Dan Robinson: I’m Dan Robinson recording this oral history for the Atomic Heritage Foundation on April 1st, 2016, here in Levittown, Pennsylvania.
Roslyn: My name is Roslyn Robinson. At times I use the initial “D,” because at one time there was another Roslyn Robinson and the mail was being mixed up. So, I’m either Roslyn D. Robinson or Roslyn Robinson.
Dan: What is your place and date of birth? Where were you born and what date?
Roslyn: I was born in New York City, in Manhattan. I don’t think I was born in a hospital. I think I was born at home. On March 31, 1920.
Dan: So, you grew up in New York City?
Roslyn: I grew up in New York City, enjoying all the conveniences of a family, doing what they have to do to make life comfortable in New York City.
Dan: Where did you go to school?
Roslyn: I went to school in P.S. 7, that’s Public School 7, in Riverdale, Bronx, New York, when it was still farmland. We used to have goats and—not pastureland, but there were quite a few Italian families, who had their homes in that area. There were chickens clucking all over the yard and farm animals, but not too big ones. The Italians also planted a great deal of herbs and food that they used. I became used to a farmland situation in the middle of—it wasn’t New York City, it was the Bronx.
Dan: That’s interesting.
Roslyn: Which now is a deadly place.
Dan: So that was high school? And then you went to—
Roslyn: That was elementary school.
Dan: Elementary school.
Roslyn: Kindergarten through eighth. High school, I went to Walton High School, which was an all-girls’ high school, still in the Bronx. It was near a big reservoir, and it was a great deal of walking, and a great deal of living almost like on a farm. The reservoir was a very large reservoir. DeWitt Clinton, the all-boys’ high school, was at one end of the reservoir, Walton High School, the all-girls’ high school, was on the other end of the reservoir. I wish I could remember the mileage, but it was a long mileage around the reservoir if we wanted to go for a walk or a park-like area.
Dan: Now let’s speed up a little bit. In college, you went to Brooklyn College?
Roslyn: I rebelled a little bit. There were a couple of us who rebelled and complained about going to an all-girls’ high school. I told my parents I wanted to go to a place where I would meet fellas. We called them fellas, boys. I applied to Brooklyn College, which became one of the best-known and highest-rated colleges in the whole area, in New England. I continued to go to Brooklyn College as long as I maintained an over-95% Regents, which is a New York State requirement. The Regents Exams were given to certain people, and my average was above 95 all along.
Dan: Let me ask you—so when did you meet Sid, our father, your husband? When did you meet Sidney? Where was that?
Roslyn: That was at City College, when Sid and a friend of his—we all used to go to Friday night dances. Because you didn’t have dances at Brooklyn, at the all-girls’ college or the all-boys’ college. At City College, there were lectures. Friday afternoon was a “Thank God it’s Friday” kind of thing, a relaxing time when there were activities. It was halfway between Brooklyn College and City College. I used to stop. This was all by subway, from the Bronx to Brooklyn. There are five boroughs in New York.
I met Sid at the dance one Friday. I don’t remember the date. Unfortunately, I can’t remember a lot of things about so long ago.
Dan: How many years were you courting, or seeing him before you were married? When were you married?
Roslyn: We were married on June 6, 1942, I think it was. We were married in the middle of Manhattan. I don’t remember the rabbi’s name who was in charge of the services. But it wasn’t a very large wedding, family mostly, and mostly family that had to take the subway to get to it. It was in downtown Manhattan. This involves another of the five boroughs.
Dan: So you were married in 1942.
Dan: Was Sid working for or attached to—
Roslyn: He was at school.
Dan: —the military?
Roslyn: He was at school, the way I was.
Dan: He was at school.
Roslyn: He was, I think, in the engineering school of City College.
Dan: City College.
Roslyn: I can’t remember the official name of the City College. Now, what was your question again?
Dan: Well, his background was engineering?
Roslyn: Engineering. He was very good at taking apart and, mechanically, at anything. He had a grandfather who taught him how to use saws and hammers and screwdrivers. When anything went wrong in a house, somebody would call Sid and he would manage to fix it. He was accepted.
Dan: Right. So the war, World War II broke out and you were married in 1942.
Dan: Can you remember, how did it come that you went to Chicago? Did he go to Chicago first?
Roslyn: Sid had to go to Chicago, because his first assignment was on the pier, teaching about certain airplanes that were going to become fighting airplanes. The wings folded up when they were out on this pier that went into the lake. It had an official name. He was hired by the Navy on the strength of what his skills and knowledge was, and he went to Chicago. I don’t know where he lived.
Dan: So you were left back in New York?
Roslyn: I was left back in New York. I started working very soon after graduation, my graduation from Brooklyn College.
Dan: So he went to Chicago—
Roslyn: He went to Chicago—
Dan: —and began work?
Roslyn: —to learn what his job was there. These were young men who were in the Air Force, who were going to pilot those airplanes. Because his hobby was model airplanes, for the longest time, he taught them exactly what the airplane was made of, taught them how to work the airplanes, the fighters, they were called.
Dan: But he wasn’t a pilot himself?
Roslyn: He took flying lessons and he could pilot a plane. But he wasn’t a pilot, he wasn’t a certified pilot, I guess.
