Einstein at Princeton

Albert Einstein
Einstein on the steps of his Princeton home. It’s a photo I have always liked because as a young person I had several pairs of those fuzzy slippers and thought Albert and I had a kind of connection. Photo: Historical Society of Princeton

I have admired Albert Einstein since I was a young teen.  I believe my early attraction was to him was because he was “the genius” of that time and because of some quotations of his I saw that I loved – and the photos of his crazy hair, riding a bicycle and sticked out his tongue that made this genius seem human. I bought a poster of him that had the quote “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” which at the time probably made me feel better about my solid “B” average in school. It was years later that I saw that famous quote in context. That sentence is followed by “For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

When I was a student at Rutgers College, I drove to nearby Princeton, New Jersey to find the little house he had lived in at 112 Mercer Street for the last part of his life. It wasn’t a museum and there were no markers to say that he had lived there. I was once told on a walking tour of the town by the Historical Society of Princeton that Einstein and his family did not want it to become a museum. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark. I also learned that when I visited in 1971, the house was owned by his step-daughter Margot Einstein who lived there until her death in 1986.

I have always liked the town of Princeton and the University campus looks the way I had imagined as a teenager that college campuses were supposed to look. It seemed like a good place for Albert Einstein to live after he escaped Nazi Germany.

Today I read that it was on this day in 1933 that Albert Einstein officially moved to the United States to teach at Princeton University, and I discovered something disturbing about that arrival.

Einstein was visiting the United States in February 1933 and he realized that he could not return to Germany with the rise to power of the Nazis under Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler. He was a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He and his wife Elsa were returning to Europe in March and learned that the German Reichstag had passed the Enabling Act, which transformed the government into a de facto legal dictatorship with Hitler as Chancellor. They could not go on to his apartment in Berlin.

They later learned that the apartment and their summer cottage had been raided and all his papers confiscated. When they landed in Antwerp, Belgium, Albert went to the German consulate and surrendered his passport, formally renouncing his German citizenship. They found out years later that their cottage had become a Hitler Youth camp.

Einstein's Princeton home today

Einstein received offers from all over the world, including Paris, Turkey, and Oxford University, but he decided that Princeton’s offer of a teaching position at the Institute for Advanced Study, a home, and a good salary far away from Europe was best.

What I only learned today was why he hesitated about coming to Princeton University.

The University had a covert quota system that only allowed a small percentage of the incoming class to be Jewish. The Institute’s director, Abraham Flexner, was worried that Einstein would be too directly involved in Jewish refugee causes, so he carefully controlled public appearances, including declining an invitation to meet with President Roosevelt at the White House. Eventually, Einstein found out about the missed opportunity and called Eleanor Roosevelt and arranged for a visit. There is a letter he wrote to a rabbi friend of his about the incident. The return address on the letter is “Concentration Camp, Princeton.”

That was 1933. Did the campus become more welcoming to Jews as a possible war with Germany seemed more likely?  Five years after Einstein settled on campus, incoming freshmen at Princeton University ranked Albert Einstein as the second-greatest living person. They ranked as the greatest living person Adolf Hitler.