Redux: Finding Peter Ganz

This first appeared in December 19, 2013.  I run it again now because I’ve been reading David C. Cassidy’s new book, Farm Hall and the German Atomic Project of World War II, subtitled, “A Dramatic History.”  Cassidy is an historian of physics, so the “history” part of the subtitle is not unexpected.  But he also wrote a play — the “dramatic” part — about a subject which for no good reason I’m obsessed with and which is explained below.  Cassidy’s dramatic history is a play followed by the nearly everything Cassidy knows about the subject, which is considerable:  so, a play with its historical context.  It’s an unusual and charming thing for an academic historian to do. The book isn’t making me any less obsessed.


About a month ago, I wrote a review of a play by David C. Cassidy about Farm Hall.  Farm Hall was the English country house in which the British government, just after World War II, sequestered the German nuclear scientists they’d kidnapped.  The scientists’ rooms were bugged, and their conversation was recorded and transcribed by listeners.  The result was a transcript which had fairly cried aloud to be turned into a play.  David Cassidy, among others, did.  I reviewed it and afterward, heard from Dr. Oliver Dearlove, pediatric anaesthetist (retired) who lives in the UK.

Peter GanzOliver:  Very interested to read your review in Nature about the Farm Hall play. I remember 2010, Adam Ganz did another play about Farm Hall on Radio 4.  In the e-book of the Farm Hall transcripts, one of the listeners was a Peter Ganz.  I suspect/wonder if he was Adam’s father.

Ann:  How very extremely interesting.  I’ve never heard of either one. With your permission, I’ll forward your question to David Cassidy, who not only wrote the play I reviewed, but is also an historian of physics who wrote a splendid introduction to one publication of the transcripts.

Oliver:  Thank you for your speedy reply, dear madam.  Please send to Cassidy the following version of  my question which I have tarted up in true scientific fashion.

Tarted-up official question was sent immediately to Cassidy.

David Cassidy:  Dr. Dearlove, I am the author of the play Ann Finkbeiner reviewed, and I thank you for the reference to the Radio 4 play.  Do you happen to know how I might locate Adam Ganz?

Oliver:  I am sorry for not replying sooner. Adam Ganz is to be found here.  His play is listed on the Radio 4 website but as far as I can discern it is unavailable for playback.  Do you think that A. Ganz is related as I suspect to P. Ganz?

David:  I’ll try to get in touch with A. Ganz.  It’s a shame that his play isn’t available.

A short interval occurs before emails resume.

Ann:  But you CAN, you can, you can get Ganz’s play.  My work has been going badly so I’ve clicked around on the internet.  And the Radio 4 link really is dead but there’s another secret one.  This is the best thing I’ve done all day.

Oliver:  We are having an excited Adam Ganz experience via the internet.

David:  A jolly good find, indeed!

Ann:  And here’s Peter Ganz!  Or rather, his obituary.

800px-JudensandAnd what a life Peter Ganz had.  He was born in Mainz, Germany to a Jewish family that became Lutheran.  But converting didn’t help the family during Kristallnacht and Peter’s grandfather, Adam’s great-grandfather, was killed at Auschwitz. Peter himself was sent to Buchenwald but some reason, was released.  He fled to England, went to university, and became a philologist at Oxford – specialty, medieval German; sub-specialty, Jacob Grimm.  But while he was still in college, he was put in an internment camp as an enemy alien, and a little later, was sent to Farm Hall as a listener. 

Oliver:  This is clearly the father even from the internal evidence in the play – one of the characters specifically mentions philology and Grimm.  The names of all the listeners seem to be on p. 275 of Helen Fry’s book, The M Room.  And there’s Peter Ganz, on the list.

Ann:  And on p. 166, here he is, being transferred to Farm Hall.  Amazing what you can do on Amazon with a Look-Inside.

Oliver: Yeah the American Look-Inside must be bigger better all round than the British one – all I got was an index.

David:  My goodness, you two have been busy.  This is quite a treasure trove.  As I told you, I wrote to Adam Ganz, and he’s just written back.

Adam Ganz:  Yes, Professor Cassidy, my father was one of the listeners at Farm Hall.  His supervisor at college was the language consultant to Enigma. He found the work extremely interesting but he spoke little about it.  I talked with him a little toward the end of his life.  Of the German scientists, he liked and respected Otto Hahn very much, he admired Max van Laue, he really didn’t like von Weizsacker.

David:  I don’t think anyone liked von Weizsacker.

Nevertheless, Adam Ganz’s play, Nuclear Reactions, is kind to von Weizsacker.  In fact, it’s kind to all the German scientists, to all these famous physicists who’d been trying and failing to build an atomic bomb for Nazi Germany.  They are heard clearly in the transcripts to be creating an alternate version of the truth — a  lie, in fact —  in which they hadn’t built the atomic bomb because they wanted to work on a reactor for generating energy in peacetime.

At the end of the transcripts, they were released from Farm Hall and allowed to return to their jobs and universities. But the transcripts are reality and reality is of course messy – no single right interpretation,  no one clear storyline, no moral, none of the meaning that a playwright imposes.

