Whit Benjamin's War
Whit Benjamin's War, Richard Pollak's second novel and latest work, is set in the shadow of the University of Chicago, where, in 1942, the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, oversaw the team of scientists that paved the way to the atomic bomb. This hyper-secret operation, which took place under the stands of the university's Stagg Field, is the fulcrum of the narrative. But the work also goes deeply into Mussolini's growing anti-Semitism and the Fermi family's flight from persecution (Enrico's wife, Laura, was Jewish); the Stockholm ceremony where Enrico received the 1938 Nobel Prize for physics, while en route with Laura and their two children to asylum in the United States; the massive, swastika-draped German-American Bund rally at Madison Square Garden just a few weeks after they landed in New York City; and, not least, the tension in a Jewish family, whose teenage son (Whit Benjamin) is torn between his pro-war mother and anti-war father. The latter, a professor of American history at the university, is a conscientious objector serving out the war teaching democracy to the "relocated" Japanese-Americans inside the barbed wire of a desert internment camp; Whit's mother sees Hitler and the Nazis as quintessentially evil and insists that America smash Germany (and Japan) with all the military power the nation can muster. Besides the secrecy surrounding Stagg Field, other mysteries thread through the narrative, e.g.: Is the close-mouthed German refugee who works in a neighborhood bakery a spy, and what is the meaning of cheepeuno, a word Whit overhears Fermi use repeatedly in conversation at the faculty club tennis courts? The novel, now pending publication, plays out on an international stage populated not only by Fermi, but by such other historic figures as F.D.R., Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Hitler, their actions dramatically interwoven with the homefront confusions and anxieties of Pollak's deftly drawn fictional cast.