Dan: And he was in Chicago for a certain number of months, and then said to you, “Come to Chicago.”
Roslyn: While he was in Chicago, I don’t recall knowing where he lived, but we corresponded by mail. So I must have known sometime where he lived. While he was living there, he went looking for an apartment or a place for us to live, and he found a house—oh, what part of Chicago was it?—on the South Side. Now, this was a long time ago when the South Side was fairly safe. Furnished, and so he must have written to me, or told me over the telephone—we spoke frequently—“Get ready and find what you want to bring.” Then he came east, and we were married after he already had the job working for the Navy.
Dan: So before you were married, he was there?
Roslyn: Yes. He had found an apartment on the third floor in a walk-up house—
Dan: On Euclid?
Roslyn: —a walk-up apartment.
Dan: Was it Euclid Street?
Roslyn: Euclid Avenue.
Dan: Euclid Avenue, okay.
Roslyn: It had a section name. Since it was furnished, I didn’t need much extra stuff.
Dan: Did you take the train to Chicago?
Roslyn: Yes, I didn’t fly yet. Took the train to Chicago.
Dan: What time of year was that?
Roslyn: I just remember the winters in Chicago. That was so awful, so terribly cold. The New York winters were cold and windy and snowy, but the Chicago ones were far worse.
It was a very exciting time, when there was a lot of movement all over the place. I think somehow either somebody informed Sid that with his skills, he should look into something that was happening at the University of Chicago, that they were putting together staff for a certain project. I wasn’t there to hear that, but he decided to go for an interview, couldn’t lose anything. They accepted him immediately. He was set for a group that was doing work on certain projects, measuring things and taking figures of the measures. I never knew what they were measuring.
Roslyn: The New Chem[istry] Building—
Dan: New Chem Building.
Roslyn: —was a low, I think only one-story building. It was part of the campus of the University of Chicago, and its science department, with a great deal of coming and going. And a group of young people, women and men from the different colleges who had excelled in certain areas. His was engineering and design.
Roslyn: I was working at the time for Cook County, which is Chicago’s Department of Welfare with families that had children who had difficulties. There’s a name for those children. I spent a great deal of time with their families in the South Side. The South Side of Chicago is now a very troubled side. These were troubled children.
Dan: How did you get that job?
Roslyn: I don’t know, except that that was my field of doing special work when I was in college before I graduated. But not for Chicago. Social work was what I was interested in, in Brooklyn College. My major—oh, this is important, too—my major was psychology. I can’t think of the name of the man who became a famous psychologist, and he was one of the teachers that I had. I had animal psychology, every psychological course that I could take at Brooklyn.
Dan: That was in New York?
Roslyn: That was at Brooklyn College.
Dan: Abraham Maslow?
Dan: Maslow. That was in New York.
Roslyn: Maslow, who went on to write a number of books and became a famous psychiatrist, I think.
Dan: So you brought that background with you to Chicago?
Roslyn: The experience.
Dan: That, your background was in—
Roslyn: It was that background that convinced them, I guess. The other part of it was that they did not have enough staff to do the kind of work I was doing.
Meanwhile, Sid taught me how to drive. The first time I took care of the car, backed it into a telephone pole. I will never forget what he said and how he felt. But anyway, I learned how to drive well enough, or I know I drove very well enough, because I concentrated on learning more about the techniques of driving. We had a good car, a Plymouth, as I remember.
He, meanwhile, had begun working for—I don’t remember what the title was—in the New Chem Building as an engineer. There were little groups formed of people who had certain skills. So he must have told me that they needed people in the administrative offices. They asked me if I wanted to drive, not all driving, but if I could work in administration.
This was my first real job, besides the Cook County social work. Working for Cook County gave me the title of Family Social Worker, and with that title I went to wherever I was sent to have an interview.
Dan: So you had the interview and were you hired to be a driver, or for administration?
Roslyn: No, I was hired to be part of the administration group. There were about six people. I remember a couple of names of the people in that group. There was a Jack Kelly, I think a Kitty Kelly. I’m not sure whether I have that name mixed up, because it was also a book about Brooklyn.
Dan: Was this in Ryerson? What building were you in?
Roslyn: Our office was in Ryerson Hall, and many other offices were in Ryerson Hall. And we didn’t have very much or anything to do with New Chem or the groups that were being formed, that Daddy was put into in the New Chem Building.
There was a lot of activity. There were loads and loads of people on the campus. We called ourselves “the displaced people,” because we were all from different cities and different colleges in the United States. There were some who had graduated from MIT, who were still students at Columbia. Apparently, they were doing research that was needed by the program.
They had to be cleared. I became part of the Q clearance, was the highest level of clearance that somebody could have, which would permit me to take them to Argonne [National Laboratory], which may be a name that I just found familiar. But I had to go to the Argonne place, where they building a brand new building. A tremendous building called the Pile, P-I-L-E, where they were continuing to do the experiments that they needed to do to get certain figures that had been done before in the stands, the football stands [Stagg Field], or the baseball stands, which was on campus. This was off-campus.
Dan: That’s the famous pile at the university, under the football stands.
Roslyn: Yeah. Well, it wasn’t called the Pile then. Whatever it was called then, I don’t know.
