Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Infeld's "Quest"

From a renowned Polish astrophysicist I got the autobiography of Leopold Infeld: "Quest", for reading. We had an interesting scientific-historical discussion, and he was kind to lend me this very informative book.

As it is usual in Warsaw, you step in the footprints of historical events
everywhere. The professor told me his mother was taught Physics in the Jewish public school in Warsaw before the WWII by Infeld. And when reading the book, in the part where Infeld describes his Warsaw times, I learned that the school was not more than few hundred meters from the place where I was reading the words (p.107): "...and each day I passed down the same streets-Orla, Karmelicka, to Nowolipki where my school was, in the heart of the ghetto, crowded by three hundred thousand Jews." I was reading it in an apartment in Karmelicka street, there was no a single traditionally clad Jew kilometers from me-except in a museum "Polin" opened recently, celebrating the history of Polish Jews. It was all what remained of that crowded ghetto. No, not exactly: yesterday in the evening I went running around the Park Krasinskich near Plac Bankowy, and there is a line in the pavement marking the line of the wall of former ghetto. With an information plate describing it. They could equally well make a crying wall there.

Famously enough, prof. informed me, Infeld did not want the translation of the book into Polish language... Interesting, as the book itself is dedicated "To my friends in Poland". And the book was written in 1940!

I was very surprised by the outline of Infeld's life described to me by the professor. In my ignorance, I supposed it was an "usual" story of a Jew intellectual, persecuted by the Nazi, who fled to the USA fast enough to be luckier than most of the others. I learned that my "knowledge" on the matter is, again, lacking, to say it mildly.

Nor was Infeld a professor when he escaped Poland, nor he was
escaping Nazi. His way to the professorship or the USA was not at all
straightforward. Escaping his own unhappy life-his first wife died of
medical condition few years before the WWII-to regain sanity and
console himself, he searched for ways to go out of Poland. He needed
to occupy himself with work.

Another dimension he describes frankly in the book is the relationship of Gentile to Jews in Poland. He is clear that there was a strong divide in the society, but indicates his (and other Jews) paranoia, too. The two communities simply did not know each other. It might seem impossible today, but just go and live in Berlin Charlottenburg today and see how much you understand the Turkish community there. Or go to live in Asia, and find a connection to Chinese or Japanese. You will soon find that to live along someone, does not mean to understand, or (easier) to know their culture at

The book is divided into three parts: "The Ghetto", "Escape" and "Search and Research". It starts and ends with beautifully titled short sections "The Beginning and the End" and "The End and the Beginning", respectively. In them the author describes how he heard of the German attack on Poland in September 1939, when he was driving with his pregnant wife through New England in USA.
He read about air rides on Warsaw. Infeld himself was a remote observer of the war. The complete world of his in Poland before the war was erased. Lvov, the city where he started his independent life and youth, is not even in Poland today. Krakow Jewish community, where he spent his childhood in the Ghetto, was erased, the same as the Warsaw one. Many millions of people disappeared, literally in smoke. As my good uncle would say, from his bottom of Australia, "Who is to blame?"

Yes, who is to blame? We see rising of similar sentiments today in Europe, not so much towards the Jews, as they are nonexistent in numbers threatening the Gentile, but to the others. It is interesting to see how Europe did not go far from its narrow-mindedness. Frightening. In the first part, "The Ghetto", Infeld describes his childhood in Krakow ghetto and, in a very surprosing way for me, presents the isolation of the Ghetto. Jews preserved their culture and religion this way, but also separated themselves from the host community. As we see today, it is a risky business.

"Escape" part of the book describes his way to scholarship, from the teacher in Jewish school. Here is also the story of his tragic first marriage, with a girl from the rich Jewish family. It ended in devastating blow in a loss of his wife whom he loved dearly, when he was 34 years old. He describes in painful details how he and the girl's parents (she was their only child) could not grasp with the loss. He also describes how physical side took over his pain-sex overcame. He only indicates "lifes destroyed" by his reckless behavior, but it is enough to understand that he was completely lost.

In a self-preservation move he asked his colleague and professor in Lwow to help him to obtain some scholarship abroad. He finished obtaining the Rockefeller fellowship in Cambridge. He entered the Big Physics world through a side-door. Much held ajar by Einstein, which he met in Berlin, and then, 16 years later, in Princeton, USA.

In "Search and Research" is described some of the Physics he was involved in, but most of the emotion in the text goes into problems he had to stay in USA. Here again Einstein helped, collaborating on the popular science book Infeld devised to write for Einstein. Here Infeld shows how a physicist should not forget his fellow citizens, who pay his research. A genuine effort by him and Einstein bore fruits and, in effect of his new fame, he obtained the professorship in Canada, something he could only dream of before the book.

The end of the story is after the war, when he returned, somewhat
controversially, to the communist Poland. In Warsaw, undoubtedly governed by a Public Relations communists there wanted to bathe in, he was offered unlimited resources. He took and used them well-the school of physics in Warsaw is today a cradle of good physics.

"Quest" is a very informative text. Some of the things mentioned there are rather a taboo still in Poland. Or simply nobody, except those who were directly involved, is really interested in it. The remnants of the world described in the book are still present, but in the next refurbishing of the cities, they could get erased. This should not happen, as we are still to learn the lesson... This is why testimonies as this book should be more than welcome. It is not about Jews. It is about "us" and "them", an eternal quest for the human race.

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