For me, Niels Bohr used to be the kind of name buried in your memory, sandwiched between ‘properties of noble gases’ and ‘wonder what they’re serving in for lunch today’. Bohr is a man who deserves to be remembered not in the same league as cafeteria food, but as one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century. Born in 1885, and winning the Nobel Prize for physics at just 37, Bohr developed his own model for the atomic nucleus and helped to develop the atomic bomb.
April 7th, 1933 transformed Bohr from scientist to rescuer. On this day, the German government announced the Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service. This law was devastating, and allowed university employees to be dismissed based on their political beliefs or race. It would not only decimate the existing field of intellectuals, but also allow for their replacement by Nazi-sanctioned professors. Bohr realized that this law seriously jeopardized the budding generation of new scientists. Bohr’s first thought was of helping these young physicists escape. While it was relatively easy for a successful and well-respected scientist to find a temporary placement outside of Nazi-occupied Europe, it was almost impossible for those who had not yet proven themselves. For instance, the Rockefeller Foundation in the United States ran a fellowship program requiring fellows to have a permanent position to return to. Bohr advocated abolishing this requirement, arguing that the young refugees needed the position the most, but had the least chance of meeting this restrictive condition. Although the Foundation didn’t loosen the requirements, Bohr’s concern for the wellbeing of European physicists was clear early on.
In 1943, Bohr learned from political connections in Denmark that a number of his colleagues were slated for arrest. Bohr helped these individuals escape through the refugee underground to Sweden. Leaving his own family safe in the Swedish countryside, Bohr himself hurried to Stockholm. By meeting with Swedish royalty, the Danish ambassador, and influential Swedish colleagues, Bohr was able to persuade the country to offer asylum to Danish Jews. Over 7,000 Jews escaped to Sweden through the direct intervention of Niels Bohr.
Respected historian Richard Rhodes concludes that, ‘Niels Bohr played a decisive part in the rescue of the Danish Jews’. Resources like the Wiener Library play an invaluable role in expanding our understanding of the Holocaust, and people like Niels Bohr. If you’re interested in learning more about rescuers during the Holocaust, come visit the Wiener’s new exhibition in Russell Square!
This story was submitted by Beatrice Kelly, a Young Volunteer at The Wiener Library.