Getting up close and personal with Einstein

Hebrew University’s Einstein Archives is computerizing 80,000 documents – some scientific, some private.

Albert Einstein archives at Hebrew University 370 (photo credit: Judy Siegel)
Albert Einstein archives at Hebrew University 370
(photo credit: Judy Siegel)
The Ancient Library of Alexandria – the major collection of written knowledge 1,948 years before the Common Era – was “accidentally” destroyed by a fire set by Julius Caesar during his military activity in Egypt. Fortunately, with today’s increased digitization of information and computer storage around the world, such a tragic loss of human wisdom could never occur again.
It was not only to conserve data but also to make it freely accessible to anyone around the world that the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Albert Einstein Archives is being computerized into a free online archive of 80,000 documents by and about the world’s greatest-ever physicist.
The collection of information about the man and genius scientist, family man and statesman has been put online in an expanded format just in time to mark the 133rd anniversary of his birth. Although a relatively bare-boned digital archive was set up in Jerusalem in 2003, the new one is much more comprehensive, containing thousands of facsimile pages in the form of PDF files, images and translations that will continue to grow as more is processed and translated.
Diagrams and photographs can already be accessed at
The online Jerusalem archives, the only academic website of its kind, lists more than 40,000 of Einstein’s personal papers and over 30,000 additional documents of his or related to his life and work. The HU-led team includes the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and New Jersey’s Princeton University Press. The university’s Einstein Archives, physically located adjacent to the Jewish National University Library on the Givat Ram campus, is expected to be accessed electronically by countless people.
It was appropriate that HU is the home of the paper archives, as Einstein was a founder of the university and bequeathed to it all his personal papers and intellectual property, along with the revenues deriving from it.
The physical collection was the result of almost 50 years of work in Germany (where he was born), the US (where he remained after a visit from Berlin when Hitler came to power in 1933) and Israel.
Einstein was a “prolific letter writer,” according to former HU president Prof.
Hanoch Gutfreund, a senior theoretical physicist, lifelong Einstein buff and academic head of the Einstein Archives. “This online archive is a cultural and scientific asset to be shared by everybody,” says Gutfreund. “Academics already had access to material, but it was not easy. They had to write and apply.
They didn’t know what was here. Now anyone can,” he said, “and it will have great impact on scholars and laymen.”
But Einstein was also a “poor record keeper,” so he hired others to put his papers into some systematic order. First it was his stepdaughter, Ilse, followed by his longtime devoted secretary, Helen Dukas. When Einstein decided to stay in the US when Germany was taken over, his son-in-law, Rudolf Kayser, rescued some of his papers from Berlin with the help of the French embassy and they were sent to Princeton. But most of the material left at Einstein’s summer home near Berlin had to be destroyed to keep it safe from the Nazis.
About a decade after Einstein’s death in 1955, the collection was reorganized by Dukas and Harvard University Prof. Gerald Holton and made accessible to scholars.
Eventually they became the Albert Einstein Archives, and all the literary rights were transferred to the Hebrew University as stated in his will. Since then, many additional personal collections of reprints, photos, diplomas, medals – including his 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics – and his private library were dispatched to HU as well.
U n i v e r s i t y staffers prepared for days and nights to ensure that its servers could handle millions of hits when the expanded online archive was unveiled at the Givat Ram campus on March 19. Present were not only Gutfreund and current HU president Prof.
Menahem Ben-Sasson, but also benefactor Dr. Leonard Polonsky, who has a charitable foundation in the UK.
Polonsky, who previously digitized the Sir Isaac Newton Library housed at the University of Cambridge, has given HU $500,000 to turn the printed words of and about Einstein into electronic text over the next three years.
Ben-Sasson stated at the opening: “We have invested considerable effort to advance this project and are happy to make the world of this great scientist and person accessible to the interested general public.”. Ben-Sasson noted that the website presents some 5,000 Einstein-authored items related to the university – thus showing his deep involvement in its establishment in 1918 and opening in 1925.
About two-thirds of the documents appear in the original German, which was the Jewish physicist’s mother tongue and the language he spoke until his escape from the Nazis; the rest are in English and other tongues, according to Dr. Roni Grosz, the curator of the Jerusalem archives. Einstein bequeathed to HU all his personal papers and intellectual property including the rights to use his image; this had earned the university a good income of many millions of dollars over the years. As if to say thank you, the university has devoted itself to locating, borrowing and even purchasing Einstein’s papers and letters he received and sent. Grosz said that in the 1980s, a single Einstein letter went for some $30, while today, it would cost $3,000 to $5,000.
The expanded site will initially feature a visual display of about 2,000 selected documents amounting to 7,000 pages related to Einstein’s scientific work, public activities and private life up to the year 1921. These documents are sorted according to five categories: scientific activity, the Jewish people, the Hebrew University, public activities and private life. Users can use an advanced search engine to see all related documents by subject and, in the case of letters, by author and recipient.
Glass-topped cases set up at the press conference showed documents that had never before been visually accessible to the public.
