The Korea Herald


Chicago physicist takes people back to vanished life of postwar Europe

By Claire Lee

Published : March 30, 2012 - 20:44

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“Lately I have been overcome by an urge to put my affairs in order,” Peter Freund read, and within moments another world began to materialize in Sandmeyer’s Bookstore.

It was postwar Europe, a place of deception and danger for a Romanian Jewish couple masquerading as Catholics in the German town of Dachau.

In this and in Freund’s other stories, people try to glue together the shards of shattered worlds and lives. They fight for lost fortunes, outwit Swiss bankers, encounter spies and betrayers, are deadened by communism, have love affairs and make their human and sometimes darkly humorous ways across the mitteleuropean landscape.

It is a vividly portrayed world, because it was once his own.

Freund has a prodigious memory. “You can’t do physics without a good memory,” Freund, 75, explained before his reading last week at the bookstore. “You have to be able to recognize patterns.”

He does physics. A professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, whose faculty he joined in 1965, he is known for early contributions to string theory and theories of supergravity and superconductivity.

He is also a mesmerizing storyteller, with a quick laugh, a sense for both humor and drama and an accent born in the same world in which his tales take place.

He has begun telling his stories in print ― first in a 2007 book on science and scientists he has known, then in a story collection published in 2008 and now in a self-published book of short stories, “Tales in a Minor Key.”

They are fiction, but based closely on the facts of his life, which has been entwined with some of the major events of the 20th century.

But “I always say I grew up in the 19th century,” Freund said. He was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Timisoara, Romania. His father was a doctor; his mother, whose family owned a major textile wholesale and retail business, an opera singer.
Peter Freund, a theoretical physicist at the University of Chicago, is seen at his home in Chicago, Illinois on March 16. Freund has self-published a collection of short stories based on his remarkable life. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT) Peter Freund, a theoretical physicist at the University of Chicago, is seen at his home in Chicago, Illinois on March 16. Freund has self-published a collection of short stories based on his remarkable life. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

“We had two maids ― one to serve us and one to clean,” he said. “We had a woman who came to wash, and a woman who came to iron. We had a cook ― a real chef, with a toque.

“I didn’t know a war was going on.”

But it was. Of his grandmother’s seven siblings, all but one was murdered at Auschwitz.

Romania’s Jewish community avoided mass deportation to concentration camps by paying off crooked officials.

“I have the highest respect for corruption,” said Freund, who remembers hearing money being raised surreptitiously from the synagogue pulpit during services.

He also remembers near-cinematic details: His mother, when a tenor refused to sing with a Jew, dress-rehearsing Mimi in “La Boheme” opposite a broom. His father at the war’s end running upstairs brandishing his Romanian Royal Army saber, demanding that the renter who stole their Persian carpets return them. The man threw the carpets down the stairs, where they caught on the saber, gashed open.

They should have left Romania after the war, Freund said, but his father believed the Soviets would shortly leave. Instead, the family ended up living under communist rule. And world history again entered his personal history.

The death of Stalin allowed him a university education. As a “son of a former capitalist,” he had been barred from entering a university after he finished high school. But Romanian authorities lifted the prohibition when Stalin died.

The 1956 Hungarian uprising put him in front of a firing squad. He had joined a Romanian demonstration to show support, which ended with students being lined up before a line of armored tanks, their gun turrets pointed at them. But the tanks never fired, and the students were eventually released.

The Freunds left Romania in 1959, ostensibly to settle in Israel, the only destination Romanian Jews were allowed to choose. Instead, the trip culminated with a feverish attempt to win permission to stay in Vienna before their three-day visa ran out. Freund won a place in a doctoral program at the University of Vienna and a visa extension.

In Chicago, he made his life in physics and sometimes told his stories, like the one about the uncle who escaped to Portugal with $100,000 sewn into his clothes and had several children with a Russian noblewoman-turned-French poet whose father was reportedly involved in the assassination of Rasputin.

“You’d almost think he’s making it up, but he’s not,” said Jeff Harvey, a University of Chicago physics professor who has known Freund for 23 years.

Now Freund is writing it down. He began some of the stories 30 years ago, Freund said, and now has stepped up the pace. He has begun a novel.

Writing is not foreign to physics, he said. “Each work of physics is a narrative. You start with something, you develop it and you get somewhere else.”

His life is rich without adding another accomplishment. He and his wife, psychoanalyst Lucy Freund, live in the Printers Row neighborhood. They have two grown daughters and five grandchildren, and are longtime devotees of the opera, though Freund occasionally branches out into nonclassical culture.

“I like Metallica,” he said.

He is driven to write, he said in his University of Chicago office, partly to work out his personal equations.

“My whole life I have been questioning, where do you belong?” he said.

He belongs here, he says, but part of him will always be entwined with that vanished world. He considers it is a good solution to the problem.

“One can live with a little ambiguity,” the physicist said.

By Barbara Brotman

(Chicago Tribune)

(MCT Information Services)