about where we were really going to get off. But then of course we got off at the same place and were met by the same people, and driven about forty miles or something to Santa Fe. 

In Santa Fe, there was an office filled with people, telephones ringing, people typing away on the various typewriters and discussing at the same time logistics, and they were very complicated logistics. Because the housing in Los Alamos was by no means ready to receive the people who were coming and they were coming and they were coming at a terrific rate by that time. So Oppenheimer, with the help of some local people, arranged for various ranches to receive the families when they came and the men who were to work themselves and they slept in the valley and were brought up to Los Alamos by buses everyday.

I had arrived without Hans, who was sick and had to stay in Boston for a few more days because Oppenheimer had persuaded me to be the housing office. And I put it that way because the office was in a little hut and so it didn’t look like an office whatever. It had one big filing box in it with all the names of the people who were coming and who were already there and who needed houses.

The houses were being erected at a great rate. So with about a month after I came—no, I think the ranches went on for quite a long time, but I don’t remember exactly for how long. Some of the people were living on site in something called the Big House. The Big House was the dormitory of the boys school, which had been in Los Alamos until the army bought it and transformed it. 

It was not up to me who was to live on site and who was to live in the valley. It was to some extent determined by whether people came with their families or came by themselves. And if they came by themselves, we usually put off finding housing for them until we had housing available really ready to go into. The problem, of course, involved also getting these people fed, and that was accomplished by turning the so called Fuller Lodge into a dining room for, I don’t know, a 100 or 200 people. It may have been even more.

I forget now her name but Miss whatever, who had been the nutritionist for the school [Los Alamos Ranch School] stayed on and now was faced suddenly not with growing boys and some seventy or 100, I don’t know how many there were, but with 200, 300, 400 hungry, big men. And I think she found it very difficult to adjust portions to feeding this lot. However, she managed and everybody managed. 

And after a while, Hans arrived and he stayed with me for a little while, if I remember correctly, in Fuller Lodge where I had a room. Then I had found us a house at the outskirts of town. Now, let me back up a bit. There were two so-called childless units, then one-child units, and two-child units, and that was it. No more than two children per family. At least no more than two sexes per family because we had to have two bedrooms because girls and boys couldn’t sleep in the same room, but rules is rules. So, I assigned us to one of the two-bedroom apartments because the one-bedroom apartments ran out after about eight of them.

There were very, very few units for just childless families and we had in our unit a young scientist from Wisconsin—no, two from Wisconsin and one from Chicago. The scientist came from Wisconsin, from the University of Illinois in Champaign, and from Cornell and many of them from Princeton and a few from Harvard, and of course Berkeley and Pasadena. No, maybe not Pasadena, I don’t remember. And we tried to mix them suitably so that they would get acquainted with each other and form new friendships rather than becoming clusters of individual universities.

Kelly: How did that work?

Bethe: Sorry?

Kelly: How did that work out? 

Bethe: That worked out very well. People formed lots of new friendships and they held. I don’t remember for instance where John Manley came from, I think from Seattle. There were quite a few people from Seattle or maybe he only went to Seattle, I do not remember.

The facilities in the laboratory were by no means ready and people worked very hard on getting them ready and also in getting the electricity they needed because the electricity was being manufactured on the hill and it needed more and more and more of it. If I remember it correctly, it was a steadily growing electric plant. And of course the people who were coming knew a lot about how to do all that until that was occasionally upsetting to the engineers who were in charge of doing the work actually. 

The task I had as housing administrator was to see that moving vans would be directed properly, that people were shown their apartments and even shown where they would find facilities for laundry and for shopping, and their children to go to school, and then also to be somewhat creative about what to do with problems. 

And one of the problems for instance was that many of the women were perfectly well capable of working in the laboratory and then their children had to be taken care of. And so I think I have the sequence right in that Oppenheimer brought his friend Hawkins, David Hawkins, to be historian for the project. And his wife was a kindergarten teacher or even prekindergarten, and she organized a place where very small children, pre-kindergarten children, could be placed during the day.

As you see, housing was in short supply and therefore to make as many people who lived on the site work in the laboratory; to get the laboratory work done was very, very important. So, all these things had to be integrated in some form or other and it got worked out. After a while, I got an assistant named Vera Williams. Her husband was one of the leaders in the physics group; Wilson and Williams worked in those.

Then in July, I found myself pregnant and Hans wasn’t terribly happy with my being so preoccupied at any time of day because people arrived not between nine and five but anytime and I was expected to be available. So, I gave up the job and Vera took it over, and she stayed with it as long as she stayed in Los Alamos, which was into ‘46 at some point. So, I didn’t have to deal with the water shortage or any of the other problems that arose later on.

In the beginning of April, there was a big conference to determine who would be who and what the program really would do in its sequence, and what it needed and where it would expand and where it could actually be done at Los Alamos. It’s I think where Tennessee, Oak Ridge, was conceived and where the Washington plant was conceived. 

Well, my main recollection of that meeting, there are two recollections. One is having the men come for their lunch and one man saying to the rest of them, “They ought to listen to me. I am the oldest one among them.” And he was about forty-two. And the other is when there had been long meetings and General Groves came out into the corridor and for some reason I was there and he said to me, “Well you will be pleased, we made your husband a division leader today.”

And I said, “Well, he’ll do it very well.” And so that was the beginning really—in the early April— this meeting. Until then it had been all organizing, but after that the scientific world really took off. And I, in July, settled into domestic life. So, that shall we say is the first chapter.

Well, being in Los Alamos did not allow you to be idle. And so after I left the housing office, I offered to work at whatever they would ask. And one of the things I was asked to do was to wire electronic boards for Bruno Rossi. I knew Bruno quite well because he came from Cornell. We had a number of Italians there. That is three: Bruno and Emilio Segre and Enrico Fermi. Fermi was in and out. He came and went. He was at Chicago. He was in Washington. Fermi moved between Los Alamos and Chicago, and Hanford until finally his wife and family came up to Los Alamos. But that was not until, I don’t know, ’44 or ’45. Actually weren’t there for terribly long.