Dan: How much did you know? How much were you told about the overall purpose of the project?
Roslyn: Well, as time went on, we had group parties. There were lots of people from all different—also, languages from European colleges. We had some from Edinburgh. I remember some Edinburgh, they spoke with a delightful Scotch accent.
There were people who had come to work with Enrico Fermi, who was head of the whole organization that was doing research on this Buck Rogers kind of thing, we were told. Every couple of weeks, there would be a meeting called in a large classroom on campus, where this displaced group and everybody else who was involved sat and they talked to us about the need for secrecy.
At one point, Enrico Fermi, who was the grand poohbah, whatever the word is, of the whole thing. He was rather a short, dark-haired guy. He stood on the stage and he held his hand out like this. He said, “With one cup of the kind of thing that we’re working on, doing experiments,” he said, “Not yet, we’ll be able to go to Europe in a couple of hours instead of a couple of days, which it takes now. It’s going to be a kind of power. We’re going to find the cure for cancer.”
I remember that. It inspired many of us, and scared the devil out of us that they said, “Not your mother, nor your father, nor your boyfriend nor girlfriend.” He went through the whole line, who we might let know what we were doing, what kind of a thing we’re working on, what kind of a project, what is your project, what is happening. I was very impressed by the secrecy of the whole thing, and still am.
Also the fact that I was given at my particular desk a large wooden file box with little 3×5 cards, and on each card was a picture of somebody I didn’t know. One picture was Fermi. Another was Laslo Somebody from Romania, or Czechoslovakia, I don’t remember where he was from.
Dan: Szilard? Leo Szilard?
Roslyn: I saw him [Leo Szilard] one more time when I took a trip back in a train, going back to New York, and he was on the train. As he passed in the train corridor, I looked up and I saw him and he saw me looking up, so he sort of acknowledged me. He knew me because I had taken him, apparently, on one of the cars. He went to the new building, not the New Chem, the new building that they were building that I called Argonne, or that they called Argonne, and that was being built. It wasn’t ready to be used yet.
Dan: That was outside of the city?
Roslyn: Outside of the campus.
Dan: So no one mentioned that one of the objectives of the program was to build a bomb?
Roslyn: Oh, no.
Dan: An atomic bomb.
Roslyn: It was far remote from that.
Dan: Was there a time when you first or Dad realized that? Or did he know, do you think?
Roslyn: He knew right away. Apparently, in order for them to utilize what skills he could lend to the project, they had to let him know and find out what he could do. I visited New Chem, which is the building he was in, a couple of times, going to wait for him to go to lunch, because we used to eat lunch outside on the campus. He never said anything about what they were doing.
Dan: So he would never talk to you?
Roslyn: I didn’t ask questions, because the lectures that Fermi had given us, we were all kind of taken aback and believed that it was the truth.
Dan: So did you learn any more information from coworkers or acquaintances or friends about what the purposes of the program were.
Roslyn: No. But in between—see, I don’t exactly have the date, I don’t know—
Dan: Did people talk during social occasions or dinners?
Roslyn: During social occasions, we talked about everything about the city of Chicago, because all of us were strangers there.
Dan: So people avoided speaking about their work?
Roslyn: They absolutely avoided.
Dan: What was the expression? There was an expression about secrecy?
Roslyn: “Loose lips sink ships.” Because at the time, the war had started and there was a lot of submarine work on the East Coast of the United States. The German submarines were getting at the boats. But that wasn’t a war, it was part of war, but we read about it in the newspapers, that’s all.
Dan: Can you describe your daily routine? What time did you arrive in the morning and leave?
Roslyn: That I don’t recall at all. We both went to work at the same time, because we were working in the same place. We used to have lunch at a place called The Commons, which was like a cafeteria, a very large cafeteria with long tables and benches. So you got your food on a tray and then found a place at one of the tables. You didn’t know who you were sitting next to. You started a conversation and talked about everything. There was a lot to talk about in Chicago itself. We were all new to the state or to the city, and to the mayor and what was happening. But nobody ever, as far as I know, said anything about what the project was.
Now, you know, you asked a good question. When did I first hear about it? I don’t remember, except that a lot happened in between. I was chosen a number of times to drive certain people to the Argonne, and that’s where I was going. And if you asked me today, I wouldn’t know exactly where we went, except we were off-campus and there was a big white brick building. I don’t believe there were windows, but when I got there, whoever I was driving had Q clearance.
Now, I’m going back a little bit—before he or she could get Q clearance, which was the highest level of clearance, they had to sit at my desk while I asked them questions, the kind you’re asking. I compared it with the picture, like a license picture that I had in my file. Of course, it was the same people. I was making sure I was taking the person who had the clearance. That was part of my job.
Dan: Did you drive one person or two persons in the car?
Roslyn: Sometimes it was more than one, sometimes it just one. I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me, except that they trusted the university to put somebody who knew how to drive, which was me.
Dan: You had an ID badge, an identification badge?
Roslyn: I have that badge mixed up with a lot of times when I have had to wear a pen in my pocket. Everybody had to have an ID thing on. Where they got the ID, I don’t know. I never knew. But when we got to the Pile, sometimes I recall getting out with them to find the room where they were supposed to go to. As soon as they were in the room and acknowledged, “Oh, this is Mr. Jones, yes,” it matched up with the Q clearance that I had seen in my file box. And then I left. So that was my whole experience with the Pile, which later had a big name.
