- Historic Sites
Memory As History
Seeking the truth of an event in the memories of the people who lived it can be a maddening task—and an exhilarating one
November 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 7
You don’t always get the answer you seek, in other words, but you may acquire serendipitously a useful anecdote or background information that lends color and authenticity to an account.
In writing of how Japan, before World War II, encouraged the notion that all Japanese must look up to their emperor as a father, I was struck by a set of images that emerged from a conversation with Dr. Agnes Niyekawa of the University of Hawaii. As a young girl she attended school near where the emperor and his family vacationed from time to time. Whenever the royal personages were scheduled to arrive, their route from the railway station to their villa was covered with small pebbles, because they made such a pleasing noise when the carriage rolled over them. When the royal family departed, the pebbles were swept up and collected for the next visit.
What strikes me as being worthy of recollection, or at least easy to recall, is often of no importance to these Vermonters and is forgotten.
Before the procession began, Agnes and her schoolmates lined up and stood for a long time, awaiting the great moment. When the carriage approached, all the girls made a deep bow and held it until the vehicle was almost out of sight, which meant that they never even saw the godlike royal personages.
Another conversation—this one with the Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner—provided rare texture for an event I was describing. In July 1939 Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist who had recently concluded that “the largescale liberation of atomic energy was just around the corner,” was desperately trying to find a way to keep uranium ore from the Belgian Congo from falling into the hands of the Nazis. He discussed the dilemma with Wigner, a physics professor at Princeton, and they decided to ask their mutual friend Albert Einstein to write a letter to the queen of the Belgians, whom he knew, warning her and—through her—the Belgian government against selling any uranium to Germany. Unfortunately, when they had this idea, Einstein was away on vacation.
They learned that he was staying at the cottage of a Dr. Moore in Peconic, on Long Island, so on a beautiful day the two physicists set off in Wigner’s car to find him. By mistake they drove to Patchogue on the south shore, where they were told that Peconic was near Cutchogue on the northeast tip of the island. When they finally reached Peconic, no one could tell them where the Moore house was. They had been driving around for an hour or so when Szilard saw a little boy standing on the curb, leaned out the window, and asked, “Say, do you by any chance know where Professor Einstein lives?” The eight-year-old did and led them to the great man’s door on Old Grove Road. Einstein, dressed in an undershirt with his trousers rolled up, greeted them and invited them to sit down on the screened porch, where his two visitors explained their fears. As Szilard said later, “This was the first Einstein heard about the possibility of a chain reaction. He was very quick to see the implications and perfectly willing to do anything that needed to be done.”
The upshot of that July visit was a letter from Einstein, sent not to the queen of the Belgians but to President Franklin Roosevelt. It was the first step in a process that led to the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb.
To hear Professor Wigner describe his trip from Princeton to Peconic on that hot July day in 1939 was a privilege, for his story was rich in details that made it more than just a meeting of scientists. It became as well the comedy of two Hungarian refugees trying to unravel the mysteries of Indian place-names on Long Island, their chance meeting with a little boy who knew the way, and the unexpected bonus of learning how the renowned Einstein was dressed when he greeted them at the door and that this was his first knowledge that a chain reaction might be possible.
Not long after publication of The Borrowed Years, I began receiving letters from readers who were stirred to write by what they had read and who wanted to share their memories with me. Such stories, which I have called the Unsolicited Memory, were too late to be of use in my book, of course, and some dealt with events that took place outside the period about which I had written. Yet they are reminders of the tenacity of memory and the way an association of ideas can conjure up details that lodged in the mind years earlier.
One came from a Californian named Daniel Jenkins, whose military experience began in the obsolescent horse cavalry on maneuvers in 1940, at a time when Polish cavalrymen were being slaughtered by Nazi tanks. Five years later, as a major on Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger’s staff, he found himself standing beside his boss in a makeshift field hospital near Yokohama, at the bedside of Hideki Tojo, the Japanese general who, as prime minister, war minister, and army chief of staff, had been responsible for the conduct of the war.