A Golden Age Turned Black
A Jewish Scientist in Nazi Germany
The evening had all the trappings that one might expect of a museum exhibit opening:
Well-dressed sophisticates milling about, hovering over a sampling of newly-acquired pieces as glasses of wine and trays of hors d’oeuvres are circulated by a small staff of uniformed servers.
Yet, the items on display were neither impressionist paintings nor modernist sculpture. They included a trove of books, notes, letters and photographs that tell the uniquely intertwined history of the effects of the Holocaust on the world of science, German Jewry, and on a family desperately trying to escape the horrors of Nazism.
The scientists, collectors, patrons, and others invited to the event — which took place among the imposing book collection of the Science History Institute in Philadelphia — were among the first to view these items in nearly three quarters of a century. The archive tells the story of Georg Bredig, a prominent German-Jewish scientist, who, like many in his position, quickly went from being a highly respected leader in his field, with deep patriotic connections to his homeland, to becoming an object of scorn and persecution that would drive him into exile.
Meticulously kept, with the precision of a German man of science, and dramatically smuggled out of Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the collection had rested in a set of steamer trunks in a basement since shortly after Dr. Bredig’s passing in 1944. Now, through the work of a set of experts, with generous funding from a private foundation, the Bredig archive will pick up where its owner left off, telling present and future generations of his seminal work in the field of physical chemistry and of his inner and outer struggles with Hitler’s regime.
Elizabeth Walder, who, together with her husband, Dr. Joseph Walder, established the private foundation that sponsored the archive’s purchase, told Hamodia of the unique role she hopes Bredig’s papers will fill.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind archive that captures a golden age of science, Bredig’s patriotism, his suffering under the Nazis, and the drama of getting his papers out of Germany just in the nick of time. It’s a human story that reveals the impact the Holocaust had on the world of science, which is not an area that has really been studied a great deal.”
Georg Bredig was born in 1868 in Silesia, an ethnically mixed German-Polish province in what was then Prussia. At age 18, he began to study natural sciences, briefly at a university in Freiburg, and for three years at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, before moving on to several other institutions in Germany and around Europe.
At a relatively early stage in his studies, he was drawn to a new area of research known as physical chemistry, which focuses on how the characteristics of a material’s atomic and molecular make-up cause chemical reactions. The field was in its infant stages at the time he became interested in it, and was largely forgotten for decades afterwards, but it has since enjoyed a revival and is now one of the key methods used in research and development in the pharmaceutical industry.
Dr. Bredig would go on to study and work together with the fathers of physical chemistry: Svante Arrhenius, Wilhelm Ostwald, and Jacobus van ’t Hoff — all three of whom were awarded the Nobel Prize for the advances they made in the field.
Many of the early letters in the archive detail scientific discussions between these three and Dr. Bredig, yet his connections to the trio would have a further- reaching impact as well. Dr. Oswald and he would often exchange thoughts on their common beliefs in pacifism and internationalism, ideologies that would particularly mark Dr. Bredig an enemy of National Socialism.
Dr. Bredig’s work in van ’t Hoff’s laboratory in Amsterdam in 1890 would lay the groundwork for an essential move in the preservation of the Bredig archive — some 50 years later.
Dr. Bredig went on to make his own groundbreaking contributions in the development of metallic solutions and the study of chemical reactions. He held several teaching positions and rubbed shoulders with many of the leaders of what was an especially productive time for scientific research in central Europe.
While teaching in Zurich he crossed paths with another German-Jewish scientist, about whom he wrote his impressions in a 1911 letter to Dr. Arrhenius in Stockholm:
“Among the local colleagues, besides those mentioned above, I am most interested in the associate professor at the University, the physicist A. Einstein, a still young, totally brilliant guy from whom one can learn a lot. He is also a Boltzmann student and has a wonderful talent for representing complicated things simply. What is your opinion of his kinetic papers, relativity principle and elementary quanta? Unfortunately, we are losing him, because he has been appointed professor in Prague instead of Lippich. I believe he has a great future.”
Students remembered Dr. Bredig as the epitome of the authoritarian German professor. One student wrote of “Georg the Terrible.”
A 50-page address he delivered upon his appointment as rector of the Technology Institute at Karlshule, where he spent much of his career, is testament to his command of the day’s most advanced chemistry as well as the span of attention that was expected of a university student nearly a century ago.
The speech’s last 10 pages discussed some of his liberal philosophies and revealed a signature element of his persona, his deep love of country. The lengthy address closed with the professor leading the assembled in Deutschland über Alles, the German national anthem that fell out of use after the war due to its being associated with Hitler’s plans of world conquest.
Like many German Jews of the time who shared his sincere German pride, the disenfranchisement that Dr. Bredig experienced almost immediately after the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 would not only make his life increasingly difficult, but would challenge a major part of his identity.
Within a number of months, Dr. Bredig was forced to resign from Karlshule and had his credentials as a scientist revoked. That policy, which affected all “non-Aryans,” left Germany bereft of more than a quarter of its chemists, and similar percentages of other types of scientists, and abruptly ended Germany’s role as one of the world’s leading centers of scientific advancement.
That same year, Dr. Bredig’s wife, Rosa (née Fraenkel), passed away.
