Culture & Community

Dr. Henry Fenichel: On Survival, Science, and Fate

TAGS: community, leadership

The freckled eight-year-old boy smiles widely at the two men seated to his left and right. One pats the boy on the head and ruffles his red hair. The other, bald and goateed, looks into the boy’s eyes and places both hands on his arm. A few older children gather behind them, grinning and waiting their turn. But for now, it is “Gingi,” as the ginger-haired boy is called, who has captivated their attention…

The year was 1946 and the boy, Henry Fenichel, was living in Nahariya, a coastal town in the British Mandate of Palestine. Little did he know that the two men he met on the patio that day would become leaders in the creation of the State of Israel. One was Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the British chemist and prominent Zionist who would become Israel’s first President. The other was Meyer Weisgal, a founder of the American Committee and administrative director of the Daniel Sieff Institute, precursor to the Weizmann Institute of Science.

A Chance Encounter

Weizmann and Weisgal were passing through town while accompanying the United Nations Commission regarding the partition of Palestine. “They had stopped at a local casino, which was adjacent to the children’s home where I lived,” explained Fenichel, now 80.

 Four years earlier, he had gone into hiding in the Netherlands—the same year Anne Frank’s family lived behind a bookshelf in Amsterdam. His father was transported to Auschwitz, where he perished. Henry and his mother were eventually sent to Bergen-Belsen. By a miracle, they were liberated in 1944 and immigrated to Palestine through a prisoner exchange program. Separated by a social worker upon their arrival, Henry’s mother went to Tel Aviv, while he was sent to live in a childrens home in Nahariya.

Henry and his mother reunited a couple years later, when the War of Independence broke out and Nahariya was surrounded by enemy forces. But his chance meeting with Weizmann and Weisgal, captured in an extraordinary photograph, left an indelible mark.

Following in Weizmann’s Footsteps
HenryFenichel.jpg

Dr. Henry Fenichel

Dr. Weizmann remained a significant figure for Henry, not only because of his role in the creation of Israel, but also because Henry grew up to be a scientist. After joining his mother and stepfather in Tel Aviv, the family moved to New York in 1953. He attended Brooklyn College, where he met his wife, Diana. After earning his PhD in physics from Rutgers University, he spent the next 38 years on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati. He retired in 2003.

During his long, successful career as a physicist, Dr. Fenichel had the opportunity to spend a sabbatical year at the Weizmann Institute in 1990. 

“It was a delight to be there,” he said. “The Weizmann Institute is an oasis. The campus is an incredible place, both academically and visually.”

“The Weizmann Institute is an incredible place, both academically and visually.”

As fate would have it, he was reintroduced to a childhood friend who had also become a physicist: Prof. Haim Harari, who was then President of the Weizmann Institute.

“Haim’s grandmother was the principal of my school in Tel Aviv,” Dr. Fenichel recalled. “He said that I was the first child Holocaust survivor he had ever met.”

Making History

Dr. Fenichel returned to the Institute 13 years later, when he was asked to help conduct research for a book on Dr. Ernst David Bergmann. A German chemist and the son of a rabbi, Dr. Bergmann was fired from his Berlin university post in 1933, following the passage of a law that banned “non-Aryans” from government jobs. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Weizmann invited him to serve as scientific director of the Sieff Institute, then under construction in Rehovot. He remained Dr. Weizmann’s close protégé and a faculty member at the Institute until 1951. He died in 1975.

“In 2003, I had a colleague in chemistry named Milton Orchin, who was then in his 90s,” Dr. Fenichel explained. “He wondered why nobody had ever written a book about Bergmann, with whom he spent a sabbatical leave in 1947-48 at the Sieff Institute.”

Prof. Orchin had already asked William B. Jensen, a historian of chemistry, to help write Dr. Bergmann’s biography. However, he needed someone to review archival materials and conduct interviews in Israel.

“I jumped on the opportunity,” Dr. Fenichel said.

Over the next few years, Dr. Fenichel took regular trips to Israel, staying for a couple weeks each time. There, he interviewed prominent associates of Dr. Bergmann, including former Israeli Presidents Shimon Peres and Prof. Ephraim Katzir, who was also a Weizmann biophysicist.

In addition, he perused documents in the Weizmann House archives. During this time, he shared his own piece of history with Archive Director Merav Segal.

