Sincerely yours, Albert Einstein

The theory of relativity was developed and published 100 years ago, and nowhere can a more comprehensive picture of the originator be found than in the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Author: Julia Harlfinger

How did Albert Einstein come up with his theory of relativity? Very simply! He thought long and hard. “At least, this is what my father told me”, says Roni Grosz. Apart from this fatherly bon mot and fleeting encounters during school lessons, Grosz, for a long time, had no connection to arguably the most famous researcher of all, who died in 1955. Today, Roni Grosz maintains the most comprehensive Einstein Archive in the world: A cabinet of curiosities with ten thousand letters and other documents, including the original manuscript of the theory of relativity.

The road to this archive was not a smooth one: Grosz’s doctoral thesis examined the Jewish element in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, the topic on which he completed his studies in philosophy and communication science at the University of Vienna. During his school years at a francophone lycée in Vienna, he had no fondness for physics and/or mathematics. Rather than mathematical formulae, his passion was written cultural heritage. This led Grosz to the Austrian national library where he became an expert in archiving. He learned to collect, order and preserve books, maps, papyri and sheet music.

About searching and finding

As early as the mid-1990s, he was very much involved in the role that the Internet and online research could play in future archives. He built up the library and an electronic index system at Vienna’s Jewish museum over a seven-year period. He always had one goal in mind: Converting big data into information and making dormant information available in user-friendly catalogues. But Albert Einstein was still a long way into the future.

At the beginning of 2000, when Roni Grosz moved with his family to Israel (“a wish we long cherished”) and started working for the library software developer Ex Libris, Einstein entered his life. One of Grosz’s colleagues handed him a job advertisement. “She must at that time have thought that I would be the perfect candidate”, he remembers. The renowned Albert Einstein archive at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was looking for a new director. From the autumn of 2004, Albert Einstein and about 81000 of his personal documents became the focal point of Grosz’s life.

Carpet of paper

When Grosz started at the archive, he estimated that there were still approximately 800 letters from and to Albert Einstein “scattered around” in the world, which he hoped to discover. Currently, he estimates that there are approximately 8000 missing pieces. “The end is not in sight, and our goal is to collect the entire Einstein correspondence”.

Grosz and his three colleagues persistently trace Einstein’s letters, many signed with “Sincerely yours, Albert Einstein”. “If the original documents cannot be obtained for the archive, we are satisfied with a digital copy”. Scribbled equations, snapshots, notebooks, school reports as well as Einstein’s private library are also kept in the archive and restored where necessary. These objects confirm Einstein’s wealth of scientific ideas. They are proof of his humanitarian commitment and political networking. He was apparently also a womaniser and a miserable father. Grosz commented: “We are weaving a huge tapestry.”

Every year hundreds of users from all over the world send their inquiries to the archive. In 2014 more than 72 000 users visited the website to work with the digitalized objects – some of them more than once. Roni Grosz emphasises that the times when access to such collections was restricted to a few selected persons are fortunately something of the past. “Today, researchers are used to accessing everything for free and immediately on their computer screens. We are very accommodating and straightforward with the exchange of knowledge and data, and the same goes for our cooperation partners.”

Connection to Germany

This also includes the co-workers of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Grosz has had contact with some of them for many years. The archive director relates that there are also regular requests from German institutes like the Bundestag (Lower House of the German Federal Parliament) and the German Museum in Munich.

Occasionally, exhibits from the perfect temperature storage conditions in Israel are sent to Germany. Grosz emphasises that: “We are open to an intensive and exciting cooperation with German researchers.” For example, Einstein’s correspondence with Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg and Thomas Mann could be interesting.

Presently, scientists from the natural sciences and humanities seldom travel specifically to Jerusalem to copy documents by hand as was done in the past. Notwithstanding digitalisation, the archive regularly receives visitors who want to view Einstein’s inheritance in natura. “As if on cue, a certain effect manifests itself when we show them the original items”, says archive director Grosz. “Our visitors’ knees begin to shake, their eyes glaze over and they are totally enthralled.”

Einstein for everybody

The archive attracts not only scientists and fans travelling to Israel, but also rock stars and ambassadors. Or beekeepers who want to explore in more detail the presumed Einstein dictum: When bees become extinct, humans have only four years left to live.

“This quote is indestructible”, says Roni Grosz. He could find no reference that the physics Nobel laureate actually made such a statement. Nor could he verify the alleged Einstein quote about his thinking, which his father liked to use in a humorous and admonishing manner. And the collection of photographs in the archive offers no solid proof of Einstein’s often quoted left-handedness.

Albert Einstein, Time magazine’s “man of the 20th century” still holds many myths and secrets. “I invite the interested public to form their own impression of Einstein”, says Grosz. “German-speaking people can specifically form their impressions of the researcher through many online sources. They are not necessarily dependent on second-hand information.”

Human between the lines

Yes, physics remains inaccessible to the majority. But Einstein has much more to offer. “He did not beat about the bush when talking about political and social topics. How else can I explain the persistent fascination with Einstein”, says Grosz, referring to the Einstein Facebook page initiated by the Archive. It has 16 million followers. Most of them from Asia, especially India.
Who is Roni Grosz’s Einstein? “‘My’ Einstein took an active interest in the fate of other people. He answered letters of schoolchildren and students of physics struggling with the consequences of research applied improperly. ‘My’ Einstein is also the man who tirelessly attempted to get Jewish colleagues out of Europe during the Nazi regime. We know from his correspondence that he approached many befriended researchers and entrepreneurs to offer Jews jobs in America and, thus, a visa”, says Roni Grosz.

In 1935 Einstein, for example, wrote from the university city Princeton to the Belgian Queen Elisabeth about his privileged position: “I am almost ashamed to live in such peace while there is fighting and suffering everywhere.”