HANNAH’S WAR Review – Re-imagining the race to build the atom bomb

First Atom Bomb explosion at Bikini
Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

I was interested in exploring HANNAH’S WAR, the debut novel by award-winning screenwriter and film director Jan Eliasberg.  I had a friend who was part of the Manhattan Project and moved with his family to Los Alamos to work on the development of the Atomic bomb. And, although the book briefly sweeps by family life at Los Alamos, it is Hannah’s story, really the fictionalized version of a remarkable woman, Jewish-Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, who was the inspiration for the book.

HANNAH’S WAR, book cover

Eliasberg’s re-imagining of the race to build the atomic bomb brings cinematic scope, believable imagery, pitch-perfect dialogue, and rich, complex characters to a compelling story full of unexpected plot twists, set against the high-stakes historical backdrop of World War II.  This was the kind of book that pulled me in to the point of delaying the final pages of the book, not wanting to leave the story and characters.

While doing research at the New York Public Library, Eliasberg read the issue of the New York Times released on the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and was startled by one seemingly innocuous paragraph: “The key component that allowed the Allies to develop the bomb was brought to the Allies by a ‘female, non-Aryan physicist.’ ” Who was this woman? What is her story? And why isn’t her face staring out of every science textbook?

Based on the life and genius of Jewish-Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, HANNAH’S WAR is Eliasberg’s nuanced answer to those and other important questions about scientific discovery, patriotism, morality, love, and loyalty. In giving voice to Dr. Meitner’s experiences, Eliasberg wanted to correct the historical record and to enable her own daughter and her peers to see that “history is filled with remarkable women of towering achievement and of deep humanism; we need only look beyond the authorized texts to see them. I wrote to shine a light on one of these women, and I hope HANNAH’S WAR will be a beacon for all women.”

Lise Meitner

There is a belief that Dr. Meitner influenced the world in two powerful way in that she impacted the development of the Atomic bomb and most probably, set Germany on a path that lead their scientists to a dead end in developing the bomb.

The novel fills in the gaps that the record does not reveal. In 1945, Dr. Hannah Weiss, an Austrian-Jewish physicist, is removed from her essential work with the Critical Assemblies Team at the Los Alamos National Laboratories and is taken for interrogation. Major Jack Delaney, a rising star in the shadowy world of military intelligence, is convinced that someone in the Top-Secret Manhattan Project is a spy; the captivating, brilliant and mysterious female scientist soon becomes his primary suspect. As World War Two reaches its crescendo, the Allies and the Germans are racing to complete and test the atomic bomb — a weapon powerful enough to end WWII and, perhaps, all future wars. A weapon that, in the wrong hands, could destroy the world. As Jack questions Hannah about her involvement with the infamous Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin ten years earlier, and her apparently friendly relationships with high-ranking members of the Nazi party, he slowly becomes seduced by her intelligence and quiet confidence. Is Hannah a Nazi spy, or is she protecting a far more personal and dark secret of her own?

When Jack finally uncovers the truth about her life in Berlin before the war, Hannah must compromise her political allegiance, and choose between two lovers, and two versions of history.

The book is a vivid, page-turning, and inspiring re-imagination of the final months of World War II, and the brilliant researchers behind the first atomic bomb, Hannah’s War is an unforgettable love story about an exceptional woman, and the dangerous power of her greatest discovery.

Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner

About Dr. Lise Meitner, By Jan Eliasberg

One of the great luxuries of living in New York City is having access to the Public Library’s extraordinary microfilm collection; it was there that I read the issue of the New York Times on the day the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In the Times’ summary of the complex and secret history of the Manhattan Project, one paragraph leapt off the page: “The key component that allowed the Allies to develop the bomb was brought to the Allies by a “female, non-Aryan physicist.’” Who was this woman? And why isn’t her face staring out of every science textbook?