But to go back to the housing office for one more moment, one of the fun things about the housing office was that I always knew who was coming. And more and more of the people I knew were arriving which was kind of fun.  

Well, to go back to Bruno Rossi—he had a habit of assuming that I knew exactly what he was talking about. And so he would take the back of an envelope or its equivalent and say, “Well I need this here and that there and you better use a capacitator of that strength.” And I hadn’t had a faintest idea of what he was talking about. I had majored in college in Sociology and Anthropology. And all of these things even though I’m the daughter of a scientist and the wife of a scientist, the things have only very ephemeral meaning for me and so we gave that up after about a month. I think I struggled with it for a month and then I said, Bruno, I can’t do it. 

And since none of the other jobs were really of much interest, I stopped being useful and just stayed home, which meant that I had a very quiet life but Hans had his three meals at home and that was good for him. And then of course when my son arrived, I was fully occupied at home.

I think one of the interesting things about Los Alamos is that in fact, as far as I know, none of the work, nothing of the work that went on in the laboratory went home, and many of the women found this very difficult. Many of them didn’t know what the men were working on. As it happened, I knew perfectly well what Hans was working on and agreed with him that we not talk about it. I know that it was very difficult for many women because the husbands had talked about their work and it had been a close relationship. And on the other hand, we talked about the war, we talked about what the families were doing and all sort of things.

But the main social life took place on Sunday for us because we always went for long walks in the neighborhood and this had to be done communally because of gas shortage. So that each car was loaded full and we drove as far as across the valley up into the Rio Grande and walked from there. It was lovely. It was interesting and entertaining, and the views of course are magnificent no matter where you go as soon as you get out in the open. It is just marvelous.  

There were parties but I think neither Hans nor I participated in those very much. One of the reasons being that we didn’t really drink and there was a lot of drinking going on. Not because we have any moral objections, but we just didn’t. It was not part of our life to use wine or to use a strong drink. The parties at Oppenheimer’s were always very loose in that respect. The public parties, so to speak, the ones at Fuller Lodge were quite alcoholic, but that was the time. I think it’s much less now or maybe it’s just that we are very old now and so alcohol doesn’t actually agree with it anymore.

So for me these Sunday walks were very stimulating; I met totally new people occasionally and I enjoyed that. I didn’t take much part in organizing Los Alamos after I dropped out of the housing office. I’m not a great organizer. So, you will get from other people that they were involved in starting the other thing, but we are, I don’t know, Hans and I were rather users than creators. And I found the people I met interesting and amusing, so.

Kelly: They say that music was a big source of entertainment.

Bethe: Yeah, well lots of people. But you see music wasn’t in Hans’ and my life. So, music was later. Well, for people who played the piano or played the violin and someone that of course is different. And there may have been quartets and trios and so and going on everywhere, I don’t know. And Hans was so tired at the end of the day that really all he could do was to relax and finally go to bed. And the children were there, even that wasn’t all that easy.

Kelly: So, when were the children born?

Bethe: Henry was born in February ’44 and Monica in June ’45. So, they were pretty strong. Well, now let me talk about something else which amuses me greatly. There is now a house in Los Alamos called the Bethe House. Now, the name doesn’t come at the moment. We lived in it for the last three months of our time there. Until then, somebody quite different from Berkeley lived there.

Kelly: Was it the McMillan’s house?

Bethe: Yes, it was the McMillan’s house, thank you. I find it very sad that McMillan isn’t the name on that house because both he [Edwin] and his wife [Elsie] played a very important role in Los Alamos. They just didn’t get the fame afterwards that Hans got. Then McMillan I think had the Nobel Prize. So, it isn’t even that they needed to pick a Nobel Prize winner. But anyway, there it is, I have nothing to do with it. Nobody cares.

Kelly: Can you tell us about the house?

Bethe: The house?

Kelly: Yeah.

Bethe: The Bethe House?

Kelly: Yes. 

Bethe: Well, that was one of the old school ranch houses. And it had a big living room and a fireplace and a number of bedrooms, which I have now forgotten. And then it had a kitchen and that was an interesting point because the kitchen was more elaborate than the new kitchens. It had in particular a large cupboard with shelving, wooden shelving. And the main thing I remember about it is that one day I found my then two-year-old son sawing away at one of the shelves and with what I came to know as typical for him. Desperation in his voice: “Mommy, it won’t go all the way through.”

Kelly: He thought it should have been a door.

Bethe: Yeah.

Kelly: A sort of passage. He didn’t understand it was a closet.

Bethe: It was one of those wood breadknives that have teeth, sharp teeth. So, he had gotten about three or four inches into it, but the board was of course nine inches deep or so. Now, living in the McMillan House was mainly marked by the fact that the water tower was close by and those last three months, September, October, November and December, were months of acute water shortage. So, water was brought up in tankers and then dumped in this water tower. But I think some of the tankers had been gasoline tankers and not quite, quite all the gasoline had gotten out of it. So, the water was a little bit odd and then I think they reused milk tankers.

But it meant that the diapers, of which I had about eighteen a day because both children were still in diapers had great difficulty getting clean because water was so restricted. I would hang them up on a long line outside, and down came the coal dust on them from the coal-fired electric plant and house-heating plants. 

So, by the end of December or middle of December, I decided I’m going home. Never mind, Hans can stay here. I am going home with the children. But the problem was we didn’t have a house. We had no place to stay home. Well, Hans and I had no children before we went to Los Alamos. We had rented houses and Hans was constitutionally opposed to owning land or property. He just didn’t want it. However, being a reasonable man and an accommodating man, he then agreed that we would get a house.

