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Recalling an unsung Winnipeg-born hero of the Manhattan Project: Louis Slotin

Introduction: The recent release of the movie, “Oppenheimer” has generated a renewed interest in the effort that led to the development of the atomic bomb: “The Manhattan Project.”
Readers of The Jewish Post & News are likely aware of the important role that a Winnipegger played in that project: Louis Slotin. In 1995, our own frequent contributor, Martin Zeilig, wrote a lengthy article about Slotin for the historical magazine, “The Beaver.” Later that year, the former editor of this paper, the late Matt Bellan, also wrote a piece about Louis Slotin’s life and immensely tragic death, in which Matt drew from Martin’s article, also from another essay that had been sent to this paper.
Here is Matt Bellan’s article about Louis Slotin, from the August 16, 1995 Jewish Post & News”
In the past few weeks, the media have presented a flood of stories tying in with the 50th anniversary of the explosion of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For Winnipeg Jews, it’s also timely to commemorate the passing of a member of this community involved in the development of the first American A-bombs.
Louis Slotin sacrificed his life to save colleagues in 1946, while doing further research on the A-bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Two essays that arrived at The Jewish Post & News this month shed light on Slotin’s heroics and his life. Bernice Faintuch of Skokie, Illinois sent in “Tickling the Dragon’s Tail: A True Story”, a chapter in a book titled Time Bomb: Understanding the Threat of Nuclear Power, by Browne and Munroe, published by William Morrow and Company.
And Beth Slotin Shore, a niece of Lou is Slotin ‘s, forwarded an essay by Martin Zeilig that appears in the August/September issue of The Beaver, titled “Dr. Louis Slotin and ‘The Invisible Killer’’’.
Born here in 1910 to Yiddish-speaking immigrants Israel and Sonia Slotin, Louis Slotin grew up in the North End, attended Machray School and St. John’s Tech, and showed his brilliance at an early age. He specialized in science at the University of Manitoba, winning the gold medal in science and physics. After receiving his Masters Degree at the U of M, Slotin went on to study at King’s College in London, England, on a fellowship, and received a doctorate in biochemistry from London University in 1936.
In 1937, he was appointed a nuclear research associate at the University of Chicago, and over the next few years, did extensive pioneering research into the effects of radiation on cancer.
Slotin was recruited to work for the U.S. government’s A-Bomb Program, the Manhattan Project, in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He arrived there in 1944, and soon became a master of the dangerous science of assembling the critical firing mechanism for the atomic bomb.
In 1946, Slotin continued doing research on the bomb, as part of the U.S.’s effort to maintain military superiority over the Soviet Union. “His responsibility was to determine how much enriched uranium had to go into the core of the bomb to make sure there was a chain reaction,” Israel Ludwig, Slotin’s nephew, told The Jewish Post & News last week. Ludwig, who’s visited the Los Alamos site, notes that enriched uranium was scarce at the time, and guesses part of Slotin’s job was to see how little could be used to make an effective bomb.
In an experiment that year. the 34-year-old researcher was moving two hemispheres filled with plutonium together, a micro-inch at a time, to see how close he could move them to cause a chain reaction. A screwdriver he was holding to keep the hemispheres from touching accidentally slipped, and a chain reaction started, filling the room with deadly radiation.
Slotin quickly pried the hemispheres apart to stop the reaction. “He did more than pull the spheres apart,” adds Ludwig, who talked to a scientific witness to the event. “He threw himself on the experiment.”
Over the next nine days, the young Winnipegger died an agonizingly painful death from radiation sickness. Nearly 3,000 people showed up at his family’s Scotia Street home for the funeral, and heard Rabbi Louis S. Frank describe Slotin as “one of the most brilliant scholars ever to come out of this city,” Zeilig writes.
He was buried at Shaarey Zedek Cemetery, notes Beth Shore. Last year, at the initiative of Jewish Winnipegger Lawrence Lavitt, the city created a new park in Slotin’s name at Polson Avenue and Scotia Street, about half a block from his Scotia Street home.
Slotin’s tragic death was even more galling because he was planning to leave nuclear weapons research, and do further work on using radiation to kill cancer cells. How bitterly ironic it is that he died from an overdose of radiation, instead.