“One day, I brought her my photograph with Weizmann and Weisgal,” he said.

To his great surprise, Segal told him she had, in the archives, a better version of the photo taken in Nahariya almost 60 years earlier.

“And now I know who that kid is!” she added. 

An Odyssey through Time and Space

Today, the photo reminds Dr. Fenichel of the boy he once was—and what his family endured. At the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center (HHC) in Cincinnati, he shares his story with the public because he believes it needs to be told. “I hope people will learn from it,” he said. “We must ask ourselves, ‘What is it about us as humans that we must always hate somebody?’”

His passion for holocaust education led him, once again, to the Weizmann Institute. In 2006, HHC asked him to participate in a videoconference with Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Joachim “Yoya” Joseph, also a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, and Rona Ramon, widow of Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Famously, when Ramon boarded the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle in 2003, he took a tiny Torah scroll borrowed from Prof. Joseph, who had brought it out from the concentration camp where he’d secretly had his Bar Mitzvah. For the videoconference, Dr. Fenichel brought along his own identical Torah that had survived WWII.

Return  of the Torah - WI Jan. 2007.jpg

(L-R) Prof. Joachim Joseph, Rona Ramon, Steve MacLean, and Dr. Henry Fenichel at the "Return of the Torah" ceremony at the Weizmann Institute.

“When Rona saw me holding my Torah, she immediately asked if I would allow it to go into space,” he said. Dr. Fenichel agreed, and Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean, Ramon’s close friend, took the scroll with him on the Atlantis flight. MacLean returned it at a special ceremony held at the Weizmann Institute, because of Dr. Fenichel’s strong connection to the campus. His old friend, Prof. Harari, spoke. Prof. Joseph, who passed away in 2008, and Mrs. Ramon, who died this past month, were present. “It was very moving for me,” Dr. Fenichel said.

It was one of several defining moments in his life—like the discovery of his photograph in the Weizmann archives—that seemed to be an accident of fate. Since that day in Nahariya so long ago, Weizmann and Weisgal’s dreams have been realized in ways the two men could never have imagined. Asked about Israel’s current role as a global hub of science and technology, Dr. Fenichel said simply, “It was beshert, meant to be.”

Culture & Community

Dr. Henry Fenichel: On Survival, Science, and Fate

TAGS: community, leadership

The freckled eight-year-old boy smiles widely at the two men seated to his left and right. One pats the boy on the head and ruffles his red hair. The other, bald and goateed, looks into the boy’s eyes and places both hands on his arm. A few older children gather behind them, grinning and waiting their turn. But for now, it is “Gingi,” as the ginger-haired boy is called, who has captivated their attention…

The year was 1946 and the boy, Henry Fenichel, was living in Nahariya, a coastal town in the British Mandate of Palestine. Little did he know that the two men he met on the patio that day would become leaders in the creation of the State of Israel. One was Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the British chemist and prominent Zionist who would become Israel’s first President. The other was Meyer Weisgal, a founder of the American Committee and administrative director of the Daniel Sieff Institute, precursor to the Weizmann Institute of Science.

A Chance Encounter

Weizmann and Weisgal were passing through town while accompanying the United Nations Commission regarding the partition of Palestine. “They had stopped at a local casino, which was adjacent to the children’s home where I lived,” explained Fenichel, now 80.

 Four years earlier, he had gone into hiding in the Netherlands—the same year Anne Frank’s family lived behind a bookshelf in Amsterdam. His father was transported to Auschwitz, where he perished. Henry and his mother were eventually sent to Bergen-Belsen. By a miracle, they were liberated in 1944 and immigrated to Palestine through a prisoner exchange program. Separated by a social worker upon their arrival, Henry’s mother went to Tel Aviv, while he was sent to live in a childrens home in Nahariya.

Henry and his mother reunited a couple years later, when the War of Independence broke out and Nahariya was surrounded by enemy forces. But his chance meeting with Weizmann and Weisgal, captured in an extraordinary photograph, left an indelible mark.

Following in Weizmann’s Footsteps
HenryFenichel.jpg

Dr. Henry Fenichel

Dr. Weizmann remained a significant figure for Henry, not only because of his role in the creation of Israel, but also because Henry grew up to be a scientist. After joining his mother and stepfather in Tel Aviv, the family moved to New York in 1953. He attended Brooklyn College, where he met his wife, Diana. After earning his PhD in physics from Rutgers University, he spent the next 38 years on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati. He retired in 2003.

