The Manhattan Project

Rachel Erlanger's Interview

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Rachel Erlanger's Interview

Rachel Erlanger worked in a Kellex Corporation chemistry lab in New Jersey, where they researched gaseous diffusion barriers and other processes critical to the development of the K-25 plant. She got involved in the Manhattan Project when responding to an ad for Kellex. As a chemist, she recognized uranium-235 as the material used in an atomic bomb. In this interview, she describes how she got involved in the Manhattan Project, her excitement at contributing at that time, and how her attitude turned more negative after the war. She recalls her and her mother’s experiences during the prewar era and the pressure for women to marry and have children. She also briefly discusses her husband Bernard Erlanger, who also worked on the Manhattan Project.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
November 8, 2016
Location of the Interview: 
New York City
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: This is Tuesday, November 8, 2016, in New York City. My name is Cindy Kelly, and I am here with Rachel Erlanger. Now, first thing you should do is say your name and then spell it.

Rachel Erlanger: All right. R-a-c-h-e-l and Erlanger, E-r-l-a-n-g as in Gertrude, -e-r. But, I wasn’t married then, was I? I think maybe you want my maiden name.

Kelly: What was your maiden name?

Erlanger: My maiden name was Fenichel: F-e, that’s F as in Frank, -e-n-i-c-h-e-l.

Kelly: Oh, great. Thank you very much. I want to know something about your childhood. Can you tell us first when you were born and where?

Erlanger: I was born in 1923.

Kelly: And where were you born?

Erlanger: I was born in New York City.

Kelly: Who were your parents? 

Erlanger: My mother Augusta Bloom—that was her maiden name—was born in New York. When I was a little girl, she would tell me she had worked as a bookkeeper, and that was really very exalted for a little immigrant girl at that time. In other words, girls didn’t have very good jobs. To be a bookkeeper for a high-class firm, that made her somebody a little more important. And, of course, it gave her money. 

Kelly: That’s fabulous. 

What country was she born in?

Erlanger: My mother was born here in the United States. My father was born in Poland, and he came to the United States. At that time, it was considered disgraceful for an American girl, as my aunt said, like my mother, to marry a greenhorn like my father. But as I got to know my father, I decided he was smarter than the American men that I knew. 

Kelly: What was your father’s profession? What did he do for a living? 

Erlanger: He never had a profession. He came here with the idea of doing something spectacular, because he was a very good student in Poland. And it’s interesting. He went to a school which was really a Catholic-run school, because Poland is a Catholic country. But when they found him, the nurses who ran this were so impressed by how smart he was that they accepted him for this school. He got, I guess, as much education as he could hope to get right there, and he knew a lot of things, which I, going to school here, didn’t know.

Kelly: How old was he when he came over to this country? 

Erlanger: I really don’t know. I think he was still in his twenties.

Kelly: In his twenties. What was his job? Or what were some of the jobs he had?

Erlanger: When he came here, he started off on the wrong foot, so to speak. His teachers in Poland thought he was very brilliant, and that when he came here he should go to school. But his family—or rather, not his family, but his father’s family – felt that he should go out and get a job and make a lot of money. That was the big thing that you had to do in life. He let them talk him into it and that was really the tragedy of his life. Because, if he had just stuck what he wanted to do, it would’ve been so much better for him. But I’m just giving you what I think. 

Life was very complicated then, as it was always. But it was a different kind of complication. He was an immigrant, and he came here. He got a better education in that Catholic school in Poland than he would’ve gotten here. But it didn’t count for anything. I don’t know if I’m making clear to you what happened.

Kelly: Yes. What was his attitude when you were young? Did he want you to go to school?

Erlanger: Oh, yes. He believed and he had a very strong feeling, at least for a man from his background, for women’s rights. In any case, he was very interested in women working and making something of themselves, which wasn’t usual at that time. I was sort of unusual, because you had the setup then that my parents weren’t American-born. Because most people were not “American-born,” they were immigrants who had come here. Does that give you some kind of a picture of the society? 

Kelly: Yes. So, tell me about your mother then.