Dan: So, you had some role in security or approval of—
Roslyn: Yes, it was definitely the security department.
Dan: Do you remember the names of any well-known people that you saw or met there?
Roslyn: Well, there was this Laslo [Leo Szilard]—I can’t think of his last name now, the one that I also met on the train myself when I was going to New York. I found out later, he was going to confer with President Roosevelt about something that nobody talked about. Maybe he did, I can’t specifically recall some of these incidents.
Dan: Did you ever see [J. Robert] Oppenheimer?
Roslyn: Yes, I saw him. He was in whatever car they would bring me to have the people picked up. I don’t recall where I picked the people up. I think they were at the university, at a reception room or something, where I would then get them to the car and then drive them into the woods. It was pretty far away from the campus.
Dan: Did you have any contact with Leslie Groves, General Groves?
Roslyn: No, he was the Army’s head of the whole thing. My contact was with—what did I say that my boss was again?
Roslyn: [Joyce] Stearns.
Roslyn: I don’t know whether we called him General or Mister, I don’t remember. But there was another man, a young man, Jack Kelly, and he was almost like the FBI, but he wasn’t FBI. I don’t know who he was, whether he was from the university or what. He was part of our group. There was a Kitty Kelly, and the two of them naturally become friends. Kitty Kelly was also one of the secretaries there. They constantly brought in project parts. We never knew what the damn project was, but we did the work that we were assigned.
Dan: So, you mentioned Fermi.
Roslyn: Every couple of weeks.
Dan: And Leo Szilard?
Roslyn: Leo Szilard.
Dan: Was he the one you rode on the train?
Roslyn: Is that the one I’m talking about? Yeah.
Dan: Leo Szilard.
Roslyn: Leo Szilard, or Leon, yeah, his name was Leo Szilard, S-Z-I-L-A-R-D, a very friendly guy, and he was the one going east on the same train that I was going east. I was going home for a visit. Somehow, he mentioned that he was going to visit the President of the United States, who was Roosevelt at the time.
Dan: How about Arthur Compton?
Roslyn: Arthur Compton was head of the one of the universities, either MIT at the time, or the college. Wait a minute, which college is connected? Harvard? Harvard’s engineering school? Compton was a white-haired, very interesting guy, and I don’t remember just what we spoke about. But when you sit and talk to somebody, all kinds of subjects.
But, another thing happened while all this other stuff was going on. There was talk about a spill, and I had no idea what it was. But Sid told me one day he would have to go to the hospital, he said, for an exam, because they did examine us every once in a while. Then I was told he was not allowed to leave and he was put into isolation, where nobody can get into the room.
Roslyn: He was quarantined, and I believe he was quarantined for about two weeks. I used to have my lunch, I used to get to—it was Benjamin Rush Hospital. In some way, they were connected with the University of Chicago, that’s what I knew. They were examining us to, to make sure that it was registering the right stuff. I don’t think I was curious enough to find out, after the lectures that Fermi had given us, about not knowing what was going on and where.
Dan: So let me ask you about that, because that’s a significant event for you. All of a sudden, Sid told you—
Roslyn: Disappeared. Couldn’t come home.
Dan: He told you he had to go to the hospital.
Roslyn: That’s right.
Dan: What year was that, do you remember? Was it ’43 or ’44?
Roslyn: Don’t remember. Isn’t that awful? I should have been keeping a diary.
Dan: And what time of year was that?
Roslyn: It was a very cold winter. I seem to recall that the doctors who had to visit him—he told me this after he got out, after they released him from isolation—what’s the other word you used?
Roslyn: From quarantine, and they examined every part of him. They also, I think, at the same time, they asked him and not us, at the time, whether we wanted to go, that they were building a similar Pile in Hanford.
Dan: Washington State.
Roslyn: The State of Washington. Santa Fe, Arizona?
Dan: New Mexico.
Roslyn: New Mexico. Do we want to go to there? It was an attractive idea to go someplace that was warm, because the winters in Chicago are fearful, terribly cold. And Tennessee, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They were building new communities and we could have our choice of where we wanted to live and how we want to live. The only thing is, once we get to these places, you can’t just pick up and leave. We didn’t have the curiosity except “Loose lips sink ships.”
Dan: What you’re saying is that Dad was sick. Did he know, or someone tell you he was ill from something that had happened there?
Roslyn: Well, I was very puzzled about it, but he said, “Everybody’s being examined or tested.” But not all of them were put on this special program where they couldn’t have anybody even close to them visit them. Because after I found out what they were doing, I guess they also would be subjected to uranium or plutonium. These are words that were bandied around: uranium, plutonium. That was part of the thing that they were waiting for a shipment from. From a place in Canada, and we had to wait until it came into this country, and until it came to the college.
Dan: So about two weeks, maybe more than that?
Roslyn: It was about two weeks, maybe three weeks, I don’t recall how long.
Dan: So what happened then? You used to wait or look for him. He was in the hospital and you used to—
Roslyn: He was in the hospital. He would wave at the window, not the open window, and I would wave back, and tell him, “When?” When is he coming home?