During his long, successful career as a physicist, Dr. Fenichel had the opportunity to spend a sabbatical year at the Weizmann Institute in 1990. 

“It was a delight to be there,” he said. “The Weizmann Institute is an oasis. The campus is an incredible place, both academically and visually.”

“The Weizmann Institute is an incredible place, both academically and visually.”

As fate would have it, he was reintroduced to a childhood friend who had also become a physicist: Prof. Haim Harari, who was then President of the Weizmann Institute.

“Haim’s grandmother was the principal of my school in Tel Aviv,” Dr. Fenichel recalled. “He said that I was the first child Holocaust survivor he had ever met.”

Making History

Dr. Fenichel returned to the Institute 13 years later, when he was asked to help conduct research for a book on Dr. Ernst David Bergmann. A German chemist and the son of a rabbi, Dr. Bergmann was fired from his Berlin university post in 1933, following the passage of a law that banned “non-Aryans” from government jobs. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Weizmann invited him to serve as scientific director of the Sieff Institute, then under construction in Rehovot. He remained Dr. Weizmann’s close protégé and a faculty member at the Institute until 1951. He died in 1975.

“In 2003, I had a colleague in chemistry named Milton Orchin, who was then in his 90s,” Dr. Fenichel explained. “He wondered why nobody had ever written a book about Bergmann, with whom he spent a sabbatical leave in 1947-48 at the Sieff Institute.”

Prof. Orchin had already asked William B. Jensen, a historian of chemistry, to help write Dr. Bergmann’s biography. However, he needed someone to review archival materials and conduct interviews in Israel.

“I jumped on the opportunity,” Dr. Fenichel said.

Over the next few years, Dr. Fenichel took regular trips to Israel, staying for a couple weeks each time. There, he interviewed prominent associates of Dr. Bergmann, including former Israeli Presidents Shimon Peres and Prof. Ephraim Katzir, who was also a Weizmann biophysicist.

In addition, he perused documents in the Weizmann House archives. During this time, he shared his own piece of history with Archive Director Merav Segal.

“One day, I brought her my photograph with Weizmann and Weisgal,” he said.

To his great surprise, Segal told him she had, in the archives, a better version of the photo taken in Nahariya almost 60 years earlier.

“And now I know who that kid is!” she added. 

An Odyssey through Time and Space

Today, the photo reminds Dr. Fenichel of the boy he once was—and what his family endured. At the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center (HHC) in Cincinnati, he shares his story with the public because he believes it needs to be told. “I hope people will learn from it,” he said. “We must ask ourselves, ‘What is it about us as humans that we must always hate somebody?’”

His passion for holocaust education led him, once again, to the Weizmann Institute. In 2006, HHC asked him to participate in a videoconference with Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Joachim “Yoya” Joseph, also a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, and Rona Ramon, widow of Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Famously, when Ramon boarded the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle in 2003, he took a tiny Torah scroll borrowed from Prof. Joseph, who had brought it out from the concentration camp where he’d secretly had his Bar Mitzvah. For the videoconference, Dr. Fenichel brought along his own identical Torah that had survived WWII.

Return  of the Torah - WI Jan. 2007.jpg

(L-R) Prof. Joachim Joseph, Rona Ramon, Steve MacLean, and Dr. Henry Fenichel at the "Return of the Torah" ceremony at the Weizmann Institute.

“When Rona saw me holding my Torah, she immediately asked if I would allow it to go into space,” he said. Dr. Fenichel agreed, and Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean, Ramon’s close friend, took the scroll with him on the Atlantis flight. MacLean returned it at a special ceremony held at the Weizmann Institute, because of Dr. Fenichel’s strong connection to the campus. His old friend, Prof. Harari, spoke. Prof. Joseph, who passed away in 2008, and Mrs. Ramon, who died this past month, were present. “It was very moving for me,” Dr. Fenichel said.

It was one of several defining moments in his life—like the discovery of his photograph in the Weizmann archives—that seemed to be an accident of fate. Since that day in Nahariya so long ago, Weizmann and Weisgal’s dreams have been realized in ways the two men could never have imagined. Asked about Israel’s current role as a global hub of science and technology, Dr. Fenichel said simply, “It was beshert, meant to be.”