An Ongoing Power of Attraction

The list of those who corresponded with Einstein is a "who's who" of his period, but the great scientist also paid attention to the letters of ordinary people.

Issachar Unna
Issachar Unna

"The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein" (Volumes 1-10), edited by Diana K. Buchwald, et al, Princeton University Press, 1987-2006

A sculpture of Albert Einstein adorns the facade of Riverside Church overlooking the Hudson River in New York City. When the Protestant church was being built and its planners decided to commemorate a number of intellectual giants in their project, beginning with Socrates and Plato, Einstein was the only living person to be so honored. The experts at the time were in agreement regarding his right to be included. Einstein is the father of the two modern scientific theories that describe our world: the quantum theory, explaining the structure of matter, the atom and its components, and the theory of relativity and gravity, which overshadows Newton's theory and explains the structure and the fate of the universe. Both theories entirely changed the world of scientific thinking. All the fundamental concepts of our physical world - light, matter, space, time, energy - were revolutionized during by Einstein, and he also played a role in developments in the everyday world, from the computer to the laser.

A preoccupation with science is reflected in the 10 volumes of Einstein's papers that have been published to date. But these volumes touch on much more than that - on his human and ideological side. Einstein was a citizen of the world, a pacifist who hated ultra-nationalism and who was involved in all the great historical events of the first half of the 20th century. He was in contact with the world's great personalities, and met with Sigmund Freud, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Masaryk and even David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann. He corresponded with the greatest writers of his era, such as Paul Valery, Romain Rolland, Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann.

The list of those who corresponded with Einstein is a "who's who" of his period, but the great scientist also paid attention to the letters of ordinary people. He made sure to reply to the many children who wrote to him, and to a girl who complained about her difficulties with math, he replied: "I can promise you that my difficulties in mathematics are greater than yours."

Maintaining privacy

In a will that he wrote in 1950, five years before his death, Einstein bequeathed his personal archive - which included about 40,000 documents at the time - as well as his library and all his intellectual assets to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which he helped to found. In accordance with his will, the first executors of his estate were his loyal secretary, Helen Dukas, and his attorney, Otto Nathan. Upon the death of Dukas, in February 1982, the estate was transferred from his Princeton home to Jerusalem, and since then it has been located in the basement of the Jewish National and University Library on the university's Givat Ram campus.

Even earlier, in 1971, a contract was signed between Princeton University Press and the executors of the estate to publish all of Einstein's papers, but the first volume was published only in 1987, due to conflicts. Dukas and Nathan wanted to be involved in the editing in order to maintain Einstein's privacy. The editors and the publisher were opposed to this, claiming that the material sheds light on him in his entirety, both in terms of his personality and his contribution to science. After 11 years of negotiations in various judicial venues the editors won, and publication of Einstein's papers got under way.

At the end of 1985 when the first volume - dealing with Einstein's childhood and youth (1879-1902), up until his appointment as a clerk in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland - was ready for publication, one of the editors discovered that a relative possessed a collection of love letters from Einstein to Mileva, who eventually became his first wife. It was immediately clear that publication of the volume should be halted, and thus there was an additional delay. Since then the work on Einstein's papers has continued apace. It subsequently moved from Princeton to Boston, and among the editors are several of the most important historians of science in our era (including John Stachel, and Martin Klein). In 2000, after seven volumes had been published, the editorial staff moved to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, where the new editor, Diana Kormos-Buchwald, is a teacher and researcher. The staff includes physicists and historians (including this writer).

The editorial staff has a complete and reliable copy of the holding, of the Jerusalem-based archive. Over the years thousands of papers were added to the archive, which were discovered, purchased or donated. New documents are received almost every month. At present the archive contains about 55,000 documents, including all articles and books on the theory of relativity and quantum theory, as well as unpublished drafts of articles and speeches. Many papers deal with human rights, education, Zionism, relations between Jews and Arabs, world peace, disarmament, philosophy, religion and science. Many are of a personal nature - particularly the letters to Mileva and to Einstein's second wife, Elsa, his children, Hans-Albert and Eduard, and his close friends. A large collection of these letters was opened to the public a few months ago (with the consent of the owner of the collection, Einstein's stepdaughter Margot), after it had been closed and sealed in the archive for almost 25 years.

The publication of all of Einstein's papers is one of the most ambitious publishing ventures ever undertaken in the field of documentation. They are being published in chronological order and in their original language (predominantly German). Each volume includes a booklet with an English translation. Each document is researched in order to determine its authenticity (determined by the handwriting, in most cases) and date, plus there is an examination of additional documents and of the relevant biographical and historical background concerning the document. To date 10 volumes have been published, which cover Einstein's life up to the age of 41 (up to 1920). Two additional volumes (a general index and papers from 1921) are scheduled to be published shortly.

The estimate is that the entire project will reach 29 volumes, and will include about 15,000 documents. Together they will constitute a treasure for anyone interested in the history of the 20th century, in the history of Zionism, in physics and in Einstein the man. Einstein's brilliant style guarantees fascinating reading. Volume 12, which is soon to be published, will include, among other things, correspondence between him and his good friend, the outstanding chemist and Nobel Prize laureate, Fritz Haber. Haber, a Jew who converted to Christianity, and a German patriot, wrote to Einstein on March 9, 1921, immediately after discovering that Einstein was planning to travel to the United States with Chaim Weizmann, the president of the Zionist Federation, to raise donations to found a university in Jerusalem.

"If at this time you travel to America, whose president is opposed to peace talks with Germany, if at this time you travel with British friends, at a time when the sanctions that they imposed on us emphasize in the strongest way possible the enmity between England and us," Haber wrote, "that will constitute a public declaration before the entire world that you are nothing more than a Swiss who happens to live in Germany. Do you really want that now? This is the time when loyalty to Germany requires sacrifice: The British and the Belgians want to strip Albert Einstein of his German robes. If you lend a hand to that, the German Jews will suffer as a result. If at this time you become friendly with the British, that will be proof of the Jews' lack of loyalty."

On the very same day Einstein replied to him: "Clearly (the Zionists) do not need me for my ability and my talents, but only for my name. They believe that my power of attraction will lead to reasonable results among the wealthy members of my people in Dollaria [Einstein's nickname for the United States]. In spite of my international tendencies, I always feel an obligation to help the persecuted and downtrodden members of my people as much as I can. Therefore I readily agreed, without requiring more than five minutes to think about it. My trip is therefore much more an act of loyalty than of disloyalty."



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