Features

A Backwards Family Tree

author Janice Weizman/cover of "Our Little Histories"

By ILANA KURSHAN
The following review first appeared in the February 15, 2024 issue of Lilith Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
What does Jennifer Greenberg-Wu, an American-Jewish museum curator working on a reality show in rural Belarus, have to do with Raizel Shulman, a Russian mother desperate to save her triplet sons from being drafted into the czar’s army? The answer spans three continents and nearly two centuries, and it is the spellbinding tale that Janice Weizman weaves in Our Little Histories (Toby Press, $17.95), a novel that unfolds back-wards to tell the story of a family’s history one generation at a time.
Each of the book’s seven chapters focuses on another branch of the family tree that connects Jennifer back to Raizel. We witness the encounter between Jennifer’s mother Nancy Wexler, a young feminist hippie from Chicago, and her distant cousin Yardena, 25 years old and happily pregnant in Tel Aviv in 1968. In the next chapter we meet Yardena’s mother, Tamar, who, while smuggling guns for the Haga- nah, engages in a fateful act of betrayal with a visitor to her home on Kibbutz Hadar, where she has made her home ever since her parents sent her off on a train from Minsk in 1927. In the next chapter we meet Tamar’s distant cousin, Gabriel Schulman, a literature teacher in Vilna, who is attacked in a dark alley in Tamar’s impassioned letters pleading with him to come to Palestine before the situation in Europe gets worse for the Jews. “To be a Jew in Vilna, or Poland, or perhaps anywhere, is to find courage where you thought you had none, to feel it flowing through your veins like blood,” Gabriel thinks in the seconds before he is attacked.
Set one year earlier but thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, the following chapter focuses on a third branch of the family—not those who stayed in Europe or settled in Palestine, but those like Nat Wexler, a first-generation American journalist in Chicago who is also Tamar and Gabriel’s cousin. Nat understands Yiddish but cannot speak it, and prides himself in his assimilation into American culture; he dreads bringing his fashionable, light-hearted Jewish-American girlfriend to the Yiddish theater with his mother, who is eager to meet her. The penultimate chapter takes us back forty years earlier to turn-of-the-century Belarus, where Gabriel’s father Yoyna is sent on a mission by his own father to reunite with his father’s two brothers; all three brothers were separated at a young age. In the book’s compelling, heart-wrenching final chapter, we meet three triplet boys, one of whom is Yoyna’s father, and we learn the reasons for their tragic separation by their mother Raizel in the shtetl in 1850, where “every year, right around the short dark days leading up to Hanukkah, the boys of Propoisk become scarce…gone for weeks or even months at a time.”
Like A .B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, which follows a Sephardi family back in time, Our Little Histories is a book that demands re-rereading, backwards, from the last chapter back to the first. Connecting threads link one generation to another, and serve as leitmotifs through out the book, like the poem in three stanzas that Raizel Schulman pens just before she parts from two of her triplets so as to spare them from the czar’s army; each son receives one stanza, and the poem is published in a 1914 Yiddish anthology which Yoyna gives to Gabriel, who mails it to Tamar, who donates the slim booklet to the Yiddish library in Tel Aviv, where Yardena and Nancy find it; Nancy will give that booklet to Jennifer to take with her to Belarus for her reality show. When Jennifer’s mother hands her that booklet, she is convinced she has seen it before, and her deja-vu mirrors that of the reader, who will encounter and re-encounter the anthology, and Raizel’s poem, in each of the book’s seven chapters.
Our Little Histories is masterfully constructed, such that the book’s final chapter is both inevitable—it couldn’t possibly have been any other way—and yet impossible to predict. The three branches of Raizel’s family, who make their homes in Europe, Israel, and America, offer us an intimate window into aspects of Ashke- nazi Jewish history—pogroms and Zionism, yeshiva culture and the assimilation, the kibbutz and the shtetl. We have all tragically witnessed how the legacy of persecution has reverberated even in the Jew- ish homeland, a reminder of the unbear- able sacrifices and the acts of raw courage that continue to forge us as a people.

Our Little Histories is available in paperback and kindle on Amazon.

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Features

Chuck & Carol Faiman – a “Fien” team

Carol & Chuck Faiman

By GERRY POSNER Take two Jewish kids – a boy and a girl from the north end of Winnipeg, have them grow up in the 1950s, and you would probably be well familiar with their following the well-worn path of marriage, raising a family, professional success, and a continued connection with Manitoba. That pattern would well describe Charles or, as he is better known – Chuck, and Carol Faiman.

Carol was a Fien, daughter of Sophie and Harry Fien. Chuck was the son of Bessie and Max Faiman. Carol was a graduate of places well known to Winnipeggers, as in Champlain and Luxton Schools, St. John’s High School and the University of Manitoba, where she received a B.A. Later, she did post-graduate work in vocational rehabilitation counselling. As well, Carol has a well-known passion for art, stemming in no small part from classes she took in art history at the University of Winnipeg and later at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Chuck’s parents, Max and Bessie Faiman, were part of a core group who founded the Talmud Torah Hebrew Day School, which Chuck attended. He was also a student at Machray School and, like so many other north enders, St. John’s High School. Hard though it may be to believe, he graduated high school at 15. By 22, he already had an M.D. degree.

