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Albert Einstein saved his energy, and the use of his fame, for two things: Understanding the laws of nature was one, and aiding his Jewish brethren – who so needed a homeland and a refuge from the horrors of Hitler – was the other. These letters – some handwritten, some typed and signed – reflect his passionate commitment to the survival of the Jewish people. Most remarkable, perhaps, is that in this work, running what he called his own kind of “immigration office,” Einstein personally saved hundreds of Jewish lives from Hitler’s persecution and death camps. He was also concerned with the creation of a homeland for his people and in building a University in Jerusalem. This virtual exhibit includes some select items that were displayed at the original exhibition.
Einstein and the Holocaust
Einstein and the Holocaust
In the 1930s, Einstein worked to save as many Jews from Hitler’s persecution as possible. Although overshadowed by his scientific achievements, this may have been the most remarkable of his life: he personally saved hundreds of Jewish lives. Also not widely known is his writing at the time of The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag, which documented in hard fact what few outside of Germany could imagine: concentration camps; book burnings; the brutal persecution of the Jews. It chronicled, too, Nazi complicity in the burning of the Reichstag and for this the German government condemned Einstein. A bounty was put on his head: one million dollars for the man who would kill him. This amused Einstein. “I did not know,” he said, smiling and touching his long white hair, “it was worth so much.”
Hitler wanted the Jews out of Germany, but he would not let them leave. By 1939, Jews wishing to emigrate were lucky if they could take 4% of their savings – their property already having been confiscated and their right to earn a living forbidden by the Nazis. Those who could afford to leave had to gather affidavits, sponsors, certificates, and visas, that they might meet foreign quota requirements of age, skills, health, and relatives abroad. Even with the endless paperwork completed, it was almost impossible to find a country which would allow a Jew to enter. This was the refugee problem Einstein set out to solve when, after the advent of Hitler in ‘33, he declared he would not set foot on German soil again. Anyone who asked for his help in escaping Nazism, got it – and more – as this letter to a young German émigré to Los Angeles, reveals.
Einstein saw, earlier than most, that Europe was not a safe place for Jews. By 1933, he had cleared out of Europe but went back to warn others of the coming scourge. Writing ten years later to another early anti-Nazi activist, Einstein mentions how, “if those fellows would have taken to heart more seriously your information… with which I traveled around Belgium and England during 1933, all these horrors would not have existed.” Unfortunately, writing in 1943 before the horrors of the Holocaust were fully known, Einstein was only half right.
Between 1939 and 1945 the German government, first methodically and then frantically, gassed, starved, shot, hung, and tortured to death anyone born to Jewish parents. Six million Jews – about two-thirds of European Jewry – died in the Holocaust. Einstein never forgave the Germans. “After the Germans bestially murdered more than half of my Jewish brethren,” he writes here, “it is impossible for me to participate in any German public endeavor.”
A Jewish Homeland
A Jewish Homeland
Einstein says no to nationalism, and yes to the “durability of the Jewish community” which he believes is “to a large degree based on our geographical dispersion, and the fact that we consequently do not possess instruments of power that will allow us to commit great stupidities out of national fanaticism.”
“The persecutions,” he concludes, “will never cause the Jews to perish.”
As Nazi terror was poised to spread across Germany, a Jewish refuge in Peru seemed like a good idea. 20,000 Eastern European Jews, who had fled to Berlin to work as laborers during the First World War, now languished there, stranded.
Einstein wanted was a homeland in which Jewish culture, ethics, and intellectual life might flourish; what he did not want was a state, with an army, interests, and endless strife. When the State of Israel was declared six years later, Einstein’s attitude had changed. Although he had never considered the idea of a state a good one, once Israel was established, there was no going back. “One has to fight it out,” he said.
If, in the 20s, Einstein had come to believe that Palestine was a land without people for a people without land, the Arab slaughter of Jews in the 1929 Hebron riots swiftly dispelled the illusion. The solution to the problem, Einstein thought, was to be found in a bi-national formula: the Arabs and Jews needed to share a common state in historic Palestine. Even after the Holocaust, Einstein resisted the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and temporal power. Einstein held his shared homeland views, much to the dismay of the Zionist community, all the way until 1948 – when the creation of Israel made a Jewish state a fact.
At the heart of a Jewish homeland, Einstein thought, there would be a Hebrew University, administered for Jews by Jews, where Jews could for once study without hindrance, free of discrimination and quotas. The establishment of such a “moral center” was, for Einstein, a necessity. In this he affirms that when it comes to the University, he is like a wild man.
When Einstein visited the site on which the University was to arise, he was invited to speak from “the lectern that has waited for you for two thousand years.”
In German, on his personal letterhead, Haberlandstr 5, Berlin.
Nothing in his life, Einstein said, gave him such pleasure as helping found the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In addition to raising money for the building, he served on its Board, spoke at its inauguration, and bequeathed to it all of his papers: 80,000 letters, memos, notes, diaries, sketches, drafts, calculations, photos, documents, and manuscripts. Here, at the end of his life, he gives it his own, with this check written three months before his death.
Theodor Herzl had three children, though their lives were far from fulfilled, happy, or glorious. In 1930 one daughter died of a drug overdose. Her distraught brother, who had famously converted from Judaism to Catholicism, killed himself a day later.
Here Einstein tells Marcel Sternberger, that the young Herzl’s “wasted life constitutes a warning to all Jews against defection from their people.”
Although Einstein identified himself, first and foremost, as a scientist, his sense of himself as a Jew was never far behind. Assimilationism, with its implicit assumption of inferiority and complicit assumption of anti-Semitism, irritated and pained him.
For about a third of the last century, one could write to the most famous person in the world, and receive an answer. A Jewish German émigré to Los Angeles asked Einstein for a favor involving, apparently, his photo and the name of his sons. To be a Jew, Einstein felt, meant that history had imposed upon one a severe struggle – which could, and would, be overcome by intelligence, achievement and righteousness.
In German, on his personal letterhead, 112 Mercer Street, Princeton, New Jersey.
He was Jewish, he said: after that, came stipulations. Einstein was, by his own description, also an agnostic, an atheist, and religious. Einstein’s God revealed Himself in the infinitely marvelous structure of the world, atomic and stellar, as far as human thought could grasp it; what He was not, however, was concerned with the fate and actions of men.That task, Einstein believed, was man’s alone.
By 1939, at the age of sixty, Einstein’s losses were mounting: his wife dead, a step-daughter too, a son lost to madness, his own life uprooted and now lived in exile. His relentless battle to single-handedly save as many Jews from Hitler as he could, was lost as well: with the advent of war, it was impossible for Jews to emigrate from Germany. How he dealt with “all the difficulties and bitterness that the past years have brought” is the subject of this painful, realistic, and ultimately optimistic letter. It concerns a “blow that has hit [him] terribly hard” – the death of his six-year old grandson. He tells his son that to “stand up to life in the best possible way” – whatever the cause, whatever the result – is to prevail.
Einstein not only wrote about the heavens and the mystery of time as a scientist, but he wrote about everyday life as a poet. Here is an example from 1930.
Einstein’s unbounded admiration for the structure of the world, so far as science could reveal it, was what he meant when, more informally than not, he used the word “God.” Here he explicates on his faith, rejecting a personal God who would directly influence or judge the actions of individuals.
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