This Day in Jewish History / Einstein Reaches New York

After settling in the U.S. as a refugee from Nazi Germany, Einstein campaigned for the U.S. to develop an atomic bomb.

On this day in 1933, Albert Einstein arrived in New York harbor on the S.S. Westernland, never to return to his native Germany. Einstein had been in the United States as a visiting professor six months earlier, when Hitler came to power. When he and his wife, Elsa, returned to Europe in late March 1933, and learned that their Berlin home had been raided by the Nazis, he entered the German consulate in Antwerp and renounced his citizenship. He also resigned from the Prussian Academy of Sciences.

After several months in Belgium and the United Kingdom, Einstein returned to the U.S., taking up an appointment at the newly created Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey. He was then 55. Two years later, he applied for American citizenship (which he received in 1940). Elsa died in December 1936.

Einstein had won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for his 1905 work on the photoelectric effect (which made possible the development of quantum theory). He also wrote his seminal work on the special theory of relativity (about the variable nature of the speed of light) in 1905. He spent his remaining years in the United States trying to come up with a unified field theory (a comprehensive theory that would explain gravitation and electromagnetism) and refute quantum theory (whose suggestions of randomness disturbed him)  – two tasks at which he failed.

Although he had considered himself a pacifist until Hitler came to power, Einsten now found himself joining with another refugee physicist, Leo Szilard, in writing to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to warn him of the danger inherent in the Germans’ race to build an atom bomb and TO encourage the United States to begin the necessary research to develop its own nuclear capacity. His encouragement is seen as one of the key factors in the American launching of the Manhattan Project, in December 1941. There were of course many other Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who found a haven in the United States, and Einstein commented to a friend at the time, "In my whole life I have never felt so Jewish as now."

Einstein did not participate in the Manhattan Project, being considered a security threat by the FBI for his enthusiasm for the idea of world government, among other subversive beliefs, and he was denied the security clearance to even visit the Los Alamos, New Mexico, lab where the bomb was developed. Fifteen years after signing his first of four letters to Roosevelt on the subject, Einstein told a friend he considered the campaign to be the “one great mistake in my life.”   

Einstein was involved in Zionist activity during the 1930s and 1940s (his lone visit to Palestine was in 1922) and was even offered the opportunity to be Israel’s second president, after the death of Chaim Weizmann – an honor he respectfully declined. He also was active in the NAACP and other civil-rights organizations and lobbied for nuclear disarmament. He died on April 18, 1955, in Princeton.