We couldn’t rent anything in Ithaca. We asked our friends to look for a house for us and they came back and said there are three houses for sale in Ithaca. This was end of ’45, you see. People were streaming back from all over the place and two of them have to be finished. They are not quite complete. One was out on Turkey Hill Road, which is about three or four miles from the university, but in those days it was almost clear of houses. I think there were three houses along the road. And the second one is on Giles Street and it smells. And they cost around six thousand or seven thousand dollars, those two houses. But then there of course is a very expensive one in Cayuga Heights and that costs twenty thousand.

Well, we thought about it a long time. Well, Hans was earning six thousand a year at that time and finally we said all right, let’s splurge. And we took the twenty thousand dollar house and at that point I go the address and I said, “There is no house there.” I know the people to the right and I know the people to the left. There is no house between. But of course it was there. But it was so shielded from the road by a hedge and the trees that I was never aware of it and we lived on it for fifty years afterwards and quite well.  

So, that was the end of Los Alamos for the time being. Of course, Hans went back every year, and I went back with the children in ’49 for the summer and in ’52 for nine months, ’52 was the time of developing the hydrogen bomb. And we went back regularly until about 1957. In ’57, they were mostly out in California and we were back in Los Alamos as well. So, life settled down in Ithaca and that’s no longer interesting.

The most amusing story is that we had a friend who had a vigorous approach to life and quite a loud voice. She was a Russian. And she took over Henry when I had to take Hans on a vacation because he needed to get out of the office for at least two weeks. And so I parked Henry with her when he was seven months old, February to August, it’s about seven months. 

When I got him back, he was very happy, clearly. First it was a little strange, but then he remembered who I was and about two days later, Genia came. One of the happier aspects of Los Alamos of course was that since there was not much help from outside, the women cooperated a good deal and also for some of the somewhat older women who did not take jobs, it was I think quite a happy thing to help out with the younger ones. And so when I was going on vacation with Hans without the child, Genia Peierls took over looking after Henry. 

Henry moved into her house and she had full charge of him for two weeks. Now, Genia is a very forceful person and very opinionated. And one of the things she thinks is that children should accept. So, she began to feed Henry spinach. Henry, of course, knocked it out of her hand first. So, she wrapped him in a diaper with his arms confirmed then started to feed him. So he spitted at her. And every time he did one of these things, she would say strongly, “No.” 

Well, when I got back and Henry returned to me, and Genia came two days later to see whether I was undoing all the good she had done for Henry, Henry gave one look at her and it was his first word, “No,” he said. And he would have nothing to do with her. We visited the Peierls later in Birmingham when they had returned to England and it was no better relation. I mean Henry knew how to behave by then, but he surely didn’t like her. 

One of the women living in our house – we were in one unit of a four unit house, and one of the other women had a baby very shortly after Henry. Henry had weighed seven pounds; that baby had weighed nine pounds and it showed for the whole two years that we lived together. That baby was always two steps ahead of what Henry was doing. It was my first lesson in whole long intrauterine life is useful. It had come very late, that boy came I think two weeks late or something like that, whereas Henry came early.

Well, what else can I tell you about that, I can tell you of course the story which Harold Agnew told at Hans’s memorial service. Which was that, it was very dangerous to come home when Henry was about a year old because he would be out on the porch and the porch was over the stairs which led up to Agnews’s apartment, which was on the same level as ours. And he said, Henry would stand there and he always lost his diaper. It was dangerous to get up those stairs. But maybe that’s not a story that should go down to eternity. 

Well to get back, the company we enjoyed most Sundays were the Weisskopfs [Victor and Ellen], the Flanders [Donald], possibly Fermi, and occasionally other people would join in and this was great fun. Conversation was always on good level, never about work unless the men were separating themselves. It was always dangerous to pickup on anything you found strange. So, I wondered one time while Fermi was singing so happily about the 49ers. I still don’t know what that was about but all the men knew and agreed that it was very happy, the 49ers. 

In 1952, [we] organized trips when one car would go one place and another car would go another place and the people in it would swap keys in the middle. But the trips were as short as possible because we really didn’t have the gas and one was very conscious of the lack of various things, which produced a happy hour because the army could get really good beef. So from time to time there were steak nights in the cafeteria and that really made the men happy. 

I remember one time standing in line together with Oppenheimer and [John von] Neumann, and Oppenheimer asked Neumann what he was going to have; whether he liked steak rare or what. Neumann said I like it very well done. “Oh,” said Oppie, “You might as well take the fish.” 

So, do I have other nice little anecdotes?

Kelly: Do you remember any parties at the Oppenheimer’s house and what they might have served?

Bethe: I remember them but not anything particularly tell-able. I don’t remember conversations there except one time with Kitty, who was somehow trying to tell me something about her German background. I don’t really know what she was trying to tell me, except that it was related to [Erwin] Rommel I think. She had uncles or something like that in very high up military rank in Germany. But all that you can get elsewhere; none of her stories to me are very memorable so I rather not go into that. 

Let me try and remember. There is a Captain Parsons story but I can’t put it together at the moment; it was at the end of the war. Of course I had a lot to do with the pediatrician. Oppie in a very foresighted moment had recruited a radiologist from St. Louis I think, Louis Hamperman. And Louis was a doctor, but he specialized on radiology.

And so Louis was asked whether he would please bring a doctor or two doctors up to the site. He chose one pediatrician and one gynecologist, both of them joined the army and were under the military and so were the nurses. I mean that whole hospital was a military hospital, which was very convenient for us because it cost eighty-three cents a day and the medical attention was free. So it was a very cheap way to have children.

However, Henry – never mind I’ll remember his name in a while – the pediatrician was a very up-to-date pediatrician. And he said, “The most important thing for you when Monica was born is now to make sure that Henry will be all right. Monica will be okay, but Henry will have trouble.” 

Indeed Henry had trouble, but Monica had much more trouble. She somehow didn’t digest the milk properly and I think I was overworked by that time and the milk wasn’t much good. So I was to keep Monica on mother’s milk, but I decided the child is hungry.  She cried and cried and cried all the time. Well, so I put her on formula and after that she calmed down, but as she cried so much it got Henry upset of course, it got Hans upset, it got me upset, the whole household was in disorder. 

