Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Although perhaps best known as Einstein’s personal physician, Rudolf Ehrmann’s work spanned the entire field of diseases of the stomach, intestines, liver and pancreas, diabetes, and coma, but the focus of his clinical and scientific work was gastroenterology, where he performed important work on pancreatic function and gastric acid secretion. He also made important contributions in physiology, where he conducted important tests to estimate the potency of adrenaline; and in rheumatology, where a form of livedo reticularis, a skin condition, bears his name. He held numerous lectures on Diseases of the Digestive Organs and he also monitored growth possibilities of radiology.

Ehrmann portrait

Born a month apart in neighboring German villages, Einstein and Ehrmann met as professors at the University of Berlin, Einstein in math and Ehrmann in medicine. Ehrmann not only served as Einstein’s personal physician in his prestigious private Berlin practice but he also became a close personal friend such that much of the details of Ehrmann’s life are known through his extensive correspondence with Einstein, including the original letter discussed below. At Einstein’s suggestion, the Zionist Executive proposed Ehrmann for the Board of Hebrew University, and both scientists attended the University’s dedication in Jerusalem in 1925.

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It was both as friend and as a physician that Ehrmann convinced Einstein in 1943 to give up his pipe and, in an interesting correspondence, Einstein wrote, “I discover that your advice to drop the smoking habit turned out very well indeed, so that there would be no excuse for me were I to start up again.” Although the physicist was often photographed subsequently with the pipe jutting out of his mouth, chewing on the stem, or holding it in his hand, he never smoked tobacco again. Einstein’s pipe is so closely identified with his public image that, according to the Smithsonian, it is the single most popular item in the museum’s modern physics collection.

Photograph of Einstein with (L) Gail Monroe Dack, Ehrmann, and Helen Dukas. Dack, a president of the American Society of Microbiology, was known for his work in nutrition and food safety, and Dukas was Einstein’s long-time secretary.

Ehrmann (1879-1963), the son of Salomon Ehrmann, a merchant, and Marianne Plaut, received his doctorate in Strasburg in 1903 and interned in Greifswald and Berlin, where he was certified for internal medicine in 1912 and became professor extraordinary in 1915. He subsequently served as director of the department of internal medicine at the University Hospital in Berlin, and he became a member of the German Radiological Society and was named one of the 50 most illustrious Germans.

None of this mattered with the rise to power of the National Socialists, who removed him in 1933 as chief physician and, pursuant to the Reich Citizen Law, revoked his authorization to lecture on October 19, 1935. Einstein became increasingly worried about the fate of his old friend in Germany and, as evidenced by a December 2, 1938, correspondence he wrote to Dr. Isadore W. Held, a Jewish gastroenterologist and a leader in helping Jewish medical and scientific refugees escape the Third Reich, he began to despair that even trying to intercede on Ehrmann’s behalf would only exacerbate a bad situation:

Mr. Ehrmann’s difficulties certainly do not lie in the fact that he cannot get a visa, but that the Germans won’t let him out. Therefore, with great sorrow, I have come to the conclusion that we cannot try anything more with any hope of success. It might even be dangerous for him if we were to convince the German Gangsters that we absolutely want him here. That would just encourage them to hold him especially firm in the hope of ransom money.

Ehrmann’s son, Rolf, who had escaped from Germany a year earlier, sent a desperate appeal to Einstein pleading with him to write directly to Washington, an effort that the physicist knew to be completely useless because of Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who directed the Immigrant Visa Section at the Department of State.

In the late 1930s, the Department of State set immigration policies pursuant to which some 90 percent of the quota for refugees from Nazi Germany and other lands under Nazi control were left unfilled, which studies show it cost at least 100,000 Jewish lives. One of the leading villains was Long who, determined to “protect” American borders, imposed impossible paperwork burdens on prospective immigrants, including Jews seeking to escape the Third Reich. Long had come to believe that he was under constant attack from what he termed “radicals” and the “Jewish press” for imposition of strict immigration controls and, in a departmental memo, wrote that

[w]e can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.