He trained in endocrinology at the University of Manitoba Medical School, the University of Illinois, and later at the Mayo Clinic. Returning to Winnipeg in 1968, Chuck Faiman’s career took off as he became a Professor of Medicine and Physiology and later the head of the Endocrinology Laboratory. During his tenure at the hospital, one year Chuck took a sabbatical leave with his family at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel.

In 1992, Chuck Faiman accepted an offer to become Chairman of the Department of Endocrinology at the Cleveland Clinic. At that time, all the family knew about Cleveland was that it was in Ohio and that they had a baseball team there. Five years later, the Faimans became US citizens and, to this day, hold dual citizenship. During the time when Chuck was growing the department, he had the opportunity to look after heads of state, crown princes and the Sheikh of the United Arab Emirates, where he also provided medical consultations and teaching. (It occurs to me that given Chuck’s connection, maybe he can persuade the Sheikh or his colleagues to consider taking into The United Arab Emirates some of the people floundering in Gaza.)

Chuck was an active player in his field, and is still involved in teaching and as a consultant in the department. He was honoured to receive an award as a Master of the American College of Endocrinology.
Carol also had careers, both in Winnipeg and in Cleveland. In Winnipeg, she worked as a vocational rehabilitation counsellor and ergonomist for the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities. She did not miss a beat when she moved to Cleveland, where she worked in physical therapy at the Cleveland Clinic with patients suffering from occupational injuries. She is now retired.

Now, not be overlooked is that the Faimans are a team. They just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in June 2023. They have three sons, all of whom were raised in Winnipeg: Barton, an MBA graduate of the Asper School of Business and his wife Michelle are still residents of Winnipeg. Gregg, a graduate of the University of Manitoba Medical School, trained with his father in endocrinology at the Cleveland Clinic – sort of a medical version of Gordie and Mark Howe and Bobby and Brett Hull in the hockey world. He and his wife Karrie have three children. Matthew, another U of M Medical School graduate, trained at the Cleveland Clinic in Internal Medicine. He and his wife Beth have one son. All the Faimans remain staunch Blue Bomber and Jets fans.

The Faimans were, and are still, very active in their community, both in their synagogue and other areas. For those readers who can go back that far, Chuck Faiman was largely involved in the amalgamation of the Talmud Torah and the Peretz Schools, not to overlook his term as president of Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate. That active participation continued in Cleveland with the Cleveland Federation.
Carol served on the Board of Rosh Pina Synagogue, as it was then known, and then in Cleveland as a board member at Park Synagogue. Moreover, Carol initiated a programme, which she ran for 14 years, for the National Council of Jewish Women at the Cleveland Museum of Art. For over 15 years the Faimans have also been regular attendees at courses offered by the Siegal College of Jewish Studies, a division of Case Western University.

What also keeps the Faimans very happy is the renewal of their Winnipeg roots each year when they return to the family cottage at West Hawk Lake. There is also a Winnipeg reunion of a different sort each winter in Florida. Likely what sets the Faimans apart from many other people who have moved away is that, although they do maintain strong connections to their history and friends back in Winnipeg, they have integrated well into the Cleveland community, even at an older age when they moved there.

So, for anyone who knows them, the recognition and success the Faimans have earned is well deserved.

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Features

Debut novel from Montreal’s Ben Gonshar follows in the mould of Phillip Roth

Ben Gonshor/cover of The Book of Izzy

Ben Gonshor is an award-winning writer, actor, musician and entrepreneur. His play, “When Blood Ran Red,” won the David and Clare Rosen Memorial International Play Contest at the National Yiddish Theatre in New York. 
Now, with his debut novel, The Book of Izzy, Gonshor follows the likes of Phillip Roth in how The Book of Izzy is a captivating modern take on Jewish cultural touchstones and heritage.
“The Book of Izzy is a story about a man trying to find his own place between two worlds as he reckons with letting go of his painful past to focus on creating a fulfilling present. In the process, Izzy embarks on a fanciful, romantic voyage that not only forces him to come to terms with his Jewish identity, but to also confront the mystifying bird that holds the key to preserving the past and ensuring the survival of his heritage.
“Izzy is a writer who’s found himself in a series of downward spirals; between his recently failed love life, his faltering career as both a wedding planner and a novelist, and an ever-looming mental breakdown, he’s at his wit’s end. 
“Filled to the brim with wit, candid discussions about navigating life with a mental illness, and an engaging cast of characters, The Book of Izzy is a captivating modern take on Jewish cultural touchstones and heritage.”


