The Arty Semite

A Scientist From the Overachieving Panofsky Family

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
Stanford University SLAC

The German-born Jewish physicist Wolfgang Panofsky confounds the general rule about offspring of geniuses being disappointments. Son of the eminent art historian Erwin Panofsky, Wolfgang was not just an accomplished scientist who made contributions to the Manhattan Project, but was also a delightfully witty man, as proven by a new paperback edition of his charming 2007 memoir, “Panofsky on Physics, Politics, and Peace: Pief Remembers,” out in November, 2010 from Springer Verlag.

Pief, as he was known by classmates, gracefully matched a family precedent for overachieving. Still in print are Erwin Panofsky’s magisterial works, such as “Life and Art of Albrecht Durer” from Princeton University Press; Studies in Iconology from Westview Press; and a brilliant ongoing series of Panofsky’s correspondence from Harrasowitz Verlag.

Panofsky once joked that he would have “nothing to do with” his small children “until they could speak fluent Latin.” Pief adds that his father “taught me chess when I was four, but ceased playing with his children when they started winning.” Other overachieving ancestors may have made their father seem less daunting; Pief’s maternal grandfather Isaac Albert Mosse was legal adviser to Japan’s Meiji government; Mosse’s moving letters home from Japan were published in 1995 by Iudicium Verlag.

Mosse’s daughter Martha, Pief’s aunt, was the first female police Councilor of Prussia, who survived the Holocaust and testified at the Nuremberg Trials. In the 1930s, when required to reciprocate Hamburg schoolteachers’ greetings of “Heil, Hitler!,” the solution of Pief and his friends was to reply “with so much false enthusiasm that the poor teachers were unable to lower their arms, even for a short period of time.”

After emigrating with his family to America in 1934, Pief witnessed how a “compulsory chapel” rule at Princeton motivated many goyish students to attend the local synagogue, so as “not to spoil the weekend,” until the university caught on and established a rule that “Christians could not attend Jewish services, although Jews were free to do the inverse.” At Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where Erwin Panofsky worked, Pief sometimes served as chauffeur for his father and his friend Albert Einstein; one 1930s drive was interrupted by a local policeman who stopped their car, declaring that he did so not because of any traffic infraction, but “I just wanted to look at the great man [Einstein].” Panofsky on Physics, Politics, and Peace allows readers a distinctly enjoyable glimpse at another great man, who died in 2007 at age 88.

Watch this Wolfgang Panofsky lecture in 2007 on nuclear weapons at Stanford University.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Isaac Albert Mosse, Erwin Panofsky, Albert Einstein, Martha Mosse, Wolfgang Panofsky

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.