NYU Medical School Dean Currier McEwen.

One of the victims of Long’s “delay, delay, delay” policies was Rudolf Ehrmann, and Long’s “paperwork fence” became the predicate for Einstein’s emergency August 10, 1939, correspondence to Dean Currier McEwen of NYU, in which he expressed the fear that Ehrmann would fall victim to the Nazis. In fact, Ehrmann had already secured an appointment as a lecturer at New York University, but the U.S. consul, in accordance with Long’s directive to American consular officials throughout Europe “to postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas,” refused to permit entry to Ehrmann until written assurance was received that he had received a full-time two-year appointment as a professor at NYU. Einstein wrote to McEwen requesting a two-year appointment for Ehrmann and advised him that “we have a good prospect of having his salary for the second year guaranteed by an immigration organization.”

Almost certainly because of Einstein’s reputation and prestige, McEwen took immediate action, the result of which was that Ehrmann was granted an exit visa to emigrate to the United States, where he arrived in New York via England on September 12, 1939, and was sworn in as an American citizen in 1945. He commenced work as a clinical professor of medicine with a specialty in gastroenterology at the NYU School of Medicine; served as an attending physician at Bellevue Hospital; and went on to establish a clinical practice at Beth Israel Hospital. He served as Einstein’s physician till the end of the physicist’s life and, on New Year’s Eve of 1948, he famously provided emergency surgery. When Einstein became terminally ill in 1955, he rushed to attend at his old friend’s side and, when Einstein died of a ruptured aneurism on April 18, 1955, Ehrmann was one of two physicians to sign the death certificate.

Einstein and Ehrmann regularly corresponded with each other; they often recommended books to each other; and some of Einstein’s letters to him are treasured as being among his finest. In the original February 5, 1946, handwritten correspondence to Ehrmann exhibited here, Einstein writes regarding Focus, Arthur Miller’s first novel, that Ehrmann had forwarded to him:

Einstein’s letter to Ehrmann regarding Arthur Miller’s Focus.

The book [Focus] is really an excellent characteristic picture of the Jewish situation and its psychological effects. The author shows great sensitivity in describing people and situations, almost like Maupassant.

He has unfortunately a few strings on his lute [seemingly a metaphor of sorts, suggesting some inadequacy] and seems to lack totally the delicate, fine, soulful substance. [Particularly ironic, given Miller’s subsequent rise as one of America’s greatest dramatists]. It also lacks humor. If the author is not a Jew, it is an astonishing feat of perception. It is very nice of you to have acquainted me with the book.

I will send you a book by a man in Oxford that you will read with the same pleasure I experienced. [Author’s note: unfortunately, I could not determine the book to which Einstein is referring] I beg you to return it after reading it so that my sister may take it along to her husband in Switzerland, who is also interested in political problems. And the book may not be available here anymore.

Heartiest greetings to you and yours

Your A. Einstein

(With the astronomic explored hundredths)

Title page of Death of a Salesman signed by Arthur Miller.

One of the most prominent figures in American literature and cinema for over 60 years and widely regarded in the 1950s as America’s leading dramatist, Miller (1915-2005) endeavored to give postwar American drama a depth of purpose and content and a sense of tragic conflict in terms of contemporary American life. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is perhaps best known for Death of a Salesman (1949), the first play to sweep the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and still one of the best-known plays in history.

A recurring theme in Miller’s work is the tragic defeats that befall common people. His specific use of that theme in Salesman, the tragedy of an “American everyman” who is destroyed by the failure of the American dream, is likely a semi-autobiographical reflection of his own childhood, when his father fell victim to the great stock market crash (1929) and the family was suddenly thrust into abject poverty.

Einstein, who apparently did not know Miller, wonders if Miller was Jewish which, of course, he was, born to a non-observant Jewish family in New York City. He had a bar mitzvah and Jewishness infused his early life, but he struggled with his Jewish identity and, though he viewed traditional Judaism as a useless ancient remnant to be discarded and characterized himself as an atheist, and though his Jewish characters often rued their status as Jews and sought to escape it, he never hid his Jewish heritage. It is interesting that although his work does not generally present overtly Jewish characters and ideas, he is considered the first American playwright to explore Jewish identity from the prospective of a self-searching Jew.