Dan: Was he wearing something, a hospital gown?
Roslyn: Absolutely, hospital gown, a hospital hat. How do I know the doctors were wearing them, too? I think he told me later, the doctors put on special gowns. He said they were plastic gowns.
While he was in the hospital, or maybe as soon as he got out, we were given the choice of one of those four areas to go to from Chicago. They would move us, and we would live in a barracks kind of a place, they said, until the houses are built. They made it sound very attractive, especially the ones in Tennessee.
Roslyn: There was one man whose name I recognized, and I drove him to the Pile and then he mentioned something about he won’t be there long, he was going to California to work on the—I don’t recall what the California Pile was called. But we could have that choice, too.
Roslyn: It was a small group. They worked around a typical lab table that sort of went up to here. I refused, I started crying, “I don’t want to leave, and I don’t want to go someplace.” Although the warm places like California and Santa Fe sounded very interesting, in that it was going to be warm after Chicago’s winters.
Dan: Okay. I want to keep you on track, though.
Roslyn: Keep me on track.
Dan: One more time—so Dad spent some weeks, two or three weeks, in the hospital.
Roslyn: In the hospital.
Dan: And, when he came out, what did he tell you?
Roslyn: No, he didn’t tell me anything, and the hospital people wouldn’t tell me.
I’d say, “Why’d you keep him that long?”
They said, “Well, we had to examine him for certain things.”
Everybody was examined at different times. I wore one of those badges, they never examined me. But it was people who might have been victims of that spill, S-P-I-L-L, that happened in his room in his group, among [Nathan] Sugarman, Goldberg or [Norman] Goldstein—I don’t recall his first name. [C. R.] Dillard, D-I-L-L-A-R-D, he was another one. Wait, there were four of them. Oh, Ben Schloss, who was also part of that group.
Never once did they mention the word B-O-M-B.
Dan: Did you ever go into some of the secure buildings where the research was taking place?
Roslyn: Well, it might’ve been New Chem. It was called New, N-E-W C-H-E-M Building, this one-story, as I recall, red brick building. That was sort of their home plate, where I used to meet Sid there sometimes.
Dan: All right. What role did patriotism or wanting to win the war play in motivating you or colleagues? Did people talk about the worries about the war, about Hitler?
Roslyn: No. Except that we were all kind of, I must say, bright people. We read the paper. That’s what we would discuss when we would get together for a weekend, let’s say, and go to the movies. We went to the movies. Everything was on the movie.
The war had started in a definite way. Sidney, well, at first when the war started—oh, I can’t remember when Sid, when they let Sid come home. I think when Sid refused to go, because it was my decision and his. Hanford, that was too far away. I’m trying to think of what made us decide against it. California was interesting, but I don’t remember whether it was Santa Barbara or where.
Dan: Was that Berkeley or Livermore?
Roslyn: Or LA. Livermore was one of the places that they were building something. Livermore, and that was the one that Oppenheimer apparently went to and was living there. Why didn’t I want to go to Santa Fe? The thing in the movies and the newspapers that I saw about Santa Fe was that they were in a desert, and there was something going on.
Meanwhile, there was a great deal in the rest of the world, you know, the papers, the newspapers, the movies, what else can I say. Wherever anything was exciting that was happening, especially the one in Tennessee, Oak Ridge, because that was the one where they were buying up property that had been in people’s families for years and years, paying them for it, of course. But, never enough, and these people were suddenly without homes.
Dan: Go back to the question of security. Was there discussion among your friends there about spying or spies in the program? You said it was very—
Dan: —very clear, they made to you, not to talk about what you were doing.
Roslyn: As far as I was concerned, it was Fermi’s discussions with us—very friendly, a really great guy. He had his whole family at Chicago. His wife, I believe, was teaching at a nursery school. I don’t know where, but it was all at the University of Chicago. There was somebody else who used to be with him all the time. I don’t recall. I wonder whether it was—what did you say that Czech’s [misspoke: Hungarian’s] name was?
Dan: Leo Szilard?
Roslyn: Whether it was Szilard. Szilard and Fermi, I think, were together all the time, as if they were discussing things that only they could discuss.
Dan: You saw them together?
Roslyn: No, I didn’t.
Dan: How about Leona Marshall Libby?
Dan: Does that—
Roslyn: No. There was a Francis Wray, I think, W-R-A-Y. Or Way, W-A-Y. Again, there was John—I can’t swear by his name. But D-I-L-L-A-R-D was another member of that group. Sugarman was like the head of our group. Whereas my great boss was this Stearns. Whether he was a governor, whether he was what, I don’t know. I don’t remember. Kitty Kelly was also one of the typists. Most of the time, I was just typing kinds of things that were sent to me. “This has to be copied over a couple of times, corrected a couple of times.”
Dan: So there was concern about the war. You said people were—
Roslyn: General concern.
Dan: —looking at the news, movies—
Roslyn: But not connecting it with what we were all doing there.
Dan: Was there concern that Hitler, that Germany had another atomic program of its own?
Roslyn: Yes, they would talk about heavy water and I used to say, “If there’s heavy water, there must be light water. What’s happening with the light water?”
