Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner (1878-1968), lecturing at Catholic University, Washington, D.C. (Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Part Two in our history series includes the Jewish physicist who helped develop the bomb.

Read part one of this historical series here.

Eighteen days before Hitler killed himself, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died at the age of 63 and Vice-President Harry S. Truman was inaugurated as president. 

At the time of Roosevelt’s burial in Hyde Park, New York, at 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 15, several of Detroit’s synagogues held special services to pay their last respects to the man many of America’s Jewish publications referred to as “Israel’s best friend.” 

A front page article in the Friday, May 4, 1945, edition of The Jewish Chronicle caused concern about Detroit’s Jewish future. “Only 2,000 Jewish boys and girls are attending week-day Hebrew or Yiddish afternoon or day classes, and only 3,000 children are getting instruction in Jewish Sunday schools,” the article stated. According to a survey of Detroit’s Jewish educational, recreational and cultural activities, Detroit had a Jewish population of about 85,000 in 1945 with at least 25,000 Jewish children of school age. 

“This means that from 75 to 80 percent of the Jewish children receive no Jewish schooling,” Phillip Slomovitz wrote concurrently in the Jewish News. “What hold will Judaism have on children who know practically nothing of the great and exciting history of their people? What hold will religion have on the youth if they are ignorant of the Bible, of the teachings of the Prophets and the great Rabbis.” 

Bob Torgow took his Jewish studies seriously and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation Mogen Abraham on Dexter and Cortland, around the corner from his home, in the same year the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah started its day school in the same building as Mogen Abraham. Bob found a way to earn some spending money and watch Tigers games for free. He would show up at the usher entrance carrying some rags on days he didn’t have school and that wouldn’t conflict with Jewish holidays. He didn’t have a green uniform with a special cap as the older ushers did; all he needed were rags to clean off the seats after he showed the paying fans where they would be sitting. After Bob finished wiping, he would stick his hand out and hope for a tip.  

Florence Abels Ashin and several of her girl friends worked for the New York Central Railroad in the Michigan Central Depot. They often saw the Tigers, and Florence’s hero Hank Greenbergat the terminal as the team readied to leave by train for a road trip. Florence, who kept  thorough scrapbooks on Greenberg for years, bought tickets for her family for the Tigers game on Sunday, July 1. That was to be the first major league game that Greenberg would play in since May of 1941. Greenberg fans were delirious as Hank homered for the first time in over four years and Florence’s family and a 13-year-old usher celebrated.  

The world was shocked and surprised when an American crew flying a B-29 five miles high over Hiroshima on August 6, released an atomic bomb. Almost 80,000 people were killed and four square miles were leveled. 

President Truman agonized over the decision to use America’s new destructive weapon for the first time. Military advisors predicted that it would take another year of armed conflict and that  tens of thousands of American soldiers would be killed before Japan could be brought to surrender. Plus, the top brass added, it would also produce a high number of Japanese civilian casualties. 

Truman hoped that the bombing of Hiroshima would end the war, but the Japanese were silent on what the future held. Truman decided to use the dreaded weapon again to shorten the war. On August 9, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The casualties and damage were less than the previous bombing as the population wasn’t as dense. Five days after the bomb fell on Nagasaki, the government of Japan surrendered through a document transmitted to neutral embassies. 

Lise Meitner, a Jewish physicist, gave birth to the atomic bomb. She was dismissed from her position at a German university by the Nazis in 1933, but continued on her research in Berlin. She was finalizing her discovery when she was exiled from Germany for being a Jewess. In 1939 her calculations led to the splitting of the atom. The 69-year-old Meitner published her findings and the United States won the nuclear race. 

President Truman announced the end of the war on radio on Tuesday night, August 14. Jewish Detroiters of all ages took to the streets and parades formed. A band played along on Dexter, adding to the celebration. Smaller crowds formed on Linwood and Twelfth Street as a Purim like atmosphere with noisemakers added to the din. Joyous Jews took to the buses on Dexter and Linwood and the streetcar on Twelfth to join the larger crowds downtown. All synagogues and temples in Detroit also held well-attended V-J services of rejoicing and thanksgiving. 

Jubilant soldiers returning to Detroit were met at the two downtown train stations by loved ones. After catching up on the news, they dreidled around the radio dial and heard the popular  tunes of 1945:  “April Showers,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over.” “I Love You for Sentimental Reasons,” “Let it Snow,” “Sentimental Journey,” and lingering hits of the previous year, “Don’t Fence Me In,” and “I’ll Walk Alone.” 

There was more celebrating for Detroit’s Jews. Hank Greenberg, who hit a home run during his first game back in July, hit his 13th homer on the last game of the season, sending the Tigers to the World Series.  He batted .311 in his shortened  season and .304 in the seven game World Series and his two Series homers helped the Tigers to victory.

And this time many of the returning soldiers were able to go downtown and celebrate Greenberg and the World Series victory with their loved ones. 

Irwin Cohen is a historian of Jewish Detroit and the Detroit Tigers and the author of Echoes of Detroit’s Jewish Communities: A History. 

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