These intimate, candid descriptions of the private life of Albert Einstein come from a series of interviews with Herta Waldow, a housekeeper who lived with Einstein and his wife and daughter from 1927 to 1933 at their residence in Berlin. After World War II, science historian Friedrich Herneck interviewed Ms. Waldow and published the conversations in the former East Germany. Unavailable in English till now, these five interviews offer fascinating glimpses into the great scientist's daily routines while he lived as a celebrated scientist in Weimar Germany.
Einstein's well-known idiosyncrasies come to life in these conversations: his disheveled hair that was only poorly trimmed by his myopic wife, his love of classical music, his playing of the violin to help him think, his delight in sailing, his wide circle of friends and many social engagements, and his female companions besides his wife. Many celebrity acquaintances are also mentioned: from movie star Charlie Chaplin and conductor Erich Kleiber to writers Thomas and Heinrich Mann and fellow scientists Max Planck, Max Born, and Erwin Schrödinger.
With a detailed introduction that puts these interviews in context, these colorful conversations create a vivid picture of Albert Einstein the man.
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About the Author
Friedrich Herneck (1909-1993) was a German historian of science. Among his many books were Einstein and His Worldview and Einstein and the Atom Bomb.
Josef Eisinger is the author of Einstein on the Road and the translator of Brahms's letters in Johannes Brahms, Life and Letters, by Styra Avins. A native of Vienna, he is a physicist whose research has ranged from nuclear physics to molecular biology and from the history of medicine to music history. He is professor emeritus in the Department of Structural and Chemical Biology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, the author of some two hundred articles in professional journals and books, and the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships.
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Einstein at Home
By Friedrich Herneck, Josef Eisinger
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2016 Friedrich Herneck
All rights reserved.
Elsa Einstein, Albert's wife, must have been in an uneasy frame of mind as she headed for the employment agency in Berlin's Jägerstrasse, that morning in June of 1927. She had had little luck with domestic servants, but the departure of her latest housekeeper had been the last straw: Not only had the woman left her job without giving notice but she had taken several pieces of the family silver with her. For the wife of a world-famous scientist who is obliged to host many dinner parties and other social gatherings, it loomed as a calamity. But lo, this was to be Frau Elsa's lucky day! At the agency she met the twenty-one-year-old Herta Schiefelbein, who had come to look for a new position. The two women struck up an immediate rapport, and together they went to the Haberlandstrasse where Herta was shown the Einsteins' apartment. They agreed on terms of employment, and by lunchtime Herta was preparing lamb chops and green beans for the Einstein family, a dish that Albert pronounced the tastiest he had ever eaten.
This is how Herta came to join Einstein's household. Before long, she was a quasi-member of the family, which included Einstein's two step-daughters and their husbands. She was cherished by them all, and she lived in their midst until 1933, when Hitler's accession to power compelled the Einsteins to forsake their two domiciles in Berlin.
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Leaping fifty years into the future, we meet Herta again, in conversation with Friedrich Herneck, a historian of science, who had invited her to reminisce about her life in the Einstein ménage. The year is 1978, and their five conversations take place at Herta's home in East Berlin, at the time the capital of the German Democratic Republic (DDR), or East Germany. In the five intervening decades, Herta Schiefelbein had married — she is now Herta Waldow — and had raised a son; Europe had been ravaged by the Nazis and by war, and the house in the Haberlandstrasse had been reduced to rubble in a bombing raid; but Herta's intelligence is as keen as ever, and her recollections of her life with the Einsteins are still vivid.
Herneck, her interlocutor, had a somewhat enigmatic past that reflects the political upheavals of twentieth-century Europe. After serving in the Wehrmacht in a noncombatant role, he found himself at war's end in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp — whether he defected or was captured is unclear. There he became an ardent Marxist, and, as an experienced stage actor and effective speaker, he was soon employed by his Soviet captors to re-educate his fellow prisoners. Following his release, Herneck lectured on dialectical materialism, the official Marxist philosophy, in various schools run by the DDR's Socialist Unity Party (SED), and finally at Humboldt University in Berlin where his course — three lectures a week — was mandatory for all students. East Germany was in those days an authoritarian state, and its citizens were indoctrinated in Marxist teachings from an early age. Although Herneck supported his country's political system, he remarked in his lectures on certain logical flaws in the official doctrine, and eventually this came to the attention of the authorities. Herneck was accused of "revisionism" (questioning the official dogma) and was abruptly relieved of his teaching duties. Thanks to the intervention of an influential friend, he was permitted to work on the history of science and was, in time, rewarded with a professorship in Berlin. Herneck's scholarly interests were centered on the lives of notable nineteenth- and twentieth-century scientists, on their contributions and their philosophy, and he is the author of a number of carefully researched biographical books, several of them devoted to Einstein. But his work, published in the DDR, is little known in the West.
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Chapter 4 of this book presents the five conversations in their entirety, in a translation that aims to preserve for anglophones the authentic flavor of Waldow's recollections. The copious notes of chapters 3 and 4 provide background information and brief biographies of the persons mentioned in the conversations.
