How a stranger’s kindness during WWII helped give us the Big Bang theory

German-born physicist Arno Penzias escaped the Holocaust with the help of a benefactor he never met. That secret act of generosity changed his life—and our understanding of the universe.

On the eve of World War II, the owner of a Belleville, New Jersey, paint shop got a frantic knock on his door. It was a 28-year-old German immigrant named Leo Gelbart, who’d been going door to door, appealing to members of the town’s Jewish community.

“This family needs to get out of Germany, and I don’t have enough money to help. Can you?” Gelbart asked. He showed the store owner a black-and-white photograph of his friends back in Munich: a handsome couple named Karl and Justine Penzias, holding their sons Arno and Guenther, six and four. With German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime increasingly persecuting and interning Jews, the Penzias family had to flee or face a concentration camp. But to immigrate to America, they needed to secure several affidavits of support — official documents vouching that they had a relative and a financial safety net in the United States. Gelbart would provide the first, falsely stating that his friend Karl Penzias was his cousin. But as a waiter, he didn’t have enough money to qualify as the family’s sponsor. He was trying to find someone to sign the second affidavit taking on the Penziases as dependents in case of need.

The 52-year-old paint merchant said yes, he would help. “I’ll be glad to support them until they become self-supporting,” he wrote on the affidavit. From Germany, a deeply grateful Karl Penzias gave this stranger his word, via his friend, that his family only needed support on paper and would show their gratitude by never contacting him.

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