Well, Henry got neglected. He was not yet walking. He was sixteen-months-old, but he wouldn’t walk. He could crawl at an incredible speed and one day I noticed that his crawling had changed. It wasn’t until several days later that I realized that he had a splinter in one knee. Well, there it was, but it got him up on his feet. So, what else funny occurs to me?

Kelly: You mentioned occasionally you went to Edith Warner’s Tea House?

Bethe: We went down to Ms. Warner. There were several occasions when the Oppenheimers  took you down to Ms. Warner and I think we went down with them twice, but then when Monica was imminent I was given a baby shower and that was down at Ms. Warner’s and was very sweet. She produced something—I forget what—very nice. 

And you know she had this old Indian living with her and he produced an arrowhead, which was—I wonder where that is. I’ve totally forgotten where I have put that. It was an arrowhead that was to be a decoration for the child. Of course we didn’t know what we would get you know. So, but that was very sweet and I don’t really remember very much. I went down to Ms. Warner and got something from her fairly regularly that I forget what it was. Well, memory is an odd thing. It will hit on something and not on others. 

Kelly: Can you describe where she lived and her tea room?

Bethe: Oh look there are books available by Ms. Warner on her. Well, she lived by the river and you know I’m sorry, but Ms. Warner was not an important part of my life.  It was an important part of a number of people’s lives, but not of mine. So, let’s let her rest in peace.

Kelly: Sure. How about, you’d mentioned that occasionally you remember going to Santa Fe. You remember going to Santa Fe?

Bethe: I don’t think anything exciting happened.

Kelly: So that was not a big deal?

Bethe: No. It was a big deal in the sense that you didn’t go very often. And in the beginning I had to go down a number of times because I needed equipment and one of the equipment I needed was an electric toaster oven, I would say, something of that kind, but it was a big pot in which you could make soup and could make stews things of that kind. No, it wasn’t a toaster oven. I did make fires in that big black beauty.

Kelly: And you cooked on the top of it? 

Bethe: I cooked on it. Well, I was used to the stove like that because my grandmother had one. She lived in a village in Bavaria and she had a great big one with four openings and a big basin in which hot water was made and all the dishwashing water and all the sort of incidental hot water came out of there. 

Kelly: So, you knew how to manage with that, with the stove, you knew how to manage with a big stove like that. I think many of the other wives have an experience of that. 

Bethe: Some of them were very unhappy about it, but I knew how to lay a fire in it and well that’s because for me it was not a big deal. It was inconvenient when children had to be kept away from it, but they learned very quickly what was hot and what was not. I know you touch it once and it’s the end.

I had to get some kind of furniture into that kitchen and there were other things that had to be bought there. So in the beginning I made a quite a number of trips to Santa Fe and later I didn’t. And when we lived there in ’52, I went down to Santa Fe very frequently for amusement and to visit friends and things of this kind, but not in the beginning.

I remember that now certainly the—I can’t remember their name at the moment. They were people who came to the Theory Department and later on he was in-charge of theory—Kay Mark, the Marks, Carson and Kay. Kay had four children, one of them still not walking. He retired last year. He lived all his life in Los Alamos. He went to university and then returned to Los Alamos as an employee. Kay lived in one of the McKay houses. I think that’s what they were called.

Kelly: McKay.

Bethe: They were very small. And so she had these four children in there. And well how do you transport four children? She had a little wagon with staves on the side and she arranged those children in that wagon and pulled it. And then of course later they got a better house; they built a house at what was known as the Horse Meadow in my time.

Kelly: So, did you do any skiing. Had they build the ski hill when you were there?

Bethe: I went skiing once when I was very pregnant. It wasn’t very successful. Hans went skiing a number of times, but it was another one of the versions. He came from Harvard he went back to Harvard.

Kelly: Kistiakowsky, George Kistiakowsky? He came from Harvard, he was a Russian. He used the dynamite to clear the trees?

Bethe: Maybe, maybe I forget. He built that slope essentially, but we only used it.

Kelly: I think there is a photograph of Hans skiing.

Bethe: Quite possibly.

Kelly: Yeah.

Bethe: Oh you see once I had the children really I was very occupied and there was no way of doing such things. For long time I also didn’t go on the walks. It really changed life totally for me to have those two children, great joy. 

Kelly: There was a baby boom on the site right? There must have been a lot of other young mothers? 

Bethe: Yeah lots of young mothers and some women who were longing for children and couldn’t get pregnant and I think the altitude, while it helped me, was difficult for other people. I had been married after all for four years by then, five years until really we wanted children. Hans was after all not all that young. He was thirty-eight when Henry was born, approximately.

Kelly: How old were you?

Bethe: Well, forty-four minus seventeen, you make the calculation.

Kelly: What’s that, twenty-seven.

Bethe: Yeah, and I was twenty-eight when Monica was born. It was very close. I remember travelling back to New York when Henry was eight months along, little—approximately that—because my brother was going oversees and that was the only excuse anybody had for going home. 

So I went to New York and stayed with the Peierls who were then working at Columbia and Genia told me afterwards that she worried all the way home for me that I would have that baby on the train, but I didn’t. It was the end of February when Henry came.

Kelly: That was a good thing.

Bethe: You wanted me to talk about my origin so to speak.

Kelly: Yeah.

Bethe: I was born in Munich in 1917, which was the middle of the first real starvation year in Germany and the First World War. My father was on the front in Russia and my mother was in Munich. She had an older child, about two and a half, and he had come home apart from my older brother—you can trace when my father came home on leave.

I am told that I was a very puny child, very wrinkled, and very ugly. And the story is that one of my grandmothers said, “The child looks just like you” to other grandmother. And then apparently a little later she said, “Well it’s not a very pretty looking child, is it?”