Erlanger: My mother was a tragic figure. My mother was born in the United States, and she was going to evening high school and studying. She really didn’t know what she wanted to do with it. But she wanted to do something—and, how am I going to get this all in? Well, in any case, she was in a family where they encouraged her. And my father was really a unique person, because he believed in women’s liberation before there was any talk of women’s liberation. He was very intrigued when he met this career lady; as he saw it, most of the women then had very menial jobs and then they went and got married. And that was their life. But my mother had higher ideals. 

But she had a very tragic life. Because my mother, when she was going to high school, met a medical student and fell in love with him. 

Anyhow, she met him when she was about 18 or 17, and she was going to evening high school where she was studying Shakespeare, which was her great love. She wasn’t matriculated for anything; she was just taking courses in Shakespeare. But, at that time, you know, even that was very unusual. Then, while she was living on the Lower East Side, there was a young medical student by the name of Mike, who would visit her, and, she fell in love with him. That was the whole business. That was the thing that destroyed her life, because he used to visit her every day, and they were sort of like boy and girl love affair.In any case, she was madly in love with him, and innocent. Because, if she had stopped to think, she would realize that a medical student with no money cannot marry a girl like her. He has to marry a girl whose parents will help him go through medical school and open an office and all of that. 

In any case, came the time when he had to go off to medical school. He was taking courses in the medical school around there, but now he had to go off to another medical school, and so he told her—or led her to believe, I don’t quite know—that he would come back for her. That was the tragedy of her life, because I guess she was in love with him. But it’s also that you would be marrying a doctor. That was the story of her life. 

Anyhow, there she was, and she was really unusual for a young girl in her circumstances. In the first place, she wasn’t an immigrant. Her father had come here and they were very proud of that, because really at that time, it was unusual to be a second-generation American. I don’t know how I can give you the atmosphere at that time and how people felt about things. Because girls weren’t expected to do any great with their lives. On the other hand, if she made “a good marriage,” that would be a great accomplishment. If she married a doctor, well, God, that would really be the end-all. Of course, he wasn’t a doctor then, but he was studying to be a doctor. So, that’s the story. 

Because he left, and she was convinced that he was going to come back for her, so she must save herself for Mike, which meant that she wasn’t going to out with other boys, because she was going to marrying Mike. 

My aunt, her sister, said she had so many chances to get married, because that was really what every girl wanted to do in those days. But, she turned them all down, because she was waiting for Mike. Now, unfortunately, Mike obviously forgot about her as soon as he went away. Maybe not as soon, but soon after he went away. He had his medical profession; he had to work probably to keep him in medical school. I don’t know. But, she kept thinking that he was  going to come back for her, and so she didn’t want to get involved with any other man. And that’s the tragedy of her life. 

Meanwhile, she was working as a bookkeeper, so she was highly successful, because at that time most girls on the Lower East Side worked in factories. To have become a bookkeeper. Then she was promoted to head bookkeeper, so she had more money than most girls. 

So, there she was and she realized that she had thrown away ten years of her life, the best ten years of her life, going after this good-for-nothing. Here she might not have children and everything. Well, then she became desperate to find a husband. 

Now, it was at that point that my father showed up. He was an immigrant from Poland, and he was very idealistic. He wasn’t impractical, but he was idealistic. My grandfather met him in the synagogue and brought him home. Of course, he took one look at my mother and he was smitten. I don’t think he realized that she was almost in her thirties, or in her thirties by then, but that was the girl that he wanted. 

She was exactly the kind of American girl that he dreamt of. She was a career lady, she was a successful bookkeeper. She was good-looking, and she spoke good English. He was utterly smitten with her, and of course, she wasn’t the least bit interested in him.

My father wasn’t going to let her say no, because he was fascinated, she was everything he wanted. She’s American, she’s educated, she’s smart.  At this point she was desperate, because she wanted children.

So, they got married and she had a lot of trouble adjusting herself to all his, what she considered, unreasonable demands, and he had to get used to her unreasonable demands. But there was a lot of affection between them. 

She liked him, but there were things.  You know, he was a foreigner and there were a lot of things that they didn’t get along on. He liked to keep the windows closed. She liked to keep the windows open. God knows what else. 

So, anyhow, then I was born. I was their oldest child, and they were both ecstatic with me, so they were very happy. He also wanted a boy. Every Jewish man wants a boy, so then she had a boy.