Adam’s take on the incoherent transcripts is that the Germans were allowed their lie; that the Britain in its own interests sent them back to Göttingen to help post-war Germany rebuild its science and industry; that perhaps Germany needed “normal Germans who wouldn’t build the bomb,” the play says. “Germany doesn’t need any more criminals, it needs heroes.”

And it’s true that many of them, von Weizsaecker included, later signed the Göttingen Declaration, warning against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and promising that “none of the undersigned are prepared to participate in the creation, testing or deployment of any type of nuclear weapon.”    


The email conversation moved on to other subjects but I was still interested in Adam’s kindness to the would-be bomb builders.

At one time, Adam went back to Mainz and visited the cemetery where the Ganz family was buried.  The cemetery wasn’t old; each Mainz family had bought plots with its dynasty in mind, so the headstones had a name or two at the top and space left for the names of the coming generations.  But it was a German Jewish cemetery, and the Jews fled or were killed.  So the headstones are still blank.

Adam wrote an essay, “On Speaking and Silence and the Refusal of Historical Accuracy.”  It was about the cemetery, and about finding documents his great-grandfather had left behind before Auschwitz, and about trying to piece together his family history; and then about wondering what to do once he’d exhausted the documents, once he’d exhausted history.  Fiction, he wrote, “can help us to recreate the grandparents we needed and tell the terrible story of their eradication, and how through us, something somehow floated to safety. Like writers before us, we can simply make it up.”

So Adam made the play’s narrator a German philologist with a fondness for Grimm’s fairy tales — someone who could sound very much like Peter Ganz.  At the play’s end, with the nuclear scientists all back in the directorships of their scientific institutes, Adam’s narrator says that Grimm collected many stories: some like Hansel and Gretel we remember; and some like The Jew Amongst Thorns, we pretend to forget.   “We pretended they were heroes,” the narrator says, “and sent them back to Göttingen, and you know the most amazing thing? That’s what they turned into.”


In his play, Adam tells one of the Grimm fairy tales, The Shroud.  A mother has a little boy whom she loves dearly.  But the little boy gets sick, and dies.  And mother weeps and never stops weeping.  One night the boy comes to her in the little white shroud in which he was laid in his coffin, and asks her to stop crying because his shroud is wet with all her tears and it won’t dry.  So the mother stopped crying.

“And the next night the boy came again, holding a little light in his hands and said Look, Mother, my shroud is nearly dry and I can rest in my grave.  The mother gave her sorrow to God’s keeping and bore it quietly and the child came no more and slept in his little bed beneath the earth.”


Note on historical accuracy:  the facts here are right; but the conversations are partly a reconstruction – a lie – from actual emails, organized and edited so that they make sense as a story.   It’s a process related to what Adam Ganz was doing, but not the same thing at all.


Adam Ganz has written two other, related plays, Listening to the Generals, about a similar British bugging of a country house, this one full of German generals; and the Gestapo Minutes, about Mainz during the war.


Photo of Peter Ganz through the kindness and courtesy of Adam Ganz.  Photo of the old (not the new) Jewish cemetery at Mainz by Ralf Mauer, via Wikimedia

Redux: I Did It Dad! I LOVE This!

This post first ran on February 9, 2015, but the message is as relevant as ever.401TrailSept
I’d been pondering the consequences of modern self-chronicling when Facebook sent me its rendering of my life in 2014. If Facebook’s Year End Review is any indication, my life boils down to this: adorable dogs, skiing, trail running and mountain biking. Lots of mountain biking. Continue reading

The Last Word

November 27 – December 1, 2017

Michelle, hoping to inoculate her daughter and everybody else’s daughter against rampant and pervasive patriarchy, compiles a girl-centric list of bedtime reading.  After all, the holidays loom, presents will be given.

Erik kills plants.  He doesn’t mean to, though to be honest he doesn’t love them all that much.  But he just kills them and their desiccated bodies decorate his house.  He finds his relationship with plants dispiriting.

Cassie gets in touch with her friend in Puerto Rico to see how to actually do this, live like the third world in America:  “Diaz’s generator also keeps the chest freezer cold. She lined the bottom with water bottles. At night, they freeze. During the day, when she turns the generator off, the frozen bottles keep her other groceries cool. Diaz doesn’t know how much longer she will be without electricity.”

Remeber that speceship-shaped thing that whammed through our solar system and out the other side, so fast even the sun couldn’t catch it?  Becky thinks about the line between science and science fiction: “’Our observations are entirely consistent with it being a natural object,’ Meech said. Phew. Or bummer.”

Like anyone who’s ever sat and watched an animal, Craig balances his sense of their muscular grace and utter strangeness with his itch to mess with them.  Only this time it’s a mountain lion.



Like You’re Not Even There


Last Sunday I saw a mountain lion, a full body profile, spotted from a dirt road. Healthy size and age, tail like a rope. By the time we backed up the truck, it was gone, disappeared into a brambly ponderosa forest. I don’t know why, to find tracks, or a scent, I jumped out and hurried to the spot where the cat had been. From there, I could see it sauntering into the woods, tail swaying, not noticing I’d pranced up 50 feet behind it.

