November 10, 1938. A telephone rings early in the morning. The sound is sudden, unexpected, shrill and peremptory. I soon understood. The phone call comes from Stockholm. It is the Nobel Commission. But there is no time to rejoice. The trip to Sweden is an opportunity to implement a plan my wife Laura and I had secretly prepared for months: emigrate to the United States. The promulgation of anti-Semitic laws affected Italian Jews, depriving them of the most elementary civil rights. Laura was Jewish. Her father would later die in a concentration camp.
The afternoon hours went by with unbearable slowness, but the long-awaited phone call eventually arrived. The secretary of the Stockholm Academy of Sciences announced the awarding of the prize and read me the motivation.
“To Professor Enrico Fermi of Rome for his identification of new radioactive elements produced by neutron bombardment and the discovery made in connection with this work of the nuclear reactions carried out by slow neutrons.”
We took the final decision. We will go to Sweden and then leave for the United States. Despite our scientific fame, my group was struggling to survive in the cultural-political climate of Fascist Italy due to the lack of adequate research and funding prospects. Collaborators like Bruno Pontecorvo and Emilio Segrè were also Jewish and flew away.
December 6th, we arrived at the train station. My dear friend Rasetti, Amaldi and his wife Ginestra were there for the farewell. An era was ending. Newspapers unleashed harsh comments on my attitude during the Nobel award ceremony. They judged me unpatriotic: I was not wearing the uniform of an Italian academic and did not raise my arm for the fascist salute.
I embarked on a steamer bound for New York with my family. I had permission for a six-month sabbatical but intended to settle permanently in the USA.
I did not know that a group of German physicists made a sensational discovery during the same fateful time.