The Tragic, Untold Story of the World’s First Planetarium

The state of the universe.
Feb. 23 2014 11:54 PM

Under the Dome

The tragic, untold story of the world’s first planetarium.

(Continued from Page 1)

The family considered leaving Jena, leaving Germany, but Marie’s sister Therese had a bad leg and couldn’t travel. The Straubels’ niece Helene Langer—who was also Therese’s adopted daughter—put aside some alpine gear for a possible escape into the mountains, but she refused to leave Therese behind. Even so, the Straubels and the Langers were surprised to be so victimized. They felt that they were Germans. “None of these people were practicing Jews,” says Linda Langer Snook, Helene’s granddaughter and author of a self-published book about the family. (Langer Snook and her father, Gerhard Langer, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, were key sources for Volz’s history.) Their families identified as Protestant and patriotic; their children were only one-half or one-quarter Jewish; several had won medals during World War I, fighting for their country. Helene was cited for her wartime work in field hospitals.

Werner Straubel.
Werner Straubel, Rudolf and Marie's son.

Courtesy of Linda Langer Snook

At first the Jewish women in the family were spared from deportation, perhaps because their husbands weren’t Jewish. But Therese’s spouse had died in the 1920s, so she was more exposed. In September 1942, the Nazis ordered her to Theresienstadt, but she killed herself before they could load her into a cattle car.

Rudolf Straubel, who had been working from his home since his retirement, developed kidney cancer and died in 1943. Though he’d once been a celebrated scientist and businessman, his funeral was small and without eulogies. According to Langer Snook, Straubel’s ashes were buried in an unmarked grave.

Advertisement

With Rudolf gone, his wife, Marie—for whom he’d forsaken his career and lasting fame—learned that she, too, would be deported to the concentration camps. She took her life with pills in April 1944, with her sons beside her.

Two months later, the Gestapo came for Helene Langer while her husband was away on business. Rather than submit, she scrawled a farewell note and left it with her wedding ring and military medal. Then she hiked into the hills behind the house and threw herself from a cliff.

Two of Rudolf and Maria’s children, Harald and Werner, had worked for Zeiss; Werner sold Zeiss planetariums in the United States, among other places. Both were sent to labor camps in October 1944, where they grew skinny with fever and frostbite. The camps were liberated seven months later, but neither son recovered from the trauma of the war. In November 1945, Werner hanged himself. Harald was shipped off to Russia as a technical consultant and only sneaked his way into the West in 1958. (He died in 1991.)

Marie Straubel.
Marie Straubel.

Courtesy of Linda Langer Snook

The fall of the Nazis did not restore Straubel’s name. The Zeiss company was split during the Allied occupation, with one half based in West Germany and the other in East Germany. The directors who had ousted Straubel—a group that still included Bauersfeld—ended up in charge at Zeiss West. Soon the two branches were engaged in a battle for control of Zeiss trademarks and other assets. Peter Volz believes that the Western firm could not acknowledge Straubel’s contributions because doing so would mean admitting that its directors had acquiesced to Nazi pressure. That in turn would legitimate its rivals at Zeiss East.

Bauersfeld eventually made mention of his former colleague in a technical paper from 1957. There, for the first time, he described Straubel’s presence at the meeting in February 1914. “This was the moment in which the Zeiss-Planetarium was born,” he wrote, just two years before his death. It was a passing reference, though, and by this time there weren’t many other people still alive who could help flesh out the record. “Rudolf’s name has been almost written out of the Zeiss history,” says Langer Snook, who visited the company’s archives several years ago. “You find his name half a dozen times, and you find Bauersfeld’s name 200 times.”

These are squabbles over footnotes, though, and hard to see against the backdrop of enormous suffering that came before. It’s a little sad and strange to think how Straubel and Bauersfeld’s great invention functioned as a backdrop of its own. The planetarium is, if nothing else, an instrument of obscurity and diminution: It blots out the sky with false infinity and shrinks us to a dot. There’s comfort in this sense of scale, of course, the thought that all our worries can be squeezed into a grain of sand and cast into the ocean. But the stars can also blind us. “The cosmic view comes with a hidden cost,” wrote Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, in 2007. “When I travel thousands of miles to spend a few moments in the fast-moving shadow of the Moon during a total solar eclipse, sometimes I lose sight of Earth.”

Can the darkness of the planetarium make misery invisible? Does feeling small erode our sense of empathy? Tyson offers solace; take it as you will: The cosmic view repays its hidden cost, he claims, by teaching us that living things are all connected and that we’re all part of a cosmic chain of being. But the arrangement of the heavens on the inside of a dome might just as well mislead us. We pretend to see the universe in all its chaos and complexity, and lose ourselves in a vast expanse that isn’t really there. The planetarium can make us drunk on insignificance, so drunk that we forget what’s outside its walls.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.