I knew I had to tell her story. So began a ten-year quest that took me deeply into the history of the atomic bomb, and the physics that propelled it. My mystery woman was Dr. Lise Meitner, an Austrian female scientist, a Jew, working at the highest levels of research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. I tore through her diaries and letters and discovered that she and her partner, Otto Hahn, were on the verge of splitting the atom when Austria was annexed. Meitner’s privileged position, and all the protections her colleagues had promised, evaporated within six terrifying hours, as she fled Berlin within minutes of being captured and sent to the camps.

Otto Hahn, who remained in Berlin, was so dependent on Meitner that he continued to collaborate with her, even after she’d fled to Sweden. He sent her the results of their experiments on postcards via courier. It was Meitner, not Hahn, who analyzed the results and discovered that they had split the atom. Because she was Jewish, the papers published in Germany did not have her name on them; if they had borne her name they would immediately have been discredited as “Jewish Physics.” It wasn’t surprising to find that rabid Anti-Semitism in Germany had prevented Meitner from getting the credit she had earned.

It was surprising (although, in light of what we now know about scientists like Rosalind Franklin, perhaps it shouldn’t have been) to discover that sexism also accounted for Meitner’s erasure from history. After the war, when Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission, he conveniently left the record uncorrected, robbing Meitner of the Nobel Prize she rightfully deserved. Hahn rationalized her exclusion and others, including a misogynist Nobel committee, buried her role ever deeper. The Nobel “mistake” was never acknowledged, much less rectified. What I found as remarkable as Meitner’s genius was the strength of her moral compass. She cared little about ego and credit; she pursued her passion for physics because she loved nothing better, and because she understood that she had a gift she couldn’t squander. She was, in fact, quite ambivalent about her role in the scientific breakthrough that lead to the atomic bomb, as her own words reveal: “Those blessed with a brilliant mind and a gift for science have a higher duty that comes before discovery, a duty to humanity. Science can be used for good or evil; so, it’s incumbent upon scientists to ensure that their work makes the world a better place.”

Jan Eliasberg

I wrote HANNAH’S WAR in part to show my daughter and her peers that history is filled with remarkable women of towering achievement and of deep humanism; we need only look beyond the authorized texts to see them. I wrote to shine a light on one of these women, and I hope HANNAH’S WAR will be a beacon for all women, in my daughter’s generation and beyond, to live not only with authenticity and pride, but also with the support and acknowledgement of the wider world.


Painting of Lise Meitner by Zsuzsa Zsvath, used with permission from the artist

While HANNAH’S WAR is set at a time when the world changed, we have the opportunity of reading it during the time of Covid-19, another world changing event.

In writing Hannah’s War, Jan Eliasberg wanted to remind the world that history is filled with remarkable women of towering achievement and of deep humanism; we need only look beyond the authorized texts to see them. By shining a light on one of these women, she hopes this story will be a beacon for all women to live not only with authenticity and pride, but also with the support and acknowledgement of the wider world.

Jan Eliasberg’s prolific career includes writing and directing dramatic pilots for CBS, NBC, and ABC. She was hand-picked by Michael Mann as the first woman to direct Miami Vice and Wiseguy; as well as countless episodes of TV series, including Thirteen Reasons Why, Bull, Nashville, Parenthood, The Magicians, Blue Bloods, NCIS: Los Angeles, Supernatural, and numerous others. Her debut feature film Past Midnight, starred Paul Giamatti, the late Natasha Richardson, and the late Rutger Hauer. Throughout her tenure as a celebrated screenwriter, Eliasberg has written films driven by strong female leads, including Fly Girls about the Women Air Service Pilots in World War II for Nicole Kidman and Cameron Diaz.

Eliasberg received her B.A. from Wesleyan University, Magna Cum Laude, and holds MFAs from the Yale School of Drama in Directing and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson in Fiction. A native New Yorker, Eliasberg currently lives in New York City.

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Photos are courtesy of HANNAH’S WAR unless otherwise noted.

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