And my mother’s mother who was supposed to look just like me said, “You are a fine one. First, you say the child looks just like me and then you say it’s an ugly child.”

So, that was my beginning. But I grew up and I filled out. Not very soon, I filled out as a teenager. Until then, I was kind of a little nothing. 

And the joy of our lives in those years was that my father’s mother had built herself a house out in the country and when the war broke out she said, “This is going to be a long war and it’s going to be a hungry war.” And she built a barn and bought a cow. And she turned her whole garden into a food garden with a big potato field and all vegetables that she could think of and fruit bushes, that is raspberries and blackberries and so on.

And the garden got planted completely. The rest of the garden got planted with apple trees and plum trees and things like that, and what became an enormous walnut tree, lovely. Well, this meant that we were quite well fed through all these hunger times, but when my mother was in Munich, this was not so. So, she spent quite a bit of time out in the country. 

And then came the end of the war. My father, who had run an x-ray station for the medical corps, came home. He had gotten his PhD in crystallography, x-ray crystallography, which was then not yet a field and became a specialty afterwards. So, he was now in need of a job and the job offered was in Stuttgart, which is a southwest German city, at that time still quite small, I think under a hundred thousand people. 

And it was the same story as when we wanted to return to Ithaca. He couldn’t find an apartment. So, we were taken out to the countryside to my grandmother and we spent a year in Upper Bavaria and a lake in the country, which was a very happy time.

And then in the spring of 1922, we moved to Stuttgart into an apartment that had been created out of a two apartment house. There were two center floors, which were the living area and entertaining area of the house, and the attic floor and the basement floor were the bedroom floors. Now the owner of the house kept the first floor and the basement, but the second floor got made into a separate apartment, separate from the attic floor. And we got this middle apartment, which had three large rooms, one middle-sized room, one fairly small room and a kitchen.

And the way my parents divided it up was that my father got as a study the smaller of what I can only call salon rooms. The central rooms became the living room and the biggest of them all became my parents’ bedroom and then next to my parents’ bedroom was the children’s room and all four of us by then slept in the room. But it served not only for our bedroom and playroom, but it served also as the bathroom. It had a bathtub in it and a gas heater for the hot water and a little Franklin type stove to heat the room. The other rooms were heated by a so-called kachelofen. What do you call this when it’s made out of ceramic?

Kelly: A ceramic tile?

Bethe: Yeah. They were ceramic tile stoves and they kept fires going in them. The wonder to me later in life was that none of us got burnt by the hot stove and none of us ever turned that gas valve and killed ourselves with gas poisoning. To which I got a slight clue by remembering that when I was about ten or eleven, I visited a friend of my parents and helped her bathe her baby. The baby was then three I think, and he had been happily splashing about in the bathtub but now it was time to come out and he didn’t want to, of course, and the babe got showered down by a warm shower and his mother said, “I’ll turn on the cold if you don’t come out.” 

Well, he didn’t come out and I turned on the cold. And this friend said to my mother afterwards, “You do keep your children on a short leash, don’t you?”

So, I think that’s why we never turned on that gas because it had been made that dangerous to us and that punishable. That whole apartment by the way had one toilet in a narrow—I don’t think that room was wider than that—and it contained a rack for coats. There was a door between the coat rack and the toilet but it had coats hanging in there and it had the one washbasin to wash ones hands.

I think what we consider an appropriate apartment in this country and I lived in that apartment for sixteen years. I grew up in it completely. It had a front entrance and a back entrance. And the front entrance was wonderful. There was a staircase that was half the size of this room and in it were hanging pictures. Our landlord was a dealer in oriental rugs and he had bought pictures of musicians of Iranian and Persian musicians and they hang in the hallway of the entrance. And we could ride down the banister of the staircase. Now, that I think of it I’d shudder because we would have fallen two floors.

I also went out on the gutter of that house at one time because we had thrown a ball and it had gotten all the way up into the gutter. And balls were not a plentiful thing for us. So, I had climbed out a window and gone into the gutter and gone all along to the corner and picked up that ball. But that was before I gained weight. So, life had its high points and low points. 

There was a big garden around that apartment in Stuttgart, which also had been partly turned into a nourishing garden during the war with, but it was landscaped with standup gooseberry bushes along the drive where the carriages could come up and discard their passengers directly into that grand entrance, you see. And there were currant bushes, black currant and red currant. There were some strawberries. 

There was a pear tree of the little tiny pears that are ripe for ten minutes. Well, they’re hard until they’re ripe and then they are absolutely delicious. They have taste, they are sweet and they have the right consistency. But you look at them a day later and they’re gone. They’ve become mulchy and really gone. I think there was a cherry tree and since the landlord didn’t have any children at that time, we had the climbing of those trees. So, it was a good life.

The other side of the house was the decorative garden, landscape for beauty. It had a little pond in it with fish. And when we learned to ride bicycles, that pond was a great hazard and my sister fell into it once off the bicycle. 

Stuttgart was a fun city. Next door to us lived the deposed king. That is he didn’t live next door but his vineyard was next door to us. And that actually brings up a very bad memory because in 1933, the Nazis were after the king and an SA group swarmed through our garden to climb across the fence into the vineyard and go down the slope into the king’s house and that was a time of extreme fear for us because we were there. We didn’t know whether they were after us. We didn’t know what they’re purpose was in coming into the garden, but then they disappeared into the king’s garden. So, but that’s much later, I mean I was sixteen when Hitler came to power. So, there are twelve years of living in that house growing up. So, what else?

Kelly: You were only ten years old when you first met Hans, is that right?

Bethe: That was ’29. I was going on twelve.

Kelly: Do you remember meeting him?

Bethe: Oh yes. Oh, I remember that very well. I don’t remember the very first time I met him but he was a fairly frequent dinner guest and he was very hungry.

Kelly: What was he doing at that time? He must have been twenty-two or twenty-three.