He had wanted to be a lawyer. He loved the law. But, in any case, they got married and they had a beautiful apartment on College Avenue, which is the West Bronx, and was considered, you know, more tony than the East Bronx.  

That’s where they were, and then they got along and they didn’t get along, if you know what I mean. They went on and really my childhood was not too bad for a while. But that was the Great Depression and my father—first he had the store and then the store went, so then he had to get a job. He got a job working for – I forgot what it was – some bakery. And it was horrible for him, because that’s not what he expected in life, but that’s what he had to do. He was a very heroic man, he wouldn’t leave his children. That’s the story of my life. 

But, eventually, somewhere in here, we were sent to a foster parent, and my mother had to go to a mental hospital, because she had gone completely off. My uncle and my cousin were both bachelors and had no real understanding of these things. Somebody had told them that she’d go to Pilgrim State Hospital, because it was a new hospital and it’s going to have everything. Of course, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Pilgrim State Hospital, but it was terrible and my poor mother went to Pilgrim State Hospital and she started to deteriorate. 

We were sent to a variety of foster mothers until my aunt said, “I have seen those children in a home and I don’t want them in a home anymore.” So she said she would take care of us. But she wasn’t very good. She didn’t know how to take care of children. She wasn’t as smart as my mother, but she was the heroine of the story. She took care of us. 

Then my mother got better, because manic depression is something where you go down and then you go up again. So, when she got better, she took us out of the home.  

Now, I was in high school by the time—my mother was the one who found out that—she went to school and she said, “My daughter is very bright. I don’t want her to go to the local school.” My teacher said she should try to get me into Hunter High School, so I went to Hunter High School and I was in the one class, which is the best class.  

Now, first place, when I was young, I wasn’t the greatest looking person in the world by a longshot. Bernie, that’s my husband, he had a friend, Louis Callico. Louis Callico was older than we were, and I used to walk to school with him. It wasn’t lovey-dovey. Just we were intellectuals, and we talked about all kinds of things. But his best friend was Bernie Erlanger, and when Bernie Erlanger asked him what Estelle Lewis, who was the school beauty and my best friend, looked like. He said, “Rae is the one you want to look at now.”

My husband said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” But in the back of his mind he thought maybe it could be possible that that pain in the ass became beautiful. 

In the meanwhile, I had become a hot communist, but those were the days, and so I was sitting on the Fifth Avenue bus and we all made noise, you know, like typical teenagers make spectacles of themselves. I was sitting on the Fifth Avenue bus with a copy of Daily Worker hidden in a copy of the Times. I was reading, and Bernie Erlanger got on the bus, and I said, “I know you. You’re the one who stole the biology medal from me.” Then we got to know [each other]. Bernie Erlanger was flabbergasted by the change in my looks, because he remembered the cross-eyed and nasty little girl. And in my teens, people thought I was beautiful. So he wanted to go out with me. 

I treated him very badly, because I was a teenage and a pain in the ass. But he was charming. He loved me. So eventually we got married and we had three children. He went back to school and so did I. I wanted to be writer, and at that point I sold a few to very well-known magazines.  

I had to support my family at that point, so I got a job. I had some science, and I got a job, and it turned out to be—I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody what this job was about. We weren’t allowed to keep our badges on when we were outside of the place.  

Now, you want the story of how I got to Kellex. 

Kelly: Yes, we need to know how you got to Kellex. Did you answer an ad? 

Erlanger: Yeah, I had to support my family, and I guess I was unscrupulous in the fact that I lied like hell about my qualifications. If I could get the job—I didn’t know what I told them at Kellex, but I told them some stuff and I got the job. Then there were all kinds of young people around, and it was fun.  

The name of the company that was doing this was Kellex company. Bernie, in the meanwhile, had gotten a job and they sent him to UravanUranium-vanadium. Then, he couldn’t tell me about his job and I wasn’t supposed to tell him about my job. So that’s where we were. 

In the meanwhile, there was Charlie Benz, where I was working. Afterward I thought, “I bet Charlie Benz was suspicious of me.” Maybe he was there to find out if the people that were working there were really reliable and could work there, and he was suspicious of me. It wasn’t hard to be suspicious of me, because I had a big mouth and I talked about being a hot communist and all kinds—you know, when you’re that age, not everybody, but you can become a terrible showoff. 

