The revelation in Kungälv Christmas night 1938: how the Berlin Jewess became the “mother of the atomic bomb”


The Kungälv residents hardly notice the German-speaking couple, who this Christmas evening in 1938 leave the  sisters Andersson’s pension  and after the square  continues up the East street . The intense conversation prevents them from seeing the snow-covered wooden house shed and the fortress on the other side of the water.


She is a slender lady around 60, the world-famous physicist Lise Meitner, who a few months earlier fled from Hitler’s persecution of Jews. Now she has traveled down from her simple study room at Otto Siegbahn’s institute to greet her old friend  Eva von Bahr Bergius  and eat Christmas dinner there. The young man is nuclear physicist Otto Robert Frisch, who traveled from Niels Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen to meet his aunt.

After the lute fishing, they continue the hike up the Fontinskog slope. He on borrowed records. She was broken by a letter she had just received from Professor Otto Hahn, her closest research colleague at the Dahlem Institute south of Berlin. The neutron firing of uranium had secreted barium, not as expected radium and heavier elements. Did Lise have an answer to the riddle?

See Hedvig Hedqvist talk  about his Meitnerbok Love and nuclear physics.

Christmas night when two wise Jews get a revelation

FontinIt was then, at a fallen tree trunk, that Lise Meitner gets her revelation. Did they think of Jews as the three wise men of Christmas night? Rather on Jacob Berzelius’s table with the atomic weights she could by the way. The neutrons reduced surface tension and the uranium core formed like a drop of water and split – and secreted barium!

Lise sat down on the tree trunk where she quickly figured out what enormous amount of energy was released, using a relativity equation from her good friend Albert Einstein.

Otto Robert brought the news to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, who proclaimed “what idiots we have been”. Soon after, Bohr took the American boat from Gothenburg. A Danish knew of fission from botany and that analogy gave the atomic cleavage a name.

The discovery was published and Meitner’s Jewish colleagues who moved to the United States were made aware. Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt, who launched the world’s largest research project, named Manhattan.

Siegbahn DepartmentMeitner lacked lab resources at the  Otto Sighbahn Institute  in Frescati (It was then called the Swedish Academy of Sciences Research Institute for Experimental Physics, next door to the Natural History Museum).

Meitner theoretically, probably also in her simple room at Årsta ladies hotel, located in at Smålandsgatan 20. There, she learned from Jewish immigrants that the Germans banned the export of uranium from Czechoslovakia, a fact which she briefly drew attention to colleagues in the United States.

Three meetings

The search for the atomic bomb became a nightmare for Meitner and other researchers. In drama Copenhagen, Michael Frayn has created a fictional meeting between Niels Bohr and  Hitler’s hand-picked  nuclear scientist  Werner Heisenberg .

Kista theater, with the play Lise and Otto, with the help of the technology from two scenes, illustrated an equally conceived meeting.