That would have been the moment to stop. The Monday morning quarterback in me says move to your haunches and watch. Stay still. You may never see a mountain lion walking with such candidness, shoulder blades rising and falling with every soft step. Too understand the life of an animal, it’s best to see it without it seeing you.

Instead of staying put, I signaled to the driver that I was following the cat.

I’ve done this before, not with the cat, but with greed. I’ve wanted more than I should, pushed the bubble that much farther. I didn’t have a gun, or really a plan. I wasn’t a hunter. But I didn’t want the mountain lion to be gone so quickly. Continue reading

Meeting With ‘Oumuamua


Observations from ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and other observatories around the world show that this unique object was traveling through space for millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system. It appears to be a dark, reddish, highly-elongated rocky or high-metal-content object.
European Southern Observatory, Nov. 20, 2017 

Science fiction, at its best, interrogates not just the possible future but also the present. While playing with things like time travel or aliens or teleportation, the genre makes us consider our experience of time and mortality, reckon with our identities and our treatment of others, and contemplate the lasting impacts of our actions. The carefully constructed worlds of science fiction and fantasy can be used as magnifying glasses, or as looking glasses. They amplify and distort our world; in pretending, we can see reality differently, challenging our presumptions or maybe catching something unseen or misunderstood.

Sometimes the refracted reality is obvious. For instance, scholars have long recognized a correlation between waves of alien-invasion fiction and waves of immigration. Sometimes it is less obvious, at least in the moment. You might think you are reading a simple piece of fiction, and chuckle at its outmoded references and anachronisms, until you realize its prescience, and understand you are actually reading something preparatory. Just as children’s imaginative play serves as a form of social practice, science fiction can serve as a test bed for possible realities. Really, what would we do with humans who possess unexplained mutations or abilities? What would we do if aliens showed up? Continue reading

Powerless: A Puerto Rico Update

A couple of months ago, I wrote about a woman in Puerto Rico who posted a picture of her chicken soup in a Facebook group for lovers of a kitchen gadget called the Instant Pot. We’ve heard a lot of news about the devastation and sluggish pace of recovery in Puerto Rico, but I wanted news of one particular Puerto Rican. So yesterday I called her to get an update.

Monica Diaz and her two children sleep in one room, the only room in the house with a crack-free ceiling. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20th, it split Diaz’s roof. “The roof literally broke in four pieces,” she says. So whenever it rains, the house floods.

Diaz’s home has been without power for nearly three months. The lights went out during Hurricane Irma. That storm brushed past the island rather than broadsiding it, but the winds were still strong enough to knock out power to more than a million residents. At night, Diaz runs a generator, which powers an air conditioner. Sleeping without it would be impossible. The heat is oppressive, and the AC helps muffle the drone of her neighbors’ generators. Diaz’s generator also keeps the chest freezer cold. She lined the bottom with water bottles. At night, they freeze. During the day, when she turns the generator off, the frozen bottles keep her other groceries cool. Continue reading

A Plant’s Nightmare

There is a semi-annual ceremony in the Vance house. At some point – perhaps after a sudden trip to the nursery or an impulse stop at a roadside garden – I bring in a bunch of new plants to the house. Then I remove the carcasses of the ones who have not survived the twisted Hunger Games that is our back patio.

And as I walk in with these organisms whose only job is to “add a little green to the house,” I can swear that I feel a shudder go through them when they cross the threshold. As if they can sense it. They are entering a place of death.

I’m bad with plants. I mean, I’m really bad with plants. I even killed an aloe once, which was billed as an unkillable plant when I bought it. If “brown thumb” was a thing (as oppose to something that sounds like a fraternity dare) I would have one.

To make matters worse, I have a cat that actively tries to destroy every plant that dares invade his space. He once spent three months carefully chewing down the spines on one side of a cactus plant just for the thrill of knocking it over.

Continue reading

Redux: Good Night, Patriarchy

Since I wrote this post a few months ago, the beloved books mentioned here have been joined on our shelves by Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2 (the brand-new and very worthy sequel to Rebel Girls, described below) and Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. Now, after this year of extraordinary collective activism by women throughout the U.S. and beyond, I’m hoping to find a book that not only celebrates individual rebel girls, but also emphasizes what they can accomplish together.

PS. Both Girl Bilbo and I heartily recommend the titles in this post as holiday gifts for the girls and boys in your life. Happy Cyber Monday.

I am a feminist, and I’ve raised my daughter to be a feminist. But lately, I’ve been administering feminism like it’s a damn inoculation. (The shot is metaphorical. The disease is not.)

One of my favorite prophylactics against the patriarchy—suitable for girls and boys alike—is the feminist bedtime story, and happily, the selection is expanding quickly. My eight-year-old and I have read and reread several collections of women-centered folk and fairy tales from around the world—including Tatterhood, The Serpent Slayer, and Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters—and we’ve put women in the lead of many classic stories by genderswapping their central characters. Recently, we’ve added three excellent books to our nightstand stack: Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Bad Girls Throughout History, and Rad American Women A-Z all use short, accessible biographies and cool art to introduce kids (and the rest of us) to powerful, creative, famous, and not-so-famous women from the past and present. Continue reading