The archive has a number of letters that capture the darkening of his life in this ominous period. “I am not allowed to step into the library anymore, nor my beloved public gardens,” he wrote.
As late as 1938, Dr. Bredig was still reluctant to leave Germany, hoping that the situation would somehow improve.
A comment by his friend, fellow-chemist Karl Freudenberg, summed it up as such:
“Bredig was a patriot in the very best sense. That his belief in Germany and the German people was so severely shaken was probably the hardest shock that hit him, and I can say that until the end he could not understand that he was rejected as a German by his people.”
At the opening of the archives, one of the speakers, Nobel-Prize winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, himself a Holocaust survivor, noted that this period marked “the failure of a dream” for German Jews.
On Kristallnacht, both Dr. Bredig and his son-in-law, Dr. Viktor Homburger, were arrested, together with some 500 of Karleshule’s Jewish men. Dr. Bredig, already 70 years old, was made to stand for hours in a barn, with his head against the wall, before eventually being freed. Dr. Homburger would be sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he was held for several months before being released.
The experience was enough to make Dr. Bredig realize that he had no option but to leave Germany.
Only days afterward, he wrote to his son Max — also a chemist, who had left for America two years earlier — asking him to procure visas for the Homburgers and their three children, “and lastly for me.”
“When or whether we will overcome incredible difficulties is doubtful. Also, in today’s unbelievable crisis, [whether] our emigration will be possible at all. We are experiencing, just like the whole of Europe, very troublesome times … life nowadays is just so hard … one can do nothing else but to bear it with dignity,” he wrote in another letter.
He had been kicked out of his apartment, and nearly all of his valuables had been confiscated by Nazi authorities, but it was not until the end of the summer of 1939, weeks before the outbreak of war, that Dr. Bredig was able to leave Germany for Holland. There, he entrusted the bulk of what would become the Bredig archive to Dr. van ’t Hoff’s laboratory for safe-keeping.
Sensing the oncoming inferno that would consume Europe, Max kept up his efforts to bring his aging — and now ailing — father to the United States. He succeeded in 1940, when Princeton University offered Dr. Bredig a position there that paved the way for his entry to America.
A letter from Hugh Taylor, the head of the university’s chemistry department, acknowledges that Dr. Bredig’s ill health might prevent him from actually teaching, betraying the true intention of the offer.
“We understand completely the difficulties under which you are laboring and that we can without any inconvenience postpone those contacts until you feel completely restored to healthy and your accustomed vigor,” he wrote.
The Homburgers’ path to safety would be more difficult. Dr. Bredig’s daughter Marianna and her family escaped to France only to find themselves interned in the Gurs camp in Vichy after the Nazi invasion in 1940. The archive contains a slew of letters describing the deprivation suffered by prisoners in the camp, as well as Mrs. Homburger’s efforts to care for the many aged German Jewish women in her barracks.
These communications also detail the difficulties in procuring visas to escape Nazi territory and Max’s valiant, and ultimately successful, efforts to bring his sister and her family to the United States.
Many others whose letters are contained in the archive were not as fortunate. Ernst Cohen, a Dutch chemist who also worked together with van ’t Hoff and played a key role in Dr. Bredig’s escape to the Netherlands, perished in Auschwitz. Dr. Bredig’s friend Alfred Schnell and his wife, Eva, wrote him many letters from their hiding place in a room under a hay stack, which were delivered to America via the Red Cross. They were shot by Dutch police who collaborated with the Nazis in 1944.
Dr. Bredig would never regain his health. He passed away in New York City, where he lived together with Max, in 1944.
Yet, even years before his flight, the chemist expressed concern over the preservation of his precious books which contained copious notes and papers.
“Yesterday I sent as a package to you the 3 green volumes I-III of my opera omnia. The rest IV-VIII in green volumes will follow in the next weeks or so. I have also sent you my occasional handwritten notes. … It is very dear to me that after my death the one and the other will end in good hands. … In case you don’t want to keep it give it a university library, preferably one abroad, or to a good friend. Under no circumstances do I want it to be wasted/lost, given away or tossed! It should give witness over my life’s work,” he wrote to Max in 1937.
In 1946, the van ’t Hoff laboratory returned a large portion of Dr. Bredig’s effects to Max, who maintained them for years until his death in 1977. Several years ago, Max’s son, George Bredig — who attended the opening in Philadelphia — began to search for a buyer who could bring the trove to the public and allow scholars to access it. The archive was purchased by Raab Collection, which specializes in historical documents.
While in his possession, Nathan Raab invested great efforts in preserving, packaging and translating into English some key parts of the archive. He then contacted the Science History Institute, which, as its name suggests, seemed a natural home for Dr. Bredig’s collection. There it will be available to researchers, and in the coming months, the museum plans to put some of the documents on display for the general public.
The circle was completed when the Institute learned of the newly founded Walder Foundation, whose stated areas of interest include Jewish life, immigrant advocacy, the performing arts, advancing sustainability and scientific innovation.
“It’s a rare opportunity for us to find a project that straddles three of our five pillars, and we were very proud to be able to help bring the archive to the Institute,” said Mrs. Walder. “It has important stories to tell and we are very hopeful it will help open up new doors in Holocaust scholarship.”
The author would like to thank Patrick Shea, Chief Curator for Archives and Manuscripts for the Science History Institute, for his assistance with this article.
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