This Day in Jewish History / Physicist Who Wrote Movingly About Evading the Nazis Is Born

Abraham Pais was the last Jew to do his PhD in the Netherlands before the Nazi deportations began, and won a reprieve from death due to his genius.

David Green
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The University of Utrecht, where Pais studied for his PhD during World War II.Credit: University of Utrecht / Wikimedia Commons
David Green

May 19, 1918, is the birthdate of Abraham Pais, a theoretical physicist who had a second career as an author of scientific biographies. Among his works is a highly regarded memoir of his own life, in which he describes his experience in the Netherlands during the Holocaust, when he narrowly avoided death a number of times.

Abraham PaisCredit: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, Amsterdam/Wikimedia Commons

Pais was born in Amsterdam, the first of the two children of Isaiah Pais and the former Kaatje van Kleef. Isaiah was a descendant of an old Portuguese-Jewish family; Kaatje was the daughter of an Ashkenazi diamond cutter. The couple met while both were studying to become teachers. Kaatje gave up teaching once she and Isaiah married, in 1916, but he ended up becoming the principal of both a secular school and an Amsterdam Hebrew school.

By his own testimony, Bram, as he was known, had a happy childhood. He was involved in a Zionist youth group, although he lost his religious faith at an early age. That happened when he found himself alone in the family kitchen one Shabbat, at age 9, and he decided to light a forbidden match. He did so, and then braced himself for the punishment to follow. When it didn’t come, he concluded there was no God.

In thrall to radiation

Pais earned his first degrees, in physics and math, in 1938, at the University of Amsterdam. Although initially unsure of the direction he wanted to go, he had found himself spellbound by two lectures he heard from visiting physicist George Uhlenbeck on recent discoveries about radiation.

Pais wrote Uhlenbeck, saying he wanted to study with him, and in late 1938 he began working at the latter’s lab, at the University of Utrecht.

As Germany began its campaign to conquer Europe and rid it of Jews, Pais focused single-mindedly on completing first his master’s degree and then his doctorate. He took his exams for his master’s in April 1940, just days before the Netherlands was invaded, and he finished his work on his PhD on June 9, 1941, making him the last Jew to complete a doctorate there until after World War II.

Early in 1943, Pais went into hiding, as did his parents, helped by his non-Jewish girlfriend, Tina Strobos. (His sister, Annie, was arrested, and died in Sobibor.) Shortly before liberation, however, he and his three Jewish roommates were arrested, apparently after an old girlfriend of his gave them up.

Tina Strobos succeeded in getting Pais freed by going to the local Gestapo head and telling him her friend was a scientific genius. But Pais’ close friend, Lion Nordheim, was not spared, and was shot by the Germans just days before liberation.

Noticing the lepton

After serving as personal assistant to Niels Bohr for a year, Pais was offered a position at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, by J. Robert Oppenheimer, who at the time was still an influential voice on America’s nuclear policies. There, he worked on particle physics – Pais coined the term “lepton” to describe a family of subatomic particles – and was a friend and colleague of Einstein’s.

In 1963, he moved to the Rockefeller Institute, New York, where he was appointed head of theoretical physics.

Pais was highly respected by his professional colleagues, but the general public knows him best for his books on the history of contemporary physics. They can be quite technical, but are said to be some of the clearest works written on the monumental discoveries of the 20th century. They include “Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein” (1982), which won a National Book Award, and a book of essays about Einstein, “Einstein Lived Here” (1994). In 1991, he published “Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy and Polity,” also a biography, and his own memoir six years later, “A Tale of Two Continents: A Physicist’s Life in a Turbulent World.”

Pais’ biography of Oppenheimer remained incomplete at his death, but was finished by Robert P. Crease and published in 2006.

Abraham Pais died of a heart attack on July 28, 2000, while in Copenhagen, where he and his third wife, anthropologist Ida Nicolaisen, spent half of each year. He was 82.