Following is an excerpt from The Book of Izzy:
“Hi, I’m Sue-Ann,” the twenty-something waitress said to me, extending a hand forthrightly and with the other lifted a shot glass, clinked it with Luba’s and downed it with a “L’khaim” that made you pay attention.
“Doubtful,” I thought to myself and immediately began calculating that the combination of brown bottle curls and olive skin combined with breasts and hips that curved in a way my bubbe would have approved of, didn’t add up to Sue-Ann. Then again, the piercing blue eyes and nose that would have survived a Gestapo roundup, suggested I could have been dead wrong.
I wasn’t.
“Sue-Ann, shmuann!” Luba admonished her, then looked to me while pouring herself another shot. “Her name’s Soreh,” she said while pointing insistently to her new friend then drank, ripped a piece of bread from the loaf and tossed it in her mouth and proceeded to introduce me.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that?” Sue-Ann said re Luba’s unintelligible attempt to say my name in mid-chew.
“I’m Isaiah,” I introduced myself. “Friends call me Izzy.”
“Itzikl,” Luba offered with a giggle.
“ALubable!” Sue Ann said in that patronizing way common among dog-lovers when inquiring about a breed they’ve never seen around the run. “And so Jewish…I like that,” she purred then knowingly struck a pose that emphasized her personalities, while simultaneously resting her right palm on the flesh of its adjoining hip that now introduced itself into the conversation, teasing a hint of color that I imagined made for something interesting further below. She then capped it off with a smile that revealed two perfectly formed dimples on either side, the kind so charming as to inspire a Rumshinksy tune.
“You didn’t drink your shot,” she reproached me playfully, pointing at the offending glass on the table that I knew better than to touch. “How about a beer?” she suggested with pride, “we brew in house.”
“Sure,” I answered, still somewhat sensory overloaded. “But nothing too hoppy, I’m not into drinking flowers.”
“Double IPA coming right up!” she said, clocking my narishkeit then brushed her hand expertly on my shoulder as she turned to leave. “You’re right, he’s cute,” she said to Luba, then winked in my direction before heading off toward the bar.
“Let me guess,” I began to ask Luba, who looked at me with a Cheshire grin on her face that told me everything I needed to know: “She’s Leah,” I said, referencing the lead female character in The Dybbuk.
Her giggle this time was more of an outburst of joy, as she clapped her hands near to her face and rocked back and forth happily, like another bet she made was about to pay off.
“Where’d you find her?” I asked, gazing in the direction of the bar where Sue-Ann and her pals were huddled and looking right back at us.
“I didn’t, she found me,” Luba answered and waved in their direction. “I like her. We’ve been spending a lot of time together.”
“Clearly,” I said and returned my attention back to the table. “She’s an actress?”
“Nope.”
“So why is she playing Leah?” I asked somewhat incredulously. Mind you, not that that it was any of my business but, knowing full well the chops required for the part, it seemed a fair question.
“She read for me, she feels the character deeply.”
“She speaks Yiddish?”
“Nope,” Luba answered again, with not an iota of concern in her voice.
“I don’t get it,” I said and continued, dumfounded: “You want me to play opposite someone who doesn’t speak Yiddish and on top of that you don’t even know if she can act?”
“I don’t know if she can act?!” she guffawed, repeating my question back to me aloud as if to make me hear how dumb it sounded. “What she just did naturally in that moment,” she continued, now more earnestly while gesturing with her finger in a circular motion as if to summarize a scene that had just played out at the table, “is more than some actors learn to do with a lifetime of training.”
“What do you mean?”
She didn’t answer, but cocked her head to the side instead and threw me a look like, again, I should have thought before I spoke.
“What?!” I said incredulously and could feel my cheeks starting to flush.
“She had you mesmerized,” she answered with a smile then drank another shot and tossed a piece of bread in her mouth.
“No she didn’t,” I lied.
Luba said nothing as Sue-Ann had now returned with my beer, a basket of gluten free tortilla chips and an assortment of cheeses, each of which she proceeded to describe as an award winning artisanal creation sourced from her friends at farms nearby, without specifying whether the pals she was referring to were the farmers or their animals cuz these days, you know, it could go either way. Regardless, as she side-straddled a chair that she’d pulled in from a nearby table and invited us to dig in, I thought better than to comment on the fact that without a quality goat on the cutting board, which admittedly was artfully presented along with an assortment of dried fruit and a delightfully sweet onion tartinade, what she put on the table was a whole lot of lactose intolerance.

The Book of Izzy

By Ben Gonshor

AOS Publishing

Publication date: May 2024

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