IN A speech delivered to a Zionist audience in Berlin in 1921 upon his return from his first visit to the US, Einstein provides a written overview of the history of German Jewry in modern times culminating in a call to support the Zionist effort. In America, Einstein had advocated financial support for the nascent university in Jerusalem by American Jews. In Berlin, he explained to a German- Jewish public why the innate feeling of national identity is also based on rationality and leads invariably to support of the Zionist cause: “Palestine is for us Jews not a mere matter of charity or colonization: it is a problem of paramount importance for the Jewish people. Palestine is first and foremost not a refuge for East European Jews, but the incarnation of a reawakening sense of national solidarity for all Jews.”
Even though his discoveries led to the development of the atomic bomb, Einstein was convinced that the future of humanity would be better served if it was based on an intimate community of the nations rather than aggressive nationalism. This was reflected in a correspondence between Einstein and Azmi El-Nashashibi, the editor of the English-language Arab newspaper Falastin, in the aftermath of the 1929 Hebron riots. In his second letter to El- Nashashibi, published in Falastin in March 1930, Einstein expressed his hope that the conflicts between Jews and Arabs could be resolved by a council of wise men consisting of an even number of members of each community.
Gutfreund later described Einstein’s proposition as “naive.”
Another letter written by Einstein at the request of US black activist W.E.B. Du Bois was published in the February 1932 issue of The Crisis. “It seems to be a universal fact that minorities, especially when their individuals are recognizable because of physical differences, are treated by the majorities among whom they live as an inferior class,” Einstein wrote. “The tragic part of such a fate, however, lies not only in the automatically realized disadvantages suffered by these minorities in economic and social relations, but also in the fact that those who meet such treatment themselves for the most part acquiesce in the prejudices because of suggestive influence of the majority and come to regard people like themselves as inferior.
This second and more important aspect of the evil can be met through closer union and conscious educational enlightenment among the minority, and so emancipation of the soul of the minority can be attained. The determined effort of the American Negroes in this direction deserves every recognition and assistance.”
Text he wrote to address a dinner of the American Fund for Israel Institutions on the occasion of the US tour of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1950 included these words: “Israel’s significance has always been to create and embody intellectual and spiritual values. The new state should be regarded only as a means to serve these goals effectively and not as a means in itself, still less as an instrument of political ambitions.”
THE GREAT physicist’s personal life does not escape attention. He wrote often to his mother, Pauline, when he was traveling: “Dear Mother, Today some happy news. H.A.
Lorentz telegraphed me that the British expeditions have definitely verified the deflection of light by the sun. Maja writes me, to my dismay, that you’re not only in a lot of pain but that you have gloomy thoughts as well. How much I would like to keep you company again so that you aren’t left to such nasty musing.”
The wedding announcement for Einstein’s first marriage is in the archive. In 1903, Einstein married a fellow student from the Zurich Polytechnic, Serbian-born Mileva Maric. Despite their differences in background and Einstein’s parents disapproval of the relationship, they were a very happy couple, deeply in love as one can see from their passionate correspondence at the time. In 1902 they had a baby girl whose fate remains unknown. In 1904 their first son, Hans Albert, was born, joined in 1910 by a second son, Eduard. By this time, their marriage was already deteriorating, and they got divorced officially in 1919 after years of separation.
But there were also personal texts that the university worried about, such as 24 love letters Einstein wrote to the woman who would become his second wife, Elsa – when he was still married to the first. Gutfreund notes: “I didn’t know what to do. I consulted a university law school professor on privacy law.
He told me that if nobody involved is still alive who could be offended, it is all right. So the letters were published in our archives.”
Einstein married Elsa Loewenthal in 1919, after having had a relationship with her for seven years. She was his first cousin through his mother and his second cousin through his father. Two years after both of them settled in the US, Elsa contracted heart and kidney problems and died.
Betty Neumann was 23 years old when Albert Einstein, 21 years her senior, fell in love with her in 1923. The affair with Neumann, which took place well into his second marriage, lasted for almost two years. Elsa knew about it but could not prevent it, according to archive material. Einstein continued to have affairs throughout his marriage, which he saw as an arrangement of convenience. His opinion about matrimony in general is summed up in the following quote attributed to him: “Marriage is the unsuccessful attempt to make something lasting out of an incident.” In May 1938, in a letter sent from her home in Graz, Austria to Einstein in Princeton, 15 years after their affair, Neumann referred to their common past and asked him to help her immigrate to America. Einstein, renowned for his generosity, did indeed assist her by granting her an affidavit and thus saved her from Nazi Europe.
Advanced search technology will enable the display of all related documents by subject and, in the case of letters, by author and recipient. The first line or title of each document will also be displayed, alongside information on date, provenance and publication history. “In this way the content of the archives can be explored via a new user-friendly interface customized for this goal,” explains project manager Dalia Mendelsson.
“This interface provides easy navigation through the life and scientific career of Albert Einstein.”
Thanks to this archive, concludes Gutfreund, “we have we learned so much about Einstein and his scholarship. In 2000, Time magazine named him ‘Man of the Century’ and presented an 11-page article about him.
There was nothing about his personal life or on his links with the Hebrew University. We provide an integral picture of his personality, great science and being a human being who expressed his views about everything on the agenda of mankind. There was something very unique about him. Now we have a complete and full picture of that person.”