A lot of my questions were never answered. No real knowledge saying, “This is what we’re doing.” I was home at that time. Meanwhile, Sid had decided to go back to New York, because there was a doctor there.
Dan: Let me stop you. This was probably in 1944, you went back to New York. Before, the bomb was dropped—did you leave Chicago before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945?
Dan: You were already back in New York?
Roslyn: We were back in New York living at my mother-in-law’s house.
And Ben Schloss and Daddy had a close friendship. Now, Ben decided, he said, “I’m leaving here and starting my own business.” I can’t tell you the exact words, and he wanted Daddy as one of his people that worked for him. He said, “I’ll pay you well.”
I was pregnant and I said, “Yes, we’ll go back to New York,” because that’s where the doctor that I wanted.
Dan: So my sister, Shelly, was conceived in Chicago?
Dan: In probably 1944, and born in February of 1945.
Roslyn: In New York City.
Dan: So you were pregnant when you—
Roslyn: We were pregnant when I left. We drove, I remember driving all the way across the country in our maroon Plymouth.
Dan: Why did you leave Chicago? Why did he leave the project?
Roslyn: I don’t know, because I don’t know what happened in the hospital. He was as closed as a clam about what happened in the hospital, what they told him. Maybe in the hospital, they told him. I don’t know. He never told me.
I never questioned him, “When did you find out?” Because, when the first bomb, which was called Little Boy, was dropped, I remember sitting out on Grandma Robinson’s deck—
Dan: In New York City.
Roslyn: —of her house, rocking in a rocking chair with Shelly in my arms. And weeping and weeping that this horrible thing happened, how they dealt with it over the radio. That’s all we had at the time. I thought of all the people who lost children, who lost families, who lost their houses. It was just too much, and then the fact that I was part of it just hit me in the middle of my head. And I wept.
But we went on and we lived in my mother-in-law’s house, in the Robinson’s house, because they had an extra bedroom.
Dan: So, let me, let just go back just a little bit to Chicago. Were there any officials there who spoke about the purpose of the atomic bomb being to shorten the war?
Roslyn: No, the war wasn’t even talked about, other than it might have been talked about among people who were already college graduates from the different colleges. I remember there were some from Cornell. From Columbia, there were quite a few. These were all science majors, engineering majors, chemical majors. This is what must have been put out, as wanting these people from the graduating classes.
Dan: And your first realization that your work in Chicago had something to do with the bomb that was dropped in Japan—
Roslyn: Not really.
Dan: —wasn’t until my sister, until 1945.
Roslyn: Yes, until I heard it over the radio.
Dan: Over the radio.
Roslyn: That Hiroshima—how did they put it, I don’t remember how they put it. But everything was peaceful until I heard that. I can’t recall. I wish I had kept a diary. These are regrets people have when they should have done something.
Dan: So how do you feel today about the bombs being dropped on Japan? Do you think that it was good to shorten the war in that way?
Roslyn: Well, something affects my feeling about that, because my younger brother, meanwhile, was drafted into the Air Force. He had a lot of technical information about these fighter airplanes. They were F-something, and the wings folded up this way so they could get more on the ships. It was the carriers.
Dan: Hellcats or Helldivers, Wildcats.
Roslyn: Did Sid ever talk to you about it?
Roslyn: When you were growing up and you used to go out with the model airplanes to the park?
Dan: We just built the planes.
Roslyn: He built the planes. He built planes with six-foot wingspan.
Dan: Let me ask you—you had no idea that he was ill in Chicago?
Dan: Whether it was related to his hospital stay?
Roslyn: No, because they said everybody who was wearing the badge with their picture on it and matched up with the Q clearance pictures that I had in my file were driven to Argonne. I’m not going to call the Argonne Forest, but that’s what I used to call it.They didn’t necessarily talk very much. None of us did. If anything, the women exchanged recipes. No, it was regular living. I must have heard the name Hitler, but I don’t recall exactly when, except that I heard something very negative about it.
Now, the reason I bring up my brother is that he was put in the Pacific area, it was called the Pacific Theater, and he worked with the airfields, preparing the airfields for these fighters to come in. They were bombed in Hiroshima [misspoke: Okinawa], and he was constantly bombed. He used to write home about the bombing and having to jump into the holes that were built.
Dan: He was in New Guinea, or on one of the islands?
Roslyn: He was in New Guinea. He was in Okinawa.
Dan: Not in Hiroshima, but he was on the islands.
Roslyn: He was in the Air Force, the preparation of the landing area where our fighters used to land, but also which used to be bombed by the Japanese fighters. He had malaria a couple of times. He got very ill from the disease. This is Ally, my brother. Eventually, they sent him home, and he died of malaria.
Dan: Do you remember the year he passed?
Roslyn: I remember the year, ’51. No, I don’t remember specifically. I think it was ’51 that he died here in the Sloan hospital [Sloan Kettering Institute]. What’s it called? Something Sloan, the big hospital in New York City. That’s his picture.
Dan: Okay, yeah. His picture is right here.
Dan: So you came back to New York City. You had that very emotional reaction when you heard the news about the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima.
Dan: And then another one—
Dan: —on Nagasaki. And so you were quite affected by that?
