Meet the Kindertransport refugee who fled the Nazis and turbo-charged mankind’s journey into outer space

Ben Abeles co-invented a thermoelectric generator used to power Nasa's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 missions


After Kindertransport refugee Ben Abeles arrived in the UK from Prague aged 14, his father wrote to him begging him to get a good education so he would “count for somebody”.

More letters followed but within a year and a half, they dried up: both his father and mother were murdered in a Nazi death camp in Poland.

But Abeles turned his father’s words into a remarkable reality. He went on to become a pioneering scientist whose research into alloys changed space exploration.

Now, a trove of documents belonging to Abeles — including the missive containing that plea to study “until your precious head hurts” — has been donated by his widow, Helen, to the University of Southampton, home to one of the largest Jewish archives in western Europe.

The collection chronicles the period spent by Abeles — who died in 2020 aged 95 — flying with a Czech squadron attached to the RAF, his PhD in Israel and his work at the Radio Corporation of America.

It was here that he completed his pioneering work to co-invent a thermoelectric generator used to power space probes.

The technology was bought by Nasa and used on the space agency’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 missions, and on its more recent Mars rover missions, Perseverance and Curiosity.

Also in the archive is the tag placed around Abeles’ neck when he boarded the Kindertransport and, most poignantly, the other letters his parents wrote to him from Czechoslovakia.

In one of the intimate telegram-style missives from 1939, his mother tells him: “I keep all your photographs on my vanity table so that I have you in front of me all the time… At night I dream about my boy.” Another heartbreaking letter, from May 1940, reads:

“It is so painful for me to know that you are so alone …On Mother’s Day I stayed in bed all day and cried my eyes out.” The next month she told him: “My dearest wish is that we could embrace one another.”

He received only two short messages after this, in August that year, via the German Red Cross.

When the war ended he returned home to Prague to discover that his mother, father and sister, Mary, had all been taken to the Trawniki concentration camp in Poland, where they were killed.

Abeles, who was born in Vienna in 1925 before living in Czechoslovakia from 1934, thought about his parents “every single day, even in his nineties”, Helen said. “It was because of them that he was so determined to make something of himself,” she said.

She added: “He would tell me that the real heroes of the Kindertransport story are the parents who, through courage and foresight, made the sacrifice to let go of their children and send them away to an unknown but hopefully happier life.”

The Ben Abeles archive can be viewed on request at the University of Southampton.

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