So, You Knew Albert Einstein?

That’s what Jessica asked me yesterday, July 27, 2000 in Kauai. Well, the answer is, yes, I did and it is one of my treasured memories. Not because he was world famous, but because of the kind person he was. But that part belongs at the end of this story. It begins really around the time after World War I, with my mother, when she was a young girl, just out of college, I guess and having a great time in Switzerland.

There, one of her best friends actually her real “best friend” for life, was Hella (and I don’t know her maiden name). Hella had a crush, as did all the other girls, on her professor, a mathematician, Herman Weyl. Herman taught at the Institute for Physics in Zurich and before long, he and Hella were married. My mother, Yvonne (as she liked to be called) and Hella remained good friends and Herman became a good friend, also. A member of the circle of friends was Albert Einstein, now famous for his Theory of Relativity and also a professor at the Institute. When Herman and Einstein moved to Goettingen in Germany, they remained in contact, as did Yvonne. Frequent visits to Goettingen with my father, who at the time was just a “friend”, also caused one Theodore von Karman, of aerodynamic fame, to become a frequently encountered acquaintance. Von Karman frequently referred to my mother as the young lady with all the beautiful girl friends, I was told! Not exactly a complement to Yvonne’s beauty!

In 1933 Hitler came to power, and soon, Einstein went to the US, being a Jew and very much undesirable in Germany. Herman and Hella followed out of protest and the entire circle of intellectuals moved to Princeton, New Jersey, to the Institute for Advanced Studies. Here Herman Weyl and Albert Einstein had offices, side by side. A few of the “friends” stayed on in Germany. One was Tilda Keller, who lived with her husband on a large estate in Aachen. Their back fence was exactly on the Belgian border. Von Karman visited there frequently, but he always chose to go through a gate in the back fence. Out of protest against Hitler and his politics, he “never set foot in Germany”, and the Keller house was not considered Germany. In the 1940s this caused them considerable difficulties.

My mother’s and my adventures during that time are recorded elsewhere. Here it is only necessary to say that we found ourselves in New York, after the war. I was finishing my high school education in Kingston, New York, working (sort of) as a bar tender in the Phoenicia Hotel in the afternoons and evenings and getting ready to go to college. Herman Weyl’s son, Achim, presented to me the convincing argument that I should go to Purdue and now, my mother was faced with the task of trying to earn some money so that my education could indeed become a reality. Of course, her sister, Mieze Bieber, as always was ready to be of help, but she had her own daughter, Hanna, to worry about and the income of a country doctor in the Catskills (Phoenicia, NY) was not that great. So Yvonne went to Princeton and looked for some suggestion from the old “circle of friends”.

[I would like to note here that at that time she also made the acquaintance of one Robert Oppenheimer and wife, of atomic bomb fame. I remember her telling me that Oppenheimer’s wife was a real bitch, an opinion strongly confirmed in the later movies made about this great physicist’s wife. She was the one who told Yvonne at a cocktail party: “Oh, come on now, you must have done something illegal to have been in a concentration camp. No one was put there just because they were Jewish”. Yvonne couldn’t believe her ears! This comment in 1947!].

