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Those who made our freedom possible

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Did you know that a Jewish financier saved Winston Churchill from bankruptcy, actress Hedy Lamarr was secretly an inventor, and that Jewish savvy kept the guns firing during World War I?
by JORDAN MOSHE | Nov 14, 2019

Despite the inconceivably challenging circumstances of war, stories of superhuman accomplishment also emerge from times of conflict. Innumerable Jewish personalities are no exception, their names and achievements populating wartime narratives throughout the decades.

On Sunday this past week, communities around the world took a moment to acknowledge those who gave their all for the freedoms we enjoy today. Remembrance Day is dedicated to all those who have fallen in armed conflict since WWI, and also affords us an opportunity to remember and acknowledge those who were willing to serve their country in any number of different ways.

In addition to those who gave their lives, there are some whose contributions to the war effort are beyond extraordinary and, in some cases, almost defy belief.

In 1916, the British forces engaged in battle against the Central Powers of WWI experienced a dire shortage of acetone, a crucial ingredient needed to produce cordite. A smokeless explosive, cordite was in turn used to manufacture several munitions. Acetone had previously been made from calcium acetate imported from Germany, but since the Allies were at war with Germany, this was no longer possible.

Then a senior lecturer in biochemistry at the University of Manchester, Dr Chaim Weizmann, serendipitously invented a fermentation process that converted starch from corn and potatoes into acetone. The famed Zionist dubbed it the “Weizmann process”, and Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, requested that it be used to mass-produce acetone in England, Canada and the United States. Weizmann’s process was employed, thereby keeping the British sufficiently supplied with the necessary ammunition.

Unbeknown to the Allies, Germany was experiencing a shortage of its own: a lack of ammonia. This substance was equally vital to producing munitions, and scientific minds applied themselves to solving the crisis. A German-Jewish chemist, Fritz Haber, discovered a way to synthesise ammonia using nitrogen and hydrogen, a discovery for which he would later receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Haber was later appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Research Institute and proved instrumental in developing chemical weapons such as chlorine and mustard gas.

When Hitler came to power in the 1930s, he allowed Haber to remain at his post, but insisted that he fire all Jewish employees. Haber refused and instead resigned his position. Incredibly, he was offered a position at the Seiff Institute in then Palestine by Weizmann in 1934. He set out for the Holy Land to assume the position but died of poor health en route.

The American Bernard Baruch was a financier, a confidante of Franklin Roosevelt and responsible for keeping Churchill in politics. Baruch was a close friend of Churchill, and though he admired him greatly, he perceived that the British statesman was an inept investor.

While on a visit to America in 1932, Churchill decided to play the stock market. Unfortunately, fate was not on his side, and market prices tumbled steeply that day. “As prices tumbled, he plunged deeper and deeper, trying to outguess the stock exchange,” writes historian William Manchester. “At the end of the day, he confronted Baruch in tears. He was, he said, a ruined man.”

Churchill had lost so much of his family fortune that he would have no choice but to sell all he owned, including Chartwell, his beloved estate. Moreover, he lamented the fact that he would have no choice but to leave the House of Commons and enter business to support his family and pay back the enormous losses he had incurred.

But Churchill’s long-time friend “gently corrected him”, telling him that he had lost not a cent. Unbeknown to the statesman, Baruch had instructed his employees at his office in New York to monitor Churchill as he went about his transactions, telling them to buy equivalent stocks every time Churchill sold his and sell whenever he bought. Manchester writes: “Winston had come out exactly even because, he later learned, Baruch even paid the commissions.”

Thanks to Baruch’s savvy, Churchill could remain in politics and would eventually navigate England through the perils of war, which would beset the country a few years later.

Lamarr, often touted as the most beautiful woman in the world, was not only famous, but Jewish and scientifically gifted to boot. Born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, she was given her new surname by Louis B Mayer when she signed with MGM in 1937.

Although she achieved international fame as a Hollywood movie star, Lamarr was not satisfied by acting. Between takes in her trailer and staying up all night at home, she practised her favourite hobby: inventing.

It is said that while the 26-year-old Lamarr was thriving in Hollywood in September 1940, Nazi U-boats hunted down and sank a cruise ship trying to evacuate 90 British schoolchildren to Canada. Tragically, 77 of them drowned in the frigid north Atlantic.

Lamarr, at this point a Jewish immigrant from Nazi-occupied Austria who had been making America her home since 1938, was outraged. She fought back by applying her engineering skills to the development of a sonar submarine locator to protect Allied torpedoes from German U-boat fire during conflict. Lamarr created a system called “frequency hopping” in which torpedoes would “hop” between frequencies to avoid detection. Ingenious though her invention was, the US Navy chose, for reasons unknown, not to implement her design. Although they did patent it, it never went further in its use in the war effort.

The existence of Lamarr’s invention became known in recent years only, proving there was more to her than her beauty. In addition, the principles of her work are now incorporated into modern Wi-Fi, code-division multiple access and Bluetooth technology, and this work led to her being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

So whether financier or film star, scientist or soldier, there are certainly Jewish personalities worth remembering for their remarkable wartime contributions this Remembrance Day.

 

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