Many commentators argue not only that Jewish themes pervade his work but that, in fact, even his best-known character, Salesman’s Willy Loman, was actually a Jew. Though he apparently attempted to paper over his protagonist’s ethnicity, refused to comment on Willie Loman’s alleged Jewish heritage, and maintained that the question of Loman’s religious background constitutes the ultimate irrelevancy, he later referred to the wretched Loman family as “Jews who were light-years away from religion or a community that might have fostered Jewish identity.”

In Incident at Vichy (1966), Miller dealt with the arrest of several Frenchmen, including some Jews, during the occupation; in The Price (1968), his central character is an old Jew who acted as a wise commentator; and, in several of his works, including After the Fall (1964), he grappled with the question of whether morality could exist after the Holocaust. In much of his work, he addressed Jewish identity through the prism of American assimilation, developing the idea that the Depression facilitated the growth of antisemitism and the ability of the power elites to distract the country from its economic and other woes by following the well-tread historical path of “blaming it all on the Jews.”

Remarkably, Miller’s bold first novel, Focus (1945), which so impressed Einstein, was one of the first fictional narratives to directly confront American antisemitism at a time that long preceded the Civil Rights Movement. The underlying angst of the novel, which went on to become instrumental in generating a national dialogue about antisemitism, was based upon Miller’s own experience as a night shift worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, where he was subject to ubiquitous antisemitism from his co-workers. Although Focus is little-known and certainly does not rank among Miller’s most popular works, it nonetheless remains an original and important social statement.

Set in New York toward the end of World War II, Focus tells the story of the journey of Lawrence Newman who experiences a strange, punishing, and Kafkaesque metamorphosis from antisemite to defending the oppressed. A middle-aged personnel manager for a prominent public utilities corporation, Newman was charged with ensuring that no Jews were hired by the company, but when he hires a Christian secretary whom his supervisor believes is Jewish, he is demoted. (He later accepts a position at a Jewishly owned company where many of the employees are Jewish.)

When a new pair of glasses alters his appearance such that he is mistaken for a Jew – Miller’s device of the glasses is the perfect metaphor for his protagonist’s “corrected” vision – Newman is seen as a Jew by virtually everyone he meets. He is refused service at hotels, his garbage cans are suddenly turned over, and even his friend and neighbor Fred, a member of a KKK-type organization with whom he empathized, turns on him, and the more he insists that he is not Jewish, the more antisemitism he experiences. He begins to change after an antisemitic gang tries to force his only Jewish neighbor, candy store owner Finkelstein, out of the neighborhood.

Finkelstein, a non-observant Jew, is Miller’s metaphor for the attempt by Jews to assimilate into the mainstream American culture but can never escape the truth of their identity as Jews. When Newman is attacked by local antisemitic white supremacists, he begins to see that the white supremacists in his midst were little more than ignorant hoodlums, not least because they took him and his Christian wife for Jews. He begins to question the propriety of prejudging people by their appearances as he suddenly realizes that because Finkelstein was a Jew, he had never before noticed that the shopkeeper was not cheap; he was always fair, pleasant, and kind to his customers; and he was neat, clean, honest, and self-respecting – all the things contrary to the accepted Jewish stereotype.

In the end, Newman and Finkelstein survive a brutal street attack and, in his indignant defensive fury, Newman finally resolves his inner conflict between not wanting to be perceived as a Jew but also no longer participating in antisemitism: in a key dramatic twist, when Newman goes to the police station to report the attack and is mistaken for a Jew, he decides not to correct the officer’s error.

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One would ordinarily not think of Einstein, Ehrmann, and Miller in the same framework, and what I particularly love about this correspondence is how beautifully it brings together three seemingly disparate publicly renowned personalities.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.