The suggestion in Princeton was that Albert Einstein’s sister, Maja, was old and almost an invalid, and could use a “companion” to help her during the day. It was felt that Yvonne could handle that very well, she was intelligent and a familiar face. So Albert Einstein hired my mother to keep his sister company, stay with her during the day and converse with her, read to her and discuss German poets and philosophers, etc. For that purpose she would come to the Einstein house every morning from the Weyl house, where she stayed during the evening and on weekends, eat breakfast with the family and then move to the veranda or sitting room where Maja would be. They would have lunch together and she would leave in the late afternoon, before dinner. I was not privy to the financial arrangements, but the money was enough for me to attend Purdue, with the help of a small scholarship I received.
In 1947 I did not get to go to the Einstein house at all until after I enrolled as a freshman at Purdue and came home for my first Thanksgiving vacation. Then, living now in Princeton as my official residence, in the house of Herman Weyl, I would drive to pick up my mother. Helen Dukas, the “Professor’s” (as he was referred to by people in his house) secretary, would open the door and tell me to go right on up to the veranda, through the Professor’s study, where he was working. One condition: Do not knock on the door, walk right in, don’t say hello! If one did that, he would have to return to earth from the universe, and that would disturb his concentration. Many times was I privileged to walk through the study, and there was the Professor, his head bent over papers on his desk, the long white hair over his hands, deep in thought and totally unaware of the intruder. At other times, he might be playing Bach on his violin, a treat for the listener, or just be going up or down the stairs in his huge slippers and saying: “Ah, the boy is here to pick up Yvonne”. Always, in that instance, the huge, friendly smile! Never, though, did I have the experience which Yvonne had frequently, to walk by his bathroom, where he would stand in his underwear, shaving and open to political discussions, if you were inclined to do so!
There was a time, while I was home on vacation from Purdue, when Albert Einstein went on vacation to Florida. A reservation had been made on the SILVER BULLET, a Pennsylvania Rail Road train to Miami, for a compartment, free of charge, of course. He was to get on the train in Trenton. Normally his favorite Princeton cab driver would have taken him, but this day he was not available. There was great consternation in the Einstein house as to what to do. It was Yvonne who said: “Why not let Woelf drive him and Helen Dukas?” Everyone thought this was a good idea. So, I showed up at the appointed time in Mercer Street, loaded the luggage in the trunk of our old, clunky Pontiac, put Helen Dukas in the back seat and the Professor in the front, and we were off, down Highway US 1. On the way Albert Einstein asked if I had taken physics yet at school. He proceeded to tell me about these interesting simple experiments and proceeded to ask me how I thought they would come out. Needless to say, I did not do very well with my physics exam: I was concentrating on my driving a bit more than usual. At another point in the trip, when Helen wondered how far it was to Miami, he calculated the mileage in his head by knowing the latitude of Trenton and Miami and converting the latitude differences to miles.

At the station, the stationmaster led us to the spot where the car with Einstein’s compartment was supposed to stop. A sizable crowd deserted the waiting room and stood at a respectful distance, murmuring. I felt a bit self-conscious, but we did not have to wait long before the train arrived. I bade them farewell and when I turned around I became the center of attention: “Was that Professor Einstein?” Yes! “Where is he going?” I don’t know! When later on that evening my mother told my oldest brother, Eric, that I had driven Einstein to Trenton, he, the typical news media man, had a fit. How could you let him do that?! What if he had an accident?! I would be known as the man whose brother killed Einstein in a car accident! (My dear brother always leaned toward the dramatic sides of life I).


While staying at the Weyl house, after Hella had died from cancer of the liver and Herman was by himself, he quite frequently took me to lunch at the dining room in the Institute for Advanced Studies. I don’t remember very much about this, except that I was impressed by the company in the dining room. There was a table for the mathematicians where we ate with Professor Artin. (I had a crush on his good-looking wife, Natasha). At the next table for the physicists, sat Neils Bohr and Oppenheimer. There was also a separate table for the economists, Herman told me, but in those days I didn’t really know what the word meant! It sure would have been great, had I been about five years older and had my college education behind me. As it was, I was really was more impressed by the field of fireflies on the front lawn by the Institute in the evening hours, just after sunset. On second thought: maybe that is a more impressive sight than a bunch of economists at lunch!
There are other memorable instances in Princeton, but most of all I remember Albert Einstein as the man who always smiled, always had a good, friendly word for the boy” and never made me feel that I was in the presence of a genius. He wondered often about why people saw him as they did. He said that he had to be nice to the Jewish Community, after all, he was their “saint”. He did not believe in religion, as such. But he did believe that there was a God, if that’s what you chose to call whoever or whatever it was that controlled the universe and what was going on out there. But never would he have made that statement an official version of his opinion. So, don’t quote me on this!

Yes, I knew Albert Einstein!


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