Bethe: He had just got his PhD and had gone back to Frankfurt where he had begun his studies as an assistant to somebody, but he didn’t like that job. That man wasn’t really interested in the same things that Hans was interested in. So, when my father offered to have him on a fellowship of some sort, I forget what, he came to Stuttgart. Hans had done his PhD on a different aspect of what my father had done and so they were interested in each other’s work. And then of course he got a job as an extraordinary professor. That’s the first rank—well, first you became an ordinary [professor] and then you move up over two stages.

Now, well the story is that Professor [Arnold] Sommerfeld, who was what we call in German the “Doctor Father” of both Hans and my father, wrote to my father, “Hans is my property, send him back to me immediately!” in a postcard. And it was from there that he got the job in Tübingen.

But then on the first of April 1933, he lost that job because the edict came out that only pure Aryans could be employed by the state. And in Germany, all universities are state universities. So, he went back to Munich and then with the help of Sommerfeld found employment in Manchester, England. This was very happy for him in a way because one of his friends while he was working on his PhD had been Rudy Peierls, who was working on his PhD. And Rudy had moved earlier already to Manchester.

So, Hans moved in with the Peierls, who had a small baby. Genia left the baby, who was by then a year old approximately, with Hans to watch her. She could walk. She could also sort of babble, this that and the other sound. And Hans had the impression that the child thought she was in charge of Hans because every once in a while she would come up to his knees and tell me him something. And then she would be perfectly satisfied with whatever his response and go back to what she had been doing. So, as you can see, looking after each other’s children was not all that strange for Genia to do.

I had met Genia—I was in Europe visiting my parents in Cambridge in ’39. And so when Hans and I got engaged in ’39, I went to the Peierls to tell them that I was going to marry their favorite boy. And Genia looked at me very sternly and said, “Now don’t undo all the good I have done with him.” As you can see, a forceful lady.

In 1940, we offered to take the Peierls’ children. You know England was evacuating its children to Canada and America. I remembered meeting this oldest child and the next one. At that time, I told Genia that I was going to get married to Hans. And those two children came into the room, the older one holding the hand of the younger one—they were by then several years old I forgot how old she was. What is her name? Anyway, she may have been five. She was holding her little brother’s hand and she looked at her mother and said, “May we wash our hands?”

I was scared stiff of those children, but nevertheless I offered to take them. But you can see, while these are all anecdotes about Genia, which I think have not appeared anywhere. 

I was in my fifth year in the Gymnasium in high school when Hitler came to power. He came to power on the 30th of January 1933. The school year in Germany ended on the 1st of April and there was a vacation. We returned from that vacation and I found a noticeable change in the atmosphere of my school, in the way various classes were being taught. One was the history class, which was taught by the daughter of an admiral, who was by then probably in her 40s. She suddenly didn’t come through straightforward anymore, at least to my ears.

In Germany, all children have to take religious instruction in school. You can get it as a Lutheran. You can get it as a Catholic or as a Jew. Well, I was in the General Lutheran instruction group and instead of having the philosophy professor from the boy’s high school, who was teaching the religion in classes in that, we suddenly had somebody else. He turned out to be a Nazi and his main aim was to tell us that the Jews were Jews and they had killed Christ and they were awful people. That was essentially his message.

We were supposed to get first year of philosophy at that point. The last three years of the high school ware taught by people who are philosophers. They maybe also priest or ministers but they are not supposed to be teaching basic religion anymore. It’s comparative religion or philosophy of religion, things of that kind. And here was this man, week after week after week came this particular piece of information. 

One of my friends, a Jewish girl, found that she was being propositioned, let us say, by the physics teacher. And I found them one day standing at the window in the physics lab with his arm around her. There was nothing she could do, absolutely nothing. I mean if she really refused it was dangerous for her family. And it turned out that this man was of relation, and I don’t quite know how close, of [Joseph] Goebbels. So, he felt free to act as he pleased. This friend later told me that the director also propositioned her. We were by then, as I say, sixteen.

I also was subjected to some teasing by my classmates. It varies, being called names. So, I just wouldn’t have it; I dropped out of school two years before I should have and I managed to get to England. I managed that by asking people who came to visit whether they could find me something in England, some job. I was perfectly willing to scrub floors; it didn’t matter to me. 

One has very little notion about what life is about at sixteen when one has grown up in a sort of genteel, upper bourgeois type of background. One just doesn’t know. I was used to helping in the house, but it was helping. It was not that you had to scrub the floor everyday. On the contrary, if you had homework to do, the homework took precedence over anything else. So, I asked people and we had quite a number of visitors from England and this one happened to be in some vague form related to us.

Now, the Jewish component of my family is very complicated because my father married a once removed cousin. So, my maternal grandmother was fully Jewish. My paternal grandmother is half Jewish in the same family. So, it’s very complicated. And we often figured out the percentage, which was kind of fun.

Well, this particular relation of the Philippson family had moved to England and married an Englishman. Well she had actually died, but she had companions and it was these companions who visited us and then invited me to come and stay with them. 

So, I got to Glasgow in 1934 and I stayed in England for nine months and learned English. I went to a secretarial school and learned shorthand in English, which is based on pronunciation. So I had to learn the pronunciation. I got a nice Scottish accent in my English at that time. At the end of three months, I went south and looked for work and I tried to get into nursing school but I was too young, seventeen. 

And then another relation discovered that a friend of hers had a boarding school where a scullery maid was needed. And I was asked to go there with a promise that I would be working in the nursery and not at all in the scullery. But in the end it was the scullery and I didn’t like it. They didn’t particularly like me because I didn’t offer great compliance.

I was much closer to some of the girls who are there. It was a boarding school for troubled children. The little boys were very clever, seven year-olds and eight year-olds. I remember one of them being punished, but unfortunately, whoever invented that particular punishment [01:54:00] didn’t realize that toilet paper was stored in the room to which he was confined. The toilet paper went all out the window. All I could think was “Good for you!” 

