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Whit Benjamin's War  


Whit Benjamin is the teenage son of Isaac Benjamin, a professor of American history at the University of Chicago. Isaac's father died in the Great War, which moves him to become a conscientious objector when World War II breaks out. Helen, Whit's mother, is appalled by her husband's refusal to fight the Nazis, not least because the Benjamins are Jewish. Whit is torn by his parents' conflict, and further confused by how exciting he finds the war, despite the growing number of gold stars hanging in neighborhood windows.

Whit has an impromptu tennis lesson from a newcomer to the faculty club courts, a man with a thick Italian accent whom Whit overhears using the word cheepeuno when talking with his doubles partner. No one Whit asks–not his parents, his Latin teacher at Hyde Park High, the Italian hot dog vendor outside the school–seems to know what cheepeuno means. Eventually, Whit learns that his genial tennis instructor is the Nobel laureate physicist Enrico Fermi, who, in 1938, fled Mussolini's Italy for asylum in the United States with his wife (a Jew) and their two young children.

Hersh, who operates the corner newspaper kiosk near the Benjamins, befriends Whit. Hersh has the bearded countenance of an Old Testament prophet and lives in a distressed, two-room basement apartment where a short-wave radio and a yellowing archive of Yiddish and other foreign-language periodicals seem to provide him magical access to the anti-Semitic horrors of Hitler's Nazi regime–details that rarely get prominent, if any, coverage in the dailies Hersh sells on his newsstand. When Hersh tells Whit he thinks a German spy may be at work in the neighborhood, the boy's fascination with the war only grows. Whit soon comes to suspect that the spy is working under cover as an apprentice at a bakery near the campus run by a Jewish refugee couple from Hamburg. 

Rumors hold that Fermi's arrival at the University of Chicago has something to do with the war. Hersh is certain it does, and infects Whit with the belief. Belief becomes fact after the Benjamins' next-door neighbor, a drama critic at the city's Daily Times, reveals to Helen that he is a homosexual, and that the spy has threatened to expose him if he doesn't use his journalistic clout to find out what Fermi is up to.  

Fermi is building a primitive nuclear reactor under the stands of the university's Stagg Field. High school boys, sworn to secrecy, are employed to lift the thousands of heavy graphite bricks needed for the reactor, called Chicago Pile No. 1, or CP-1 (cheepeuno). Whit joins the team, after Hersh's nephew, a burly high school football star, intercedes on his behalf. The work goes on around the clock, Fermi and colleagues deeply concerned that German scientists may well be ahead of them. On December 2, 1942, CP-1, under Fermi's careful guidance, achieves the world's first controlled nuclear chain reaction. The event is closed to Whit and the other now extraneous Lifters.


Fermi's historic breakthrough is the fulcrum of a narrative that also touches on Mussolini's growing anti-Semitism and the Fermi family's flight from persecution; the Stockholm ceremony where Enrico received the 1938 Nobel Prize for physics, while en route with Laura and their two children to 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 the Benjamin family, and Whit's struggle to deal with his parents' conflicting view of the war.

The epilogue is set in the summer of 1945. Germany has surrendered. Isaac and Whit exchange letters: father from an internment camp in the California desert, where his CO assignment is to teach democracy to the "relocated" Japanese-Americans; son from Chicago, where, now nearing eighteen, he is scheduled to play in the first round of the Windy City Juniors Tennis Tournament, on August 6, the day the United States explodes the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.