Non-Fiction Reviews

Einstein at Home

(2016) Friedrich Herneck, Prometheus, £12.99 / Can$19 / US$18, pbk, 204pp, ISBN 978-1-633-88146-4


As the title suggests, this is essentially a description of day-to-day life in the Einstein household rather than a biography of Albert Einstein; it covers the period 1927 to 1933. The cover describes the book as being by Friedrich Herneck and translated by Josef Eisinger but this underplays Eisinger’s role as he does more than merely translate; it also fails to mention Herta Wadlow (nee Schiefelbein), the interviews (or conversations as they are called here) with whom fill more than half the book.

In 1927, twenty-one year old (Fräulein) Herta Schiefelbein became the live-in housekeeper for the Einsteins in their apartment on Berlin’s Haberlandstrasse. She became a valued member of the family and, when they built a summer house at the lakeside town of Caputh, Herta’s duties included this second home also. In those days intercontinental travel was by ship and the Einsteins’ trips to distant lands often saw them away for several months at a time, leaving Herta in charge of their apartment. In late January 1933, Adolf Hitler took the reigns of power in Germany and almost immediately used an ‘emergency edict’ to dissolve the Reichstag, make all opposition parties illegal, and abolish the freedom of the press. At the time the Einsteins were nearing the end of a long trip to the United States and, being famed for his humanitarian views and aware of the growing tide of anti-Semitism in Germany, Albert knew that returning to Berlin would be most unwise. They temporarily returned to Europe, but only as far as Belgium, and by the end of the year they were back in the States, Albert having accepted a position at Princeton University (where they were destined to remain).

Herta Schiefelbein remained in their employ until mid 1933 and helped them recover some of their belongings from their Berlin apartment. After that she took similar domestic jobs but gave up such employment when she married in 1936, becoming Frau Wadlow. In 1934 she was questioned by police investigators on behalf of the Gestapo: they were seeking evidence against Einstein, though no action was taken against her as she was recognised as having simply been in employment. In 1978, she entered into a series of conversations with Friedrich Herneck and it is these that form the basis of this book.

Dr. Friedrich Herneck was born in what is now the Czech Republic. After Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia he was called up to serve in the Wehrmacht in a non-combatant role though he later defected to the Soviet forces. When the war was over he eventually found himself teaching at the Humboldt University in Berlin (which was now part of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) - or East Germany as we tend to call it). By the end of his career he was a full professor of the history of science and this, naturally, had lead him to study scientists, Einstein included, and author a number of carefully researched biographical books.

Herneck’s conversations with Herta Wadlow were conducted at her home in East Berlin. One presumes that they were naturally in German, hence the need for Josef Eisinger to translate them into English. Eisinger, who was born in Vienna, is a physicist and is currently a professor emeritus at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. He has published many articles in academic journals as well as books.

The book opens with a short foreword from Alice Calaprice, an experienced Einstein biographer, who explains just a little about Einstein’s life and how the accounts in this book fit into it. It is followed by a page of acknowledgments from Eisinger and then comes a concise but very useful timeline of Einstein’s life. These are followed by the four chapters which form the bulk of the book, after which there are sixteen pages of 'Notes' (i.e. references), a page of 'Select Bibliography', and an eight-page index.

The first chapter is ‘Introductory Remarks’. It is not credited to anyone but appears to be by Joseph Eisinger and it fills in some of the gaps in the how-and-why of the following conversations.

The next chapter is a short but interesting essay entitled ‘Friedrich Herneck, Historian of Science in Difficult Times’ by Dieter B. Herrmann, who had studied under Herneck. It too is translated by Joseph Eisinger. This explains a little of Herneck’s history and how he came to be interested in scientists such as Einstein.

It is followed by ‘Einstein’s Road to Berlin - and Beyond’, a 36-page article by Joseph Eisinger. It is a well-written, potted history of the life of Albert Einstein; a neat and interesting little biography.

Finally, and by far the largest chapter, is ‘Einstein at Home, Herta W. recalls the Years 1927 to 1933’. Friedrich Herneck provides us with the text of five conversations he had with Herta Wadlow in 1978 though some of his comments within the text make it clear that there were others, indeed that he had been in conversation with her for several years. He makes no mention of where they took place, why they took place (though we can guess that it was the obvious reason of a historian talking to a witness), and how they were conducted (though these points are somewhat covered in Eisinger’s ‘Introductory Remarks’). Presumably they were recorded electronically and transcribed by Herneck (or his staff). As well as translating the interviews, Josef Eisinger has added his own notes and further explanations where he thought necessary.