So, you see I didn’t really fit in there; I went home. So, I went to secretarial school in Germany and then I got a job in Stuttgart. The woman who placed me said, “Well you’re not terribly good at the new shorthand but I think maybe this job will be okay.” Well, it was job to type the same letter fifty times. Well, there were no multiplying machines where you could not tell whether it was an original or a copy. So, they had to be all originals. And it was the beginning of street lights, traffic lights. He was selling traffic lights to the little villages and small towns of the neighborhood. Each one got his own faultlessly typed letter by me. 

Well, the people in Glasgow came through with an offer of a peer position in France. Nobody they knew in England could do it but the lady in France had a boarding house for young girls and she also had an adopted little boy who needed to be supervised in his homework in French and he needed to be taken and walked to school and picked up and all sorts of interesting things.

Well, I went to Nîmes, but as I was saying goodbye to my fifty letters, the man looked at me in complete disbelief. He said, “Now you are leaving Germany just when we got the Rhineland back?”

Now, this doesn’t mean anything to you, but at the end of World War I, France grabbed most of the coal and steel areas of Germany because they were adjacent. And the Rhineland was one of those and Hitler just readopted it. And he restarted the military which had been also kept very, very low by the allies, which was all the Treaty of Versailles which really was not a good treaty, it was a stupid treaty. So, I said, “Yes, yes, the Rhineland.” 

And I went to Nîmes and I had two months in Nîmes. In the meantime, I had managed to interest somebody in possibly getting me to United States and he came through. So, my parents called me back to Stuttgart and I got a visa and came to the United States. I landed on the 30th of April 1936 in about ninety-degree heat at midnight.

Kelly: Where did you land?

Bethe: In New York.

Kelly: It was ninety at midnight?

Bethe: Ninety degree Fahrenheit, not ninety degrees Centigrade. But ninety-degree Fahrenheit on the docks in New York City is quite warm. We had landed early in the morning and I had spent the whole day waiting to get off and was one of the very last people off. Why? Because I was a single girl, nineteen years old, and they didn’t want me to go into the sex trade.

So, it had to ascertained that I was going legitimately and that the people who were picking me up were not – he was a professor at NYU. But we could prove that his wife was a cousin of mine. So, finally I was allowed to leave the boat. And that was the introduction to America. The authorities will take care of you. So, from then on I was here. Anymore?

Kelly: Well, in the next three years, you ended up working in Raleigh? In the next three years, you had a position that took you in North Carolina?

Bethe: Oh. Well, my first position was to look after the children of my host family for the summer. And it was somebody who had an estate near New Rochelle where they were living, in one of those western towns. They had a child too, and we were to play five days a week on that estate. There were several more children, which was all very lucky for me. But that wouldn’t go on for the year, you see, that was a summer job.

It’s very funny, I didn’t realize it at the time at all but the physics community is a very close community and at that time, there were maybe 2000 of them all over the world and they all knew each other. And so I was handed from one physicist to another physicist. And the lady in North Carolina, Dr. Hertha Sponer, had been an assistant to Professor James Franck. And it was Franck who knew that she needed a housekeeper.

So, I went there as a housekeeper, getting thoroughly instructed by her how to do it, very useful. I knew how to scrub a bathtub after that and I knew how to cook in a North German way. So, it was okay.

But I found North Carolina troublesome because of its color problems and I found Duke University, which was then two separate schools. There was the boys’ section and the girls’ college. I found that girls’ college really very strange because for one thing, they had to be in at 9 o’clock I think. Well, at Smith College later on, we had to be in by ten, so it was okay. But by then, I was used to this sort of thing.

And Monday night was study night. Now, I asked “Don’t you have to study other evenings, too, other days?”

Well, she said, “It’s different; Monday night is study night, you can’t have dates.” 

Well what is a date? A date is when you are with a boy more than fifty-nine minutes. When you go to town, you have to wear stockings and gloves, and a hat. All of this struck me as so ridiculous. And then the instruction: You do not talk to black people. You worry about them. They are dangerous.

Well I go from Germany where the Jews are dangerous to North Carolina where the blacks are dangerous. So, I asked my friends in New Rochelle whether they could recommend a northern college for me. They had all determined that I had to go to college, not that I had been a good student. I had barely squeezed through. However, I got to Smith College by somebody knowing somebody, somebody, somebody. And I saw what was essentially the dean. She was known as something else, I forget now what. What do you call the person in charge in the prison?

Kelly: Was she the provost?

Bethe: No, no, no of children.

Kelly: Of children?

Bethe: A person in charge.

Kelly: A housemother?

Bethe: No, no. Housemother is a very low position. Never mind. Anyway, she had the title that is normally known for prison board I n a women’s prison. Anyway, she was discussing with me what courses and what level I would fit into. And mind you I was very aware that I had dropped out of high school two years early and that I had gotten a better certificate than I really deserved. But she said, “No, no. You went to a very demanding school.” 

And that I did; it prepares you for the university and that’s a pretty good thing in generally in European education. 

[And she said], “You studied history and you studied geography, and I see you had a biology class and you learned botany and zoology and then you had literacy instruction, it’s all very good. I think we’ll consider you a sophomore.”

Half a year at Duke, they put me into remedial classes for English and generally considered me a remedial student, a foreigner who doesn’t know English. So, I stayed at Smith College but Hans was determined that he would marry me. The career at Smith College ended after two years with getting a degree from Smith and from Cornell, which means I get requests for supporting both Smith and Cornell. However, Duke University has forgotten me and isn’t that lucky.

Kelly: Well, I mean I think its interesting may be you talk about Hans’ relation with Teller?

Bethe: Well, Hans knew Edward in Munich because Edward spend part of the term I think in Munich, but then he got run over by a streetcar and lost one foot. It was a very sad thing and it explains a lot about him. He did what we all did—he jumped up on the moving streetcar only he didn’t make it. So, apparently Hans was the only person from that rather close circle of the some of the students who bothered to go and visit him. And while the visit wasn’t very long and I don’t think was very talkative, it touched Edward deeply and Hans was glad he had done it.

