Einstein’s helping hand for my refugee family

Albert Einstein must have had hundreds of letters from desperate European Jews asking for help. My grandmother Emma was among those 1930s letter-writers to him at his office at Princeton University. 

Einstein’s reply to Emma can now be found at the Einstein Archives at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Her three-page plea to the renowned physicist was sent on New Year’s Eve 1938. My grandparents were then in Brussels with my 13-year-old father Bob, having hurriedly left Vienna after the Anschluss. Emma’s appeal to Einstein was to help find a place at his university for her 19-year-old son Johann (later John), “a young man who has been derailed by the German racial laws and who has a special predisposition for scientific studies”.

She described Johann as “a peculiar, remarkable, serious child” with a exceptional mathematical gift. She told Einstein how at seven Johann would call out the multiples and quotients of Vienna’s nine-figure licence plates; and how he studied the fat rings on soup or knives balancing on glasses to work out theories of physics. “Should a human being who delivers proof of significant talent not be lifted out of the mass of the uprooted?”

Einstein replied promptly in January that he did not have a teaching position to offer, but wrote “If your son truly has extraordinary aptitudes and interests in scientific studies it should be made possible for him. For his future opportunities, America in the right country.”

He went on to say that the quota system meant immigration can take a considerable time, so Emma’s son would be advised to begin his studies in London. “If you could send me reliable report cards, I would on their basis write first to an English contact to obtain for him a possible source of income during this time of preparation.”

He also suggested that Johann should obtain an affidavit from someone with means who is already living in the US. “Do you know such a person? Should you not, I could try to find someone here for that purpose.” Einstein then says that when Johann reaches America he will help find him a scholarship via the International Student Service. 

Albeit Einstein ended his letter by suggesting that Johann should nonetheless learn a practical trade, “which he could do while pursuing his studies. This would be a big relief.”

John finally reached the United States in 1945. Although brilliant, he was the most impractical of men and went to help his parents on their New Jersey chicken farm. Too proud to reach out to Einstein, he in any case viewed anything his mother recommended with great suspicion. But he soon embarked on a flourishing career as a demographer working for the newly-founded UN.