A Human Being, First of All. A Portrait of Physicist Jozef Rotblat

The Strangest Dream is the title of a documentary film by director Eric Bednarski on the life of Sir Jozef Rotblat, a Polish physicist with British passport who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

The strangest dream should actually be the normality of a world freed from the threat of nuclear weapons as wished for by the famous Russell-Einstein Manifesto. Issued on July 9, 1955, it was signed by 11 intellectuals and scientists among whom Rotblat himself. The Manifesto highlights the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.

Though very young – the youngest signatory – at that time, Rotblat was already an established physicist. About his life and his example as a human being I have discussed with Eric Bednarski, who drew inspiration from Rotblat to make the film which I was mentioning before.

Interview to Eric Bednarski on The Strangest Dream, a Documentary Film about Jozef Rotblat

The Strangest Dream Portrays the Life of Jozef Rotblat

The Strangest Dream Portrays the Life of Jozef Rotblat

Can you please summarise your background and professional experience – feel free to talk not only about your past but also present and future projects.

I was born and raised in Canada, and educated there and in Europe. From an early age I had a fascination with filmmaking and a passion for history. I studied them both and eventually became a documentary filmmaker primarily focusing on films about contemporary Polish history and culture, in particular the urban history of Warsaw. I am a Polish-Canadian, which is where my interest in Poland comes from.

I’ve been making documentary films for 14 years now, and in that time I’ve had the privilege to work with the likes of the National Film Board of Canada and Polish Television – TVP Kultura. Most recently I have just made a film for the United Nations in Uganda. That was quite an experience as you can imagine, as I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa before the project began.

“The Strangest Dream” was particularly exciting to work on, as it took me around the world, from Los Alamos, New Mexico to Hiroshima, Japan. When I started research on the film, I learned in detail about the incredible work of Sir Joseph Rotblat. He was from Warsaw, Poland, like my father, and Pugwash is in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, where I was born and raised. So my two worlds really came together with “The Strangest Dream”.


Your film The Strangest Dream describes the efforts of Joseph Rotblat, the only scientist to withdraw from the infamous Manhattan Project that led to the construction of the A-bomb on grounds of conscience.

His efforts for nuclear disarmament gained widespread admiration as he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and Albert Einstein Peace Prize in the 1990s.

What has inspired you most of Joseph Rotblat’s example?

The story of Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash movement is without a doubt an important one. I think I’ve been most inspired by Rotblat’s dedication, a dedication to what he believed in. Throughout his life he stuck to his principles. He worked tirelessly to ease tensions during the Cold War, and to try and rid the world of nuclear weapons. He was able to overcome tremendous hardship and personal tragedy, losing his wife in the Holocaust during the Second World War, and not being able to return to his native Poland after leaving the Manhattan Project on moral grounds. Once he knew, in 1944, that Nazi Germany was no longer capable of creating an atomic bomb, he saw no sense in creating a weapon which he could see would only lead to an arms race with the Soviet Union. He would dedicate the rest of his life to the peaceful applications of radiation.

After the Second World War Rotblat managed to relocate to London and have a very successful career in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital pioneering the medical applications of radiation, while all the while engaging full time with the Pugwash movement. By the end of his life he had not only won a Nobel Peace Prize, but had been Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.  


Can you please tell us what the Pugwash Conference is and what Joseph Rotblat’s role was in the Pugwash Conference?

Having grown up in Nova Scotia I had often heard about Pugwash and the remarkable conferences which had taken place there. The story of Pugwash was and is, however, still pretty much unknown.

The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs began in the village of Pugwash, Nova Scotia in 1957, when the first conference occurred during the height of the Cold War. This first meeting was sponsored by Canadian millionaire Cyrus Eaton, who hailed from Pugwash, but who made his fortune in the United States. Some called him a Capitalist with a conscience.

At the first Pugwash meeting scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain came together to discuss the perils of nuclear weapons. They met not as representatives of nations, but as scientists, concerned with the future of the human race. From that very first conference Rotblat was a driving force in the movement, becoming its secretary-general for many years, and then later its president. The conferences continued after 1957 in different locations throughout the world. Although not widely known, Rotblat and Pugwash were extremely influential in their efforts to prevent nuclear war throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Their tireless work behind the scenes has widely been credited with resulting in the concluding of many of the most important nuclear weapons treaties in existence today. The Pugwash conferences continue to facilitate dialogue within the international scientific community with the goal of worldwide nuclear disarmament.

Jozef Rotblat (1908-2005)

Jozef Rotblat (1908-2005)

Your film was released in 2008 while Rotblat passed in 2005. I suppose the footage of Rotblat speaking in your film was taken from films that had been shot before. Did you ever have the chance to talk to him personally?

Sadly Rotblat passed away before I could meet with him. He died the same year we started working on the film, just a few months after we got going on the project. As you can imagine this was a major blow to the project, but we pushed ahead and were able to find quite a few interviews of Rotblat that we were able to use in the film. I very much regret I never met him or even managed to talk to him.

 

Your film focuses more on Rotblat as a respectful, gentle human being, but also practical and deeply rooted in society, who didn’t like the idea of science seen as an ivory tower, far from people’s feelings. How important was his humanity in his work as a scientist and peace activist?

I think his humanity was central to his work as a scientist and peace activist. In the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955, which Rotblat signed with other leading scientists of the day, there is a passage which states, “Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.” Raising the level of awareness among scientists of the moral responsibility of the application of their work has been a goal of Pugwash from the start. Rotblat often stressed this.

 

What is one simple action we can do in our daily lives for nuclear disarmament and why is such a vital topic so neglected by the media?

A simple action for nuclear disarmament could be writing a letter to a politician or having a conversation about the subject with a friend, family member or neighbour.

Nuclear weapons are front and centre of many of the problems in the world today. The continued existence of these weapons still very much affects us all. Since the end of the Cold War I think that many people believe that any danger posed by nuclear weapons has simply disappeared. There is a whole generation now who never experienced the Cold War, and who never experienced the peace movement that went along with it.

 

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