Roslyn: Yes, I was. I was affected first by my having taken part of it, not by Sid’s. It didn’t occur to me that he had taken part of it, but mine did. I was part of the preparation for this. I don’t recall exactly what went through my head that set me to tears whenever I thought of it.
Dan: After the bombs were dropped, did he talk about the connection between what both of you did in Chicago?
Roslyn: The word “New Chem,” which was their building—that was the building he was set in with the group—I don’t recall what he told me about it. They were examining samples and they were constantly waiting for samples to come. And when they did come, it was like an electric thing that went through. “We got the sample, now we can do these tests and those tests and another test.” But I didn’t know what they were talking about.
Dan: Once you left Chicago and you were back in New York City, would he talk more freely about what he was doing?
Roslyn: He never spoke freely about it. I never spoke freely about it.
Dan: What was his reaction to the atomic bombs being dropped? Do you remember?
Roslyn: No, I can’t remember.
Dan: Did he share your sorrow?
Roslyn: No, most of the sharing was, “Did we make a mistake in not going to Hanford, California [misspoke: Washington]”—I think it was in the LA area, I’m not sure—“that we would have gone to?” And what it would have meant for his success, his consequential success.
I never could find out, and I did question a couple of people in the hospital, “What was wrong, what did you find that was wrong with my husband?” I don’t remember discussing the word S-P-I-L-L, the spill, that was the thing. After that, he disappeared, he was in the hospital for at least two weeks. I could never find out. I was the wife, I could never find out why, what it was.
Dan: Did, did you know of other people who had others who were affected by that? Family, friends in Chicago? Or was he the only one that you knew of?
Roslyn: He was the only one who would admit that that’s where he was. No. I have no answer for that.
Dan: So just to tell the rest of the story, he was pretty ill through the ‘50s and through the ‘60s, and he passed away in 1972.
Roslyn: Well, you know when your father died. I don’t recall.
Dan: Just for the benefit of the people who are maybe watching this later.
Dan: He died of colon cancer.
Dan: In 1972.
Roslyn: This was Sidney Robinson. He was known as Sid, and most of them were known by their first names. The one who was Goldberg, I think it was Dan, I’m not sure what his first name was. I have it confused with your name. Dan, Sugarman, Schloss. Ben Schloss we kept up that friendship, because he started working for Ben. I think that took him to California. I don’t remember.
Dan: So the technology that came out of the Manhattan Project, out of Chicago and Los Alamos and Tennessee and other places, became known as something called nucleonics.
Roslyn: Ben Schloss’s company that he set up, that Dad worked for, was something nucleonic, Nucleonics Incorporated [Nucleonic Corporation of America]. I don’t remember the details, because it was business stuff. Dad wasn’t happy with it at all along, and he switched from working for Nucleonics, whatever it was, to—wait a minute. I got to dig deep.
Dan: There were Geiger counters, he worked on.
Roslyn: Wait, to RCA.
Roslyn: RCA at that time was building material for the fighters and it needed people. Apparently, they put out a notice that they need people who knew of the properties of something that belonged to the bomb.
Roslyn: He knew the material, not in the bombs—the end of the bombs, the shooting end of the bomb?
Dan: The detonator.
Roslyn: That, who knew all those parts. And Dad met those—whatever they needed. See, I didn’t become involved in that, because I didn’t know anything technically. Still don’t.
But I have a picture of Fermi standing on that stage with his hand cupped like this, and a cup of this, a cup to mound is this—I don’t remember exactly what word he used.
There was something else that just shot past my memory. Somebody called Eugene W-I-G-N-E-R, Wigner. Now, Princeton came in and I don’t know exactly in connection with what. The RCA thing brought us to the Princeton area. Because Eugene Wigner was a European who had to do with the material that the end of the bomb itself, the end of Little Boy, was made of and could identify it. I don’t remember what it was that Daddy knew that they would be able to use. But they were at Princeton, and meanwhile—wait a minute. What’s his name?
Dan: Did you ever see [Albert] Einstein?
Roslyn: That’s the name I’m trying to think of. Einstein, meanwhile moved to Princeton, because he was working on his own stuff. I don’t remember whether Einstein was ever in the car that I drove out, but might have been. I don’t recall, because he would have been in my file and I seem to recall his pictures. So he had the maximum kind of security.
There was a name for that: Q security. The card file was full of Q security people, so that all I had to do was look them up in my little box file, and I’d find their names. But if they didn’t have Q, which was the highest security, they were not taken to Argonne.
Now, the mood, meanwhile, at the university kept being very friendly. We used to have Christmas parties, holiday parties, and certain groups would meet with certain groups. So the ones who were higher up in the category of security, of Q security, the very highest—I don’t know how that was rated—would meet together, like cliques. There were certain cliques, because they shared certain information. Now, other than what Fermi told all of us, we didn’t share the information.
Dan: What were the challenges that you had, and what were the challenges that women had at the time?
Roslyn: Katharine Way, again, W-A-Y, I think that’s the spelling. And who was the other? Kitty Kelly was a good typist. She could type away, whereas I would go like this, finger typing. Challenges.
