BERLIN — After legendary physicist Albert Einstein fled the German capital, Berlin, in 1922 in fear and haste, he penned a letter that has lost little of its relevance since, even almost 100 years later.
“Here are brewing economically and politically dark times, so I’m happy to be able to get away from everything,” Einstein wrote in the long-forgotten letter that was sold for more than $30,000 at an auction in Jerusalem on Tuesday. Addressed to his sister Maria, Einstein’s 1922 thoughts today serve as a powerful reminder that the Holocaust was preceded by years of mounting anti-Semitic attacks and the demonization of Jews. It didn’t come out of nowhere.
After 1922, it took the Nazis another decade to seize power.
But Einstein’s Jewish background had made him a target of attacks early on. He decided to embark on a spontaneous trip abroad when his Jewish friend, German Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau, was assassinated that year.
“Nobody knows where I am, and I’m believed to be missing. ... I’m doing pretty well, despite all the anti-Semites among the German colleagues,” Einstein wrote from an undisclosed location, likely as he was fleeing the country.
Even though Einstein had correctly assessed the rise of anti-Semitism by the early 1920s, the scientist was wrong about the impact on his own life, repeatedly assuring his friends and colleagues that they should not worry about his safety.
“Don’t worry about me, I myself don’t worry either,” Einstein wrote in his letter.
The famous physicist later returned to Germany and won the Nobel Prize. But in 1933, when Einstein happened to be in the United States, Adolf Hitler took power in Germany. Einstein had to admit that he would never be able to return safely and renounced his German citizenship.
From the United States, Einstein continued to share his thoughts in letters that are still being widely shared. In one letter that is due to be auctioned in December, he rejected religion, writing that “for me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. ... [The] Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.”
Einstein’s multifaceted approach toward religion and his more xenophobic and misogynistic beliefs revealed in his diaries are still the subject of debate. But his warnings against intolerance and anti-Semitism left little room for misinterpretation.
Almost a century later, Einstein’s 1922 letter is not only being seen as a historical document but also as a warning that may ring true today. Its sale comes amid concerns that Jewish life is once again under attack by “classic traditional antisemitism,” according to a report earlier this year by the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University. “The constant rise of the extreme right, a heated anti-Zionist discourse in the left, accompanied by harsh antisemitic expressions, and radical Islamism,” they write, have caused a “certain corrosion of Jewish life."
Since the report’s release in April, anti-Semitic incidents have further increased across Europe, with a 69 percent jump in France so far this year. The spike in attacks against minorities is not limited to Jews, as Muslims have also become more frequent targets.
Amid figures that indicate a shift toward more intolerance, some have searched for historical lessons that may be relevant today. Austria’s national film archive, for instance, this year restored a pre-World War II silent film that sparked furious reactions in the mid-1920s for warning against the scapegoating of Jews. Long believed to be lost, “The City Without Jews” was surprisingly rediscovered in a Paris flea market three years ago. The painstaking restoration took years of work.
“We received enormous financial support from abroad, including from Americans following the 2016 U.S. elections,” said Nikolaus Wostry, managing director of Austria’s national film archive.
“In today’s Europe, we can clearly see the exploitation of people’s fears once again. Politicians focus them on target groups — be it immigrants or followers of religions,” Wostry said.
As researchers seek explanations for the recent surge in intolerance, the answers for which they are looking may also be found in documents long lost or forgotten.