Well, I figured out what they were doing, because I thought they’re trying to make U-235 from U-238. Well, that I read U-235 was the chemical that was used in the A-bomb. And how did you get from U-238 to U-235? I can’t remember all the details of this, but I know that I began to think that that’s why we were there.  

Kelly: Did you write letters to Bernie, talking about your job? 

Erlanger: Yeah, I wrote letters to Bernie talking about my job, and then I realized what they’re trying to do is to get U-235 from U-238.  

Kelly: Did you keep the job to the end of the war? 

Erlanger: No, I can’t remember that, honestly. I know I left the job at a certain point, because we were also getting married.  

When he was drafted and he went down to enlist, they told him to go someplace else.

When he went in, they said to him, “Where do you want to be?” 

He said, “The Navy.”

They said, “You’re in the Army.” And then he went to Uravan in Colorado.

Kelly: Talk about your husband. How’d he get into the Manhattan Project, and what did he do there? 

Erlanger: He was totally interested in science, and he was also very smart. They had asked for references, and I think one of his professors told them that he was a very brilliant student. And so suddenly, they were sending him—first he went to Uravan. I was not stupid, because I had enough chemistry and I realized Uravan must be uranium vanadium. So, that’s what they’re working on. But, he wasn’t allowed to talk about it to anybody.  

They did things in the lab, testing. I don’t know exactly what they did. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to tell me. Anyhow, he worked in Uravan. Then from Uravan they sent him to Los Alamos, and I never saw him at Los Alamos. I didn’t see him at Uravan either, but I met friends of his: Cooper, who became his friend all the time. 

Kelly: Okay. What else should we talk about? 

Erlanger: Well, he went to Los Alamos and he fell in love with “Oppie,” J. Robert Oppenheimer. He thought he was the most marvelous scientist, and the most brilliant man that he’d ever met, which he really was, you know. He was also young. The whole place was young, and he was having a marvelous time there. 

Kelly: Is there anything you’d like to say about how you felt about working on the atomic bomb? 

Erlanger: Well, I was young and dumb, and I was excited. Once I figured out that what we were working on, I was more excited than before. But I knew I wasn’t supposed to talk about it, so I didn’t talk about it.  

Kelly: There was so much, it’s really, that is great. You did a great job. You really had a fascinating life. I think a lot of people will be able to relate to your stories, and I think that there are many pieces of what you said about your job that many other people felt the same way. You know, that they didn’t know why they got hired and that they did what they were told. 

Erlanger: Well, it was the war. We knew we were doing something for the war effort, and that made you feel important. Then I figured out what we were doing, and that made me feel more important. But then when Bernie wrote to me, I realized he was in a much higher level position than I was, and that was it. 

Kelly: Was he proud of his service on the Manhattan Project also? 

Erlanger: He was fascinated by Oppie. Bernie just talked about him all the time. He was older than Bernie, but not that much older. Bernie said he was so brilliant and so unassuming, and he just thought he was the end of the world. Then they started saying he was a communist, but there was a man that worked on it with him who was older, and he told them, “You’re crazy. He’s not a communist, leave him alone.” 

I’m ashamed to say that we were very excited that we had worked on it. It was only afterward that I thought what a terrible thing this is. It’s like we used to read things in science, stories and everything. When you come to something that is so dangerous that you shouldn’t be getting involved with it. And that’s the way I felt about this. Why the hell did we get involved with all this? But I didn’t feel that way at the time. At the time, I was very excited. I felt very important to be a part of this.

Kelly: Bernie saw the test in the desert, the Trinity test? 

Erlanger: I wasn’t there. Bernie was there. 

He just told me about it, and then I was all excited. I must say that I didn’t think of all the horrible parts of all of this. I just liked the idea that I was involved with—you know, I was very young and, of course, the fact that he was involved with it, too, made it sort of romantic. We were both on the same thing. Daddy had a much more important part in it than I did, but his wasn’t that important either, you know, compared to Oppie. But what I remember most is all of them thought Oppie was the most wonderful person.