So they both found themselves in this country and Edward began to organize meetings. Edward and Hans I think immigrated the same year ’35. So if Hans got invited to those and he stayed with Edward then Mici. Edward had got married in the mean time. Mici was a very young bride and it grew into a really close friendship and the friendship withstood the problems of Los Alamos where Edward kept pushing for the hydrogen bomb and Hans was in charge of getting the nuclear bomb the atomic bomb going. And Edward—he occasionally would deliver some calculations, but you know he didn’t really truly participate and do the tasks that had to be done.

And well Oppie finally separated him as part of a separate group and gave him two students to work with him. I think Bob Christy and somebody else. But Christy also worked on the atomic bomb and had one of the basic ideas for it. So you know, we saw Tellers we had good times with them in Los Alamos.

The split came when Edward insisted on the hydrogen bomb and insisted that America needed to develop it into what it did develop into. So that’s why. But before that they were very good friends and they had a fondness for each other afterwards, but they couldn’t talk to each other because they would immediately come to the split in ideology. It was sad. 

We visited the Tellers once in Stanford and found it very lucky that Edward was not so we could see Mici. But their lives were in odd ways intertwined. Hans needed a neck operation late in life—in the ’80s. I think it was in the ’80s, I forgot pretty much the timetable of it. And nobody would touch it, the local person wouldn’t touch it, the men in Syracuse wouldn’t touch it, the men in Harvard wouldn’t touch it, but finally somebody in Pittsburg did. He was willing to look at it and operate it.

Hans was loosing the use of his left arm. And after a while we found out that Mici had trigeminal [neuralgia], I think it’s called—it’s a nerve here. She had problems with that and it needed operation and the same man did it. They were living in Berkeley and we were living in Ithaca but we met, so to speak in Pittsburg. These were sort of the nice little incidents in life. You should read Hans’s review of Edward’s autobiography and what he says about Edward. It’s a very, very nice review.

Already in the last year of the war I would say when it was clear that the Americans would be victorious or at least when the hope was high, the people here began to plan for post war. They were at Los Alamos, Robert Bacher and Hans and [Boyce] McDaniel and two or three or five more people from here. Well, one was a doctor and the other one was an engineer of some sort—all the others were physicists. Well, they knew that they would have to somehow plan. 

So, there was a big meeting to which Bob Bacher and Hans and a man named Lloyd Smith and the department head whose name escapes me at the moment were all coming together here. Physics has, as you may know by now, many divisions. There is our physics that is theoretical and even in theoretical physics there are many divisions. Then there is experimental physics then again many divisions and there is engineering physics. And the great question was: which of these branches would Cornell develop?

Bacher was a big machine man. He had gotten the first tiny cyclotron, oh what’s the basic machine called?

Kelly: The cyclotron or the accelerator.

Bethe: Yeah an accelerator from the Berkeley here to Cornell and they ran that with experiments all the time. Theory had suddenly become great—it was very obscure little runt of a something before the Second World War, but it was great after and this all had to be somehow worked out. 

And the basic rivals were Lloyd Smith, who was a physicist but with electrical engineering physics, and Bob Bacher who was an experimental physicist and wanted to a build a big machine. Money was no problem. The government would give money, the academy would give money, and the university would give money. In money they were swimming, but they had to make it right.

And what they did was to be really very intelligent. They formed a triumvirate of experimental, engineering and theory and those three men worked out what they would do here. The two others had known each other forever because one had grown up here in the department. The department used to replenish itself out of its own PhDs, but with Hans coming, that changed. I think he was the first not locally grown professor. 

So, they built the nuclear lab and the people in Los Alamos, the theorists, came to get their PhD with Hans. And you know the theory division consisted of people who had only a high school education, but were good at mathematics. Others had a college education but nothing further, and so they fitted in very nicely. For the first years until about 1952 or 1950, there were any number of Los Alamos people [at Cornell].

There were four people from here who came with Bacher who were his students. And then there was a man named Kirkendall who also had come from here [Cornell] and returned here and had students. There was Parrat— that is P-A-R-R-A-T, not an O-T—and he had brought one or two students. So, there was this tremendous return and some new ones. 

Why did Feynman come? I think Feynman simply came because we needed another man. Then he liked the idea of coming with Hans. 

It seems to me the Manhattan Project grows every time I hear about it. They were very good at making people keep their mouth shut. Of course it didn’t help them because [Klaus] Fuchs was passed by the British and taken over [to the United States]. Whether they had discovered Fuchs is very questionable—I mean whether they would have. He was very canny. And his parents in Germany were not liked by the Nazis. His father was a bishop I think not a catholic one, a protestant one. We do have these hierarchies, but I’m not quite sure what the title would be.

Kelly: So, did you know Klaus Fuchs?

Bethe: Did I know whom?

Kelly: Did you know Fuchs?

Bethe: Fuchs, sure. Well, he was part of the social life, but you see the Peierls guaranteed for him. They had known him ever since he came out of Germany and he presented himself as a refugee as he was indeed because he was a communist and communists were also not welcomed. But communism was not as revolting to I think—I shouldn’t say most Europeans, but I think anybody not blind to the economic situation of the past 100 years.

New Marx literature had in it a lot of things that were simply true. This did not make people pro-Russian. The Russian revolution was not really a communist revolution. It was much closer to the sort of state that had come about in Germany.

Kelly: What do you remember about Niels Bohr?

Bethe: Well, I met Niels Bohr only at that in Los Alamos. One year he was still there when he went to Denmark, but later when I came to Denmark he had died. I remember his wife scarring to bits. I had brought her a flower and she insisted on climbing up some steps in the kitchen to reach the particular vase she wanted to put the flowers in and she was well in her nineties by then and I being twenty years younger was scarred stiff, she would fall. I now climb the ladder perfectly happily.

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