Famed Danish physicist Niels Bohr was not a religious man. But his experiences during World War II highlight the fact that while some Jews might turn their backs on God’s role for their people, they cannot escape the biblical mandate.
By 1920, at the age of 35, Bohr was already recognized as one of the world’s foremost physicists. Two years later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his services in the investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them.” His model of the atom laid the groundwork for modern nuclear physics.
His mother came from a family of wealthy Jewish bankers and politicians, though there is no indication he received any kind of Jewish upbringing.
Even so, he was forced to take his heritage more seriously after the Nazi conquest of Denmark, which forced him to flee Sweden.
There, Bohr personally persuaded King Gustaf V to declare Sweden’s willingness to provide shelter to Jewish refugees. The king did so, and immediately Danish Christians went to work saving as many of their Jewish countrymen as possible by quietly boating them to Sweden.
Following that harrowing chapter in his life, Bohr was sent as part of the British delegation to the American-led Manhattan Project which aimed to build the world’s first atomic bomb. Project director Robert Oppenheimer credited him with solving a “stubborn puzzle” regarding modulated neutron initiators that was blocking progress.
Bohr strongly petitioned the US and Britain to prevent a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union after the war, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.
Bohr died of heart failure in 1962 at the age of 77. And while he will forever be most remembered for his major contributions to nuclear physics, the descendants of at least 7,000 Danish Jews will remember him for a far more personal reason.