13 May 1942
All in all, thought Enrico Fermi, house arrest was not such a bad thing, especially when you considered the fate of poor Emilio, rotting away in Regina Coeli. They had allowed him to keep his books and his radio, and he was allowed to keep up with the various physics journals he subscribed to. Although he himself was not allowed to leave their apartment, Laura was permitted to travel with a police escort to the market to buy food and other things, and the children were able to go to school.
He had gotten to know the various policemen who were charged with guarding himself and his family. Thus, it came as a considerable surprise to him when the apartment door opened one evening to reveal an unfamiliar face in the familiar police uniform. It was also a deviation from the familiar pattern of the day's events, and thus potentially dangerous.
"Good evening, Dr. Fermi," the new policeman said. He had a pronounced Sicilian accent.
"Good evening, officer," Fermi responded cautiously. "What can I do for you?"
"As a matter of fact," the policeman said, "I am here to find out if there is something I can do for you."
Was he hitting Fermi up for a bribe? If so, would he get in trouble for offering one or for refusing to offer one? "What do you mean?" said Fermi fearfully.
"I mean I'm here to offer you and your family the chance to escape." said the policeman. "I'm an agent for Polish Military Intelligence."
Fermi quickly discarded the possibility that the self-proclaimed Polish spy might actually by an OVRA agent trying to trick him into an act of treason. After all, he was already under arrest for treason, and if the Fascists wanted to throw him into the Regina Coeli, or execute him, they had no need to use trickery to do so.
"You wish for me to go with you to Poland," Fermi stated.
"Not with me," said the policeman-who-was-a-spy, "but with colleagues of mine, and yes, Poland would be your destination."
"So that I could help the Poles build their own atomic bomb."
"You would not be under any obligation to do so, but I'm sure the Polish government would appreciate any assistance you chose to render."
Fermi sighed. "I once told my colleague Dr. Lizardo that the only thing worse than a warring nation with an atomic bomb would be two warring nations with atomic bombs. You tell me now that I would be under no obligation to help the Poles build a bomb. Will the story change once I am in Poland?"
The Polish spy with the Sicilian accent said, "There is a professorship waiting for you at the Sklodowska Institute. If you like, you can spend your time creating artificial elements, and we will be pleased to let you do so, for the Commonwealth needs brilliant scientists at least as much as it needs weapons designers. However, if you should ever decide that Poland ought to have an atomic bomb as well, we would not refuse your help."
"Would my family and I be in danger if we chose to attempt escape?"
"I will not lie to you, Dr. Fermi," said the spy. "There will be some danger involved. If you are caught, you know that you cannot expect to return to house arrest. You may even be executed by the Italian authorities."
Fermi nodded. "I appreciate candor. How long do we have?"
"Naturally, the sooner we leave, the better, but you have at least an hour to decide."
"I must discuss this with my wife," said Fermi.
The spy nodded. "Do so," he said.
Fermi went into the bedroom where his wife lay in bed reading. When he explained the situation to her, she said, "Of course we must leave. I do not want Nella and Giulio growing up in a prison, even if that prison is our apartment. You tell this man -- what is his name?"
"I didn't ask."
Laura Fermi rolled her eyes. "Tell this nameless spy that we will be ready to leave in ten minutes." So saying, she rose from the bed and began to dress.
Fermi returned to the apartment's living room, where the spy stood waiting calmly. "We will be ready to leave in ten minutes."
"Thank you, Dr. Fermi."
"Incidentally," Fermi said, "what is your name?"
The spy smiled now for the first time. He said, "You may call me 'Virgil'."