Judith Claire Mitchell on Chemical Weapons, Suicide, and Humor

The author of A Reunion of Ghosts on being inspired by the father of chemical weapons

In April 1915, German forces fired more than 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas at Allied divisions on the Western Front at Ypres. Wind blew the greenish-yellow mist across no man’s land and into the trenches. When it hit the front lines, Allied troops began choking and writhing. Within ten minutes, there were 5,000 dead and an equal number blinded and stumbling.

The scene unfolded in front of 47-year-old Fritz Haber, a German chemist who developed the first nitrogen-based fertilizers, which saved countless numbers from starvation and earned him a Nobel prize in 1918. But it is this April day in France for which he is most remembered, the day he established his legacy as the “father of chemical warfare.”

Judith Claire Mitchell used the story of Fritz Haber and his wife Clara—also a chemist—as inspiration for her new novel, “A Reunion of Ghosts” (Harper). A darkly witty meditation on family, guilt and fate, Mitchell’s story is, in her words, “a suicide note” narrated by the three great-granddaughters of Lenz and Iris Alter, the Habers’ fictional counterparts.

How did you first hear about Fritz and Clara Haber?

I walked into a room and caught just a snippet of a PBS documentary about them. It told the story you always hear, that he was a Nobel prize winning chemist who synthesized the first man-made fertilizer and staved off a world wide famine. And he took his fertilizer synthesis, tweaked it, and came up with the first chlorine gas, to be used in WWI. He was quite a fan of them. The German government didn’t want to use them and he fought for them.

So this was the first chemical weapon.

He’s often called the father of chemical warfare. There’s a title most people wouldn’t want, but he was rather proud of it.

After he developed chlorine gas as a weapon, didn’t he also go on to develop Zyklon B, the killing agent used in Nazi concentration camps?

The chlorine gas was deliberate, he was trying to develop it as a weapon. The Zyklon was inadvertent. In 1933, he was working on an insecticide for farmers, but when Hitler came to power, he had to leave Germany – because his family was Jewish. After he left, the non-Jewish remnants of his team took the insecticide, which was called Zyklon, and removed the odor. That second iteration was Zyklon B. Because it had no odor, humans weren’t aware of it when they were in its presence, which is why it was used as the killing agent in the concentration camps. So although he didn’t mean for it to be used that way, nonetheless, he had a hand in it.

So why did you want to use the story of Fritz and Clara Haber as the basis for a novel?

What interested me was the wife, Clara Haber. As a chemist, she knew her husband was developing chlorine gas as a weapon and she was very opposed to it. They had horrible screaming fights, but she couldn’t dissuade him from using it. About a week after he first deployed it, she went out to the family garden in the middle of the night and killed herself. She was in her forties, their son was 12 and he was the one who found her.

She shot herself.

She shot herself through the heart with her husband’s service revolver, symbolically enough. This haunted me – the idea that there that there was no other avenue for this woman. Plus, the story of the 12-year-old finding his mother and then the next day, Fritz Haber actually going to the Eastern front to teach the generals there how to use chlorine gas.

Even though his wife had just committed suicide?

As far as I can tell, her body was still at home and he left the 12-year-old to plan the funeral.

And the 12 year old later committed suicide himself, as an adult?

He too committed suicide, when he was about the age his mother had been when she died. This was just after World War II ended and right when he might have discovered the family connection to Zyklon B. I don’t know if he did, but six months after that, his eldest daughter killed herself. That’s the truth about this family, but in the novel I exaggerate and have everybody killing themselves because it’s fictional and more dramatic. But it’s based on this family that really struggled.

Did you ever try to track down any of the descendents?

I did! My book is written from the perspective of invented great-grandchildren, but it turns out, there are a lot of them living happy, productive lives. I corresponded for awhile with one of them, but then I realized that I liked her and was becoming concerned about her feelings. And I worried that if I got to know her too well, I’d start pulling my punches in the book. I sent her a copy when it came out, but I haven’t heard anything back, so I don’t know what she’s thinking. Maybe she just hasn’t gotten to it yet.

Your novel is narrated by the three great-granddaughters of a husband and wife who were chemists during World War I and also involved with chemical weapons. And the great-granddaughters feel the weight of this history as a kind of family curse.

Their mother killed herself, their grandfather killed himself, their great-grandparents killed themselves, and when the book begins, the sisters have decided it’s their turn. The story’s told in the first person plural, so the book is their suicide note. And believe it or not, it’s actually funny.

So funny that it’s hard to put down! The way you combine pain and humor is very distinctive. Is that something you had to work at, or is that just your voice?

Somebody asked me recently if this is my sense of humor or if I made one up. I don’t know how you could make up a sense of humor, do you? But yes, I do have a dark sense of humor. I’m a Jewish woman from New York City, and we’re all Woody Allen there – he’s just the one who got famous.

You have some serious things to say about humor, though. You wrote a wonderful piece for the Jewish Book Council recently, about humor as a weapon against fanaticism or political oppression.

Yes. Dictators don’t have much of a sense of humor, especially when it’s directed at them. We saw this recently with North Korea’s reaction to “The Interview.” In Nazi Germany, they literally had joke courts. If someone heard you telling a joke against the regime, you could be hauled before the judges. I love picturing this because apparently when you were brought to court, you had to tell your joke! If the judge laughed, did you get a worse sentence?

That’s both horrible and comic.

It would be great in a Mel Brooks movie, wouldn’t it? But of course people could get terrible sentences – be sent to jail or worse. And yet, they told the jokes anyway – that’s how important humor is. It’s what keeps us living, I think – what gets us through. There’s not a real happy ending ahead for any of us, and yet we all cherish life and love and laughter.

I read an interview you did recently with your former student, novelist Chloe Benjamin. She asked you what themes or questions you return to over and over again and you said, “death, death, genocide, death.” Why?

I think if you belong to a group that was once a target of genocide, it’s very hard to get that out of your mind. I walk around thinking I’m just the most loveable person in the world and I find it staggering that anyone would have wanted to kill me. It’s hard for me to forget. But I’m also one of those people who thinks about death a lot. Maybe we all do, but I can be anywhere and suddenly think “someday I’m going to die!” It’s not morbid; it doesn’t stop me from enjoying my life. And then also, as a novelist, I’d like to know the ending of my story – because life does feel like a narrative to me. What happens next? How will it all end? Maybe that’s why I write books, to figure out how it will end.

The Man Who Invented Chemical Weapons

One hundred years ago, Fritz Haber invented the first chemical weapon and convinced the German army to use it. His wife Clara, also a chemist, fiercely opposed her husband's project. When she couldn't stop it, she committed suicide. Judith Claire Mitchell tells the story in her tragic and yet funny novel "A Reunion of Ghosts."

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