‘The Apartment in the Haberlandstrasse’ concentrates on the apartment (its layout and so on) and how they lived in it. Herta explains her role in the day-to-day life of the Einsteins, who did what, and so on. For example, she did all the cooking other than some early instruction from Frau Einstein, and a cleaning lady regularly visited to do the main cleaning and the washing. In ‘Frequent Visitors and Rare Guests’ the conversation moves on to those who visited both often and rarely, though in many cases Herta cannot recall if certain people might have visited occasionally. As she admits, had she kept a diary of such things it would now be worth a small fortune.

‘Family - Vacations - Foreign Journeys’ looks at the family members who lived in the apartment or who visited regularly, as well as considering the summer holidays they took before the summer house was built in 1929. There were also periods when the Einsteins were abroad; these tended to be long due to Albert often having a number of engagements at their destination and, of course, sailing to distant parts of the world took many weeks. This is followed by ‘Summer House and Sailboat in Caputh’ which concentrates on their much-enjoyed ‘escape’ from Berlin, the house at Caputh. The family much preferred this to living in Berlin and would stay there for as much of the year as they could (sometimes from March through to November). It was a short walk to the lake and Albert took great advantage of this to spend many hours on the ‘Tümmler’ (Porpoise), a sailing boat given to him by wealthy friends as a fiftieth birthday present.

Finally ‘The House Searched and Plundered - Interrogation’ covers the period after January 1933, with the Nazi party now firmly in power. Herta describes official visits to the apartment by the authorities, an official-seeming one that turned out to be a ‘burglary’ by men in uniform, and her questioning by the police the following year.

The conversations, as recorded, are structured unusually as Herneck often drops considerable detail into questions, as if he was simultaneously explaining to an audience. Perhaps he felt he needed to explain or remind Herta of certain things, maybe he was filling her in on details she was unaware of or needed confirmation of, or possibly he was anticipating that the conversations would be published in their entirety and wished to add relevant knowledge for the reader. It often felt that he was ‘leading the witness’ with all the details he incorporated in his questions rather than letting her volunteer such details or recollections for herself. Often the answer to quite a long question (which had included his lengthy preamble) would consist of little more than her reply that she either could not remember (it had been some forty-five to fifty years previously) or was naturally unaware of the details (such as that whilst Einstein would often retire to his room straight after evening dinner she was unable to say what he then did - read? write? straight to sleep?).

The verbal structure left me feeling that the conversations were quite stilted. Probably it was the times as this was still Soviet-controlled Eastern Germany and I expect that both parties had to be very careful what they said and how they said it as the transcripts might well be read by their political masters. Maybe there was also something in the manner of this particular academic investigator. Herneck had read many biographical accounts of Einstein, as well as writing his own, and I noticed that he often commented that the details recalled by Herta, being an eye-witness, contradict or disprove the day-to-day details described by other authors. He makes a recurring point that other authors have embellished (or worse, invented) facts.

Although I have long been aware of Einstein and his importance to science (we all learned e=mc² at school), my main impression of him, due to the way he is so often portrayed in poorly written articles, is that he was a clerk in a patent office who spent his spare time thinking deep thoughts about physics. In fact, he was a physics graduate who happened to work for a while in the patent office (like the rest of us, he had to pay his bills) until he could find the academic position he sought. What comes over in this book is that he had a pretty free and easy lifestyle during his time in Berlin; he had his academic engagements to attend but otherwise his time was his own. Some days he might be at the University or attending one of the many functions he was invited to (he was always high on the list of invitees, even though he usually declined), other days he might spend entirely in his study at home, and then there were days that he spent visiting friends. He spent a lot of time playing his violin, either on his own or with others, and was quick to form ad hoc string quartets whenever the opportunity arose. He also enjoyed long walks, often on his own, and was very fond of sailing and would happily spend all day out on the lake, again either on his own or with others. In addition, the Einsteins would be away for months at a time when they visited other countries, such as Japan and the United States. Once the family had the summer house at Caputh, they spent as much time there as they could and only over-wintered in the Berlin apartment; the town was near enough to the city that he could still attend his engagements there, either by car (if one was sent for him) or by bus.

Whilst I found the conversations to be stilted and a bit awkward, the book as a whole generally proved to be interesting and worth reading. I am sure that students of Einstein already know far more about his life than I do but doubtless they would find the conversations with Herta Wadlow to be useful in extending their knowledge.

Peter Tyers

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