Herneck's chief purpose was to draw out Waldow's recollections of her life with the Einsteins, and to convey thereby the atmosphere that pervaded their home. Waldow, for her part, perceived Einstein not as the celebrated scientist but as a kind and generous employer — the best she had encountered. She recalls how respectful and solicitous he always was toward her and her family, and how readily he was given to hearty laughter. We discover Einstein's favorite foods (heading the list are strawberries), what he liked to wear, his smoking habits, and who used to cut his hair; we also learn a good deal about Einstein's relationship with Elsa and with his women friends, and what provoked the occasional rows with Elsa. Waldow's story also reveals the enormous importance of music in Einstein's daily life, and we learn of his empathy with animals, specifically with a dog, a cat, and a parakeet. (Later on, in Princeton, he lived with a dog, numerous cats, and a parrot.) In short, Waldow gives us a pretty good idea of how Einstein spent his days in Berlin, from breakfast to night — particularly when her story is combined with Einstein's diary, in which he records his activities during a two-week period in 1931 (see chapter 3, the section titled "Two Weeks at Home").
On a larger scale, Waldow's recollections offer a glimpse of the social life of Berlin's academic and societal elite. We learn that the Einsteins often gave dinner parties for up to twenty-four guests, and we discover what dishes were served, who did the cooking, who peeled the asparagus, and even who washed the dishes. Unimportant as these minutiae may be, in toto they impart to us the flavor of Einstein's life in Berlin. Apart from formal dinners, the Einsteins also hosted informal gatherings and presentations to invited guests, for example, by Einstein, upon his return from a voyage. There was also a constant stream of visitors, both in the Berlin apartment and in nearby Caputh, the site of their summer home; some were occasional guests, such as the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore or Charlie Chaplin, and recurrent visitors from the conductor Erich Kleiber, colleagues such as Max Planck, and the cigar-smoking actress Hedwig Wangel to the American banker Henry Goldman — and dare one forget the "old Jewish man" who delivered fresh eggs to the Einsteins' apartment each week?
As a self-confessed aficionado of Einstein's life, Herneck could not resist injecting his own comments into his conversations with Waldow, usually to provide useful background information, and sometimes to present the results of his own research, such as what happened to Einstein's home and sailboat after 1933. From time to time, Herneck also raises ideological issues — some, evidently, for the benefit of the party officials who scrutinized his writings on behalf of the "head office for eternal truths," as Herneck liked to call it. That this was a necessary ritual for authors in the DDR is borne out by the opening sentence of another book by Herneck: "Albert Einstein, one of the greatest Germans, after Karl Marx, occupies a unique position in the history of modern science."
Herneck lived to see the Berlin Wall come down (1989). We do not know how he came to terms with the demise of the DDR, an event that must have had a wrenching effect on many academics and intellectuals who had invested heavily in Marxism and the DDR's official dogma, something not often considered. I am therefore very pleased that Professor Dieter B. Herrmann, an eminent historian of astronomy and a former student of Friedrich Herneck, agreed to contribute a short essay that addresses their dilemma. It appears in chapter 2.
* * *
Herta Waldow's recollections should be viewed against the backdrop of Weimar Germany in its last years; similarly, her reminiscences should be seen in light of the circumstances that brought Einstein to Berlin and made him a world celebrity. This background is provided in chapter 3, which also serves to introduce many of the personalities discussed in Waldow's conversations with Herneck in chapter 4. The first three conversations describe life in the Einsteins' city apartment, the fourth is devoted to their summer home in Caputh, and the fifth describes events in the aftermath of Hitler's accession to power.
Excerpted from Einstein at Home by Friedrich Herneck, Josef Eisinger. Copyright © 2016 Friedrich Herneck. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Alice Calaprice 9
Time Line 15
Chapter 1 Introductory Remarks 19
Chapter 2 Friedrich Herneck, Historian of Science in Difficult Times Dieter B. Herrmann 23
Chapter 3 Einstein's Road to Berlin-and Beyond Josef Eisinger 27
Early Years (1879-1895) 28
Student in Zurich (1896-1901) 32
Patent Clerk in Bern (1902-1908) 34
Zurich and Prague (1909-1913) 37
Berlin (1914-1932) 40
The War Years, Divorce, and General Relativity 40
Fame, Politics, and the Gyrocompass 43
Zionist and Voyager 46
Einstein at Fifty: Caputh and Pasadena 49
Two Weeks at Home 52
Weimar Culture and Science 55
Princeton (1933-1955) 57
Farewell to Europe 57
Chapter 4 Einstein at Home, Herta W. Recalls the Years 1927 to 1933, by Friedrich Herneck 63
First Conversation: The Apartment in the Haberlandstrasse 63
Second Conversation: Frequent Visitors and Rare Guests 94
Third Conversation: Family-Vacations-Foreign Journeys 114
Fourth Conversation: Summer House and Sailboat in Caputh 136
Fifth Conversation: The House Searched and Plundered-Interrogation 158
Select Bibliography 195