Dan: Well, you were in a new city. It was cold in Chicago. You were in a new place
Roslyn: The challenge was to get out of Chicago. The second challenge was to find out why Daddy was put incommunicado. That’s the word I’m using, that isn’t the word they used. What did they find wrong? Now, I didn’t know anything about the spill, so that somebody in that small group who worked in New Chem had spilled, and most of them were handling the stuff, the uranium. There were like four different chemicals.
Dan: 235. Plutonium, uranium-235. Was cesium—
Roslyn: See, you know them. These things meant nothing to me. My academic learning had nothing to do with anything like that.
Dan: Did that whole time place a strain on the marriage in the early days?
Roslyn: Might have. I don’t know.
Dan: Okay. So, when you look back, you just had your 96th birthday, you’re in 2016. When you look back on that time there, you still have some pretty clear memories. Do you look back on it as something you—
Roslyn: I’m glad I was involved in it, if it was a positive thing. But every time I hear of a story of a Japanese person or their family, and that was in the paper or on TV eventually very often, people whose skin was peeling away, people who had different diseases, then I would feel sort of, should I say, guilty of having been a part of that whole operation.
And then I think again about some of the good things, because that might have stopped other people from being decimated—the word I’m going to use—because they were just piles of matter after a while. That’s what had left some of the people who were in the first, the Hiroshima bombing was rather direct on Hiroshima. All these innocent people who were going about their work, like I tried to do all my life, and then all of sudden they weren’t there at all.
Did I ever express any of it to you, as you were growing up?
Dan: You didn’t talk about much at all.
Dan: Yeah, you didn’t say anything about all this, until later.
Roslyn: Because, I was so deeply hurt. I was hurt and then started to regret, “Why didn’t I keep a diary?
Dan: Well, would they have allowed you to keep a diary?
Roslyn: I don’t know. I don’t know if they would have found out that I was keeping a diary, but I didn’t. The one who knows a couple of dates that I must have talked about is Shelly, who was the first-born. I kept feeling the regrets while Shelly was growing up.
Also, the questioning of, what did they find if they keep a person in a hospital for two weeks or more? I don’t know how much more it was. You know, they must have found something, and that was the reason why Daddy told them, “No, we’re going back to New York,” because he was going back to a business with Ben Schloss. He said, “I’m connected, I’ll be connected for a while with Nucleonics Incorporated.” I don’t remember how he had the business set up. But then Daddy worked for RCA. I think before that, he worked for somebody that brought us up here. No, it was RCA that had a New Jersey—
Dan: Raymond Rosen? Was it Rosen?
Roslyn: Then it became Raymond Rosen, because RCA wasn’t paying him much, but he started working for Raymond Rosen, and I don’t remember now exactly what it was.
Dan: Just to sum up, you were two people who had met in New York City in the 1930s.
You fell in love, you got married, and you then found yourself working in one of the most significant projects of human history.
Roslyn: In all of history. And that fact has boggled my mind, and my mind is still boggling.
Dan: Are there any other things you, you want to talk about or you remember, either about Chicago?
Roslyn: No, I became a real advocate for peace, because I couldn’t stand the idea of killing populations and so many people, the whole thing. I guess my social work background, all the families that I was trying to help a little bit by letting them know what the world is like, the good part of the world.
Dan: Just, just to put it on the record, in the ‘50s, during the McCarthy era, Dad had problems involving family background, security questions raised about his career.
Roslyn: About what?
Dan: He went through a lot of difficulty because there were questions raised during the McCarthy era.
Roslyn: Because most of the young men who were chosen, were chosen from City College, which at that time, a lot of professors at City College were leftists. There was a word for it, and I don’t remember now. There was especially somebody who headed up the Department of Philosophy or Psychiatry. See, I don’t remember these names.
Dan: But he did go through that very difficult period.
Roslyn: Yes, he did.
Dan: Despite the fact that you had both worked in Chicago.
Dan: Is there anything else that you want to—
Roslyn: Just that I regret very much, first of all. If there was good that came out of this, and I don’t know how good it was, because there was peace on and off or groups working for peace, and I was part of the peace program wherever I could find it. I don’t know whether Daddy was.
No, my one big regret is that I didn’t keep a diary. I don’t have dates, and I don’t have what happened. What happened at a Christmas party—of course, there was liquor at the Christmas parties, at all the parties, whenever there was anything special. Even now, I can’t seem to recall some of the very good things about—there’s also a regret that I don’t have the names. There was a name of a David Rubin, R-U-B-I-N, and I became very friendly with his wife, and I can’t remember her name.
Dan: Well, you’re 96. So, it’s hard to remember things.
Roslyn: But, we exchanged recipes. The women exchanged recipes. In the midst of a fire—I’m just using a fire.
Dan: I know we’re at the end of the interview, but you once spoke about, you would go sailing on Lake Michigan.
Roslyn: Oh, yes.
Roslyn: We would go, we would hire a sailboat, because Daddy loved the water, and that was a beach. That was summertime, and there was the walk to the beach, which were rocks, tremendous rocks, and we would find rocks that were smooth, or else we would hire a sailboat and sail on Lake Michigan on parts where there was the beach. There were lots of people on the beach, but the beach was just rocky. You couldn’t walk on it. I remember that very nicely. We used to have picnics and there was just the two of us, possibly Ben and his wife, whose name I can’t remember.