BRATTLEBORO — At 97, Peter Lindenfeld's present life is one to admire. His success, though, measured not in material wealth as much as in the riches of connections, good health, accomplishments, and action, was won with ample strife, as he tells in his memoir, Fragments of Time.
“I'm living on borrowed time,” said Lindenfeld in a recent conversation. “I'm content with that; I'm just very fortunate and grateful to be alive and to be involved.”
To read the 350-page work is to walk in Lindenfeld's shoes from his early childhood in Vienna, Austria, to his fleeing the Nazi scourge; from his muscling through academia to navigating an interesting marriage; from making major strides in physics to the raising of a son and daughter, Naomi Lindenfeld of West Brattleboro, an acclaimed clay artist and ceramics instructor at The Putney School.
Peter Lindenfeld's childhood was somewhat privileged. In Vienna, both parents were medical professionals; the family had a maid, and he had access to books and learning. He cherishes memories of early friends, festive times, and faith-based rituals with family. What he also remembers is oppression and segregation, the antisemitic slurs he suffered, the taunting, and the emergence of swastikas everywhere.
“Antisemitism,” he said, “was institutional” - even at school. “Among the school faculty, the 'master race,'” he writes, “was most assertively represented by the physical education teachers. They portrayed Jews as smaller, weaker, and less able to participate in sports and physical exercises. They wanted to make us feel that we were a lower form of life.”
Limits were imposed on the number of Jews allowed in universities and in government positions. Nonetheless, Lindenfeld's parents had built a life in Vienna, and he, their only child, was comfortable, fulfilled.
“Suddenly that life crumbled. After a short time, nothing remained of what they had built.” His mother knew they had to move while his father proclaimed “this can't last. … There is no doubt in my mind,” Lindenfeld writes, that his mother's initiative and “perseverance saved her life as well as mine.”
Through some cunning on her part, when Lindenfeld was 13, they made their exodus - a month after the takeover of Austria by Germany in March 1938.
“Two weeks after we left, [my father] was picked up by police and ... taken to Buchenwald, one of the notorious concentration camps so many did not survive. He never talked about his time there. I don't know what it was like to live there or what it took to get out.” His father was never open to such exposition. “The fact he never talked about that removed that part of his life from mine.”
Mother and son traveled to Trieste, Italy; then he went to Leysin, Switzerland, for an eight-month cure for tuberculosis. He reunited with his mother in England, and finally, they made it to Vancouver, British Columbia. Lindenfeld's father was able to follow four years later.
Lindenfeld did well in high school and eventually matriculated at the University of British Columbia (UBC) where he explored the sciences, earned a Bachelor of Applied Science in Electrical Engineering, then a Master of Applied Science in Physics Engineering.
Soon he was off to New York, where he'd be a teaching assistant at Columbia University, then a research assistant before earning his doctorate there in 1954.
The spine of Lindenfeld's story is his career in academia - primarily at Rutgers University - and the challenges, stresses, joys, and successes that accompanied that ride. As he advanced, he says, “I wanted to be engaged in both research and teaching and saw myself as a bridge between these two worlds.”
Over the decades, Lindenfeld was offered work at other universities, but he remained loyal to New Jersey's Rutgers, eventually earning the ultimate status of distinguished professor.
His attitude toward that advancement - toward all he did with his influential life - is reflected in Chapter 1: “I have always wanted to belong, to be a part of a larger entity, a bigger family, a larger community. At the same time, I have refused to join groups that seemed to require me to give up or compromise some belief or practice that is important to me. ... I have often felt shut out, unable to penetrate a real or imagined barrier.”
Perhaps prompted by his own less-than-sanguine experience as a young learner of the sciences, Lindenfeld was a mentor to high school teachers at Rutgers.
There, too, he co-authored a textbook, Physics: The First Science, inspired by a realization that the beauty and joy of physics was being lost on high school students through more traditional, often stagnant, pedagogy.
With a clear affinity for young people, Lindenfeld developed an approach to teaching physics that, he writes, “aims to demystify the subject, to use straightforward language, and to use mathematics to simplify, rather than to obscure.”
He wanted physics initiates to learn to love the discipline's connection with nature, in which Lindenfeld has always reveled. To observe the world more closely, to understand how the eye sees - thus physics gives an understanding of the whole world, he observes, “an insight often lost in high school courses which emphasize falling bodies, projectiles, mechanics.”
Throughout his memoir, Lindenfeld exhibits a sensitive, compassionate approach to race, education, civil rights, women, child-rearing, social justice, faith. His uber-consciousness regarding matters human must spring from his background, a life that could have gone so differently had he not left Austria when he did.
Lindenfeld married Lore Kadden in 1953. Already an established textile artist, Kadden had earned a degree from the former Black Mountain College in North Carolina that nurtured artists such as Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg, Aaron Siskind, and Willem de Kooning. The famed haven and incubator for the avant-garde was based on Germany's Bauhaus, Europe's most innovative art school forced to close when Hitler came to power.
Kadden's career in New York was curtailed somewhat in her child-rearing years. Nonetheless, her work is renowned for its cutting-edge, groundbreaking design and technique.
The Lindenfelds built a home in Princeton and there raised their two children. Of her father, passionate about parenting, Naomi says, “he was incredibly supportive of my art endeavors. ... My parents have always had friends who are artists and craftspeople, and they took us to museums and art exhibits. My father has always been a great art appreciator and believer in how art makes a positive difference in our lives. He sees making art and craft as an important contribution to society.”
Lore Lindenfeld passed away in 2010, and a year or so later, Lindenfeld began a life with his enduring partner, Mary Clurman.
Since the early '70s, Lindenfeld has found solace in his second home in Barnard, Vermont. First smitten when his children were at Farm and Wilderness Camp in Plymouth, he'd found a modest retreat still used today. “Physically, the further away you get from Princeton, the more open it gets. ... We live closer to the earth [there] than we do at home,” he writes, and that feeds his well-being.
Lindenfeld is not bound by labels and constraints of organized religion. “Einstein talks about God,” he says, “not a personal god based on what we humans perceive, but the spirit of the universe that I cherish as I look out the window at trees, at mountains in Vermont as we try to live in a way that's in harmony with the universe in what we eat, do, believe in. I don't use the word 'God' because it is so often misused. The life of the mind is important to me - an open mind - but it's in this world, not in another world or a world beyond. There are forces beyond those I can see.”
A photographer, a poet, a musician, Lindenfeld traveled around the world to teach or lecture - England, India, France, Japan. He's been honored in many ways, from the Millikan Award, (since renamed the Lillian McDermot Medal) for innovations in teaching physics, to requests to officiate at a handful of weddings. A perennial philosopher, Lindenfeld leaves the reader, at the end of his Fragments of Time, with this:
“The old slogans won't do, the question is not how far are you on the left or the right, are you progressive or liberal or conservative, but what policies can change people's lives for the better? No, I don't embrace everybody. Not those who have brought us to the present inequality of wealth in the face of pervasive poverty. Not those who have fostered a poverty of spirit. I don't think we are just going back to how things were. Good luck to all of us. For a new and better time. Stay well.”