A Jew by belief, action, and birth, Albert Einstein took an active part in Jewish affairs, including raising significant sums for Jewish causes. For example, he helped Chaim Weizmann raise funds for the purchase of land in Eretz Yisrael (1921); supported the establishment of Israel as the fulfillment of an ancient dream; and, in About Zionism (1931), spelled out his support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael. He later appeared before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine to enter a strong plea in support of a Jewish homeland (1946).
After barely escaping Germany himself, he never stopped thinking about his Jewish brethren who were left behind and he actively campaigned on their behalf, becoming one of the most prominent and outspoken supporters of Jews entrapped by the Holocaust.
Presented here are three favorite Einstein letters from my collection that attest to his profound dedication to his fellow Jews.
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Einstein devoted great effort to helping Jewish refugees escape the Nazis; he worked tirelessly to persuade political leaders, particularly in the United States and Europe, to take action to save Jews from the Shoah; and he was always diligent about writing letters to thank those who participated in the effort to save endangered Jews.
One such example is this beautiful June 10, 1939 correspondence on his personal letterhead in which he gives voice to his Jewish sensibilities and deep and emotional feelings for his persecuted co-religionists, extending his gratitude to Mr. Paul Hyman, president of the Elms Realty Co., Inc., for his efforts in providing support to recently immigrated Jewish refugees:
My dear [sic] Mr. Hyman:
May I offer my sincere congratulations to you on the splendid work you have undertaken on behalf of the refugees during Dedication Week.
The power of resistance which has enabled the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years has been based to a large extent on traditions of mutual helpfulness. In these years of affliction our readiness to help one another is being put to an especially severe test. May we stand this test as well as did our fathers before us.
We have no other means of self-defense than our solidarity and our knowledge that the cause for which we are suffering is a momentous and sacred cause.
It must be a source of deep gratification to you to be making so important a contribution toward rescuing our persecuted fellow-Jews from their calamitous peril and leading them toward a better future.
This letter was written only a few months before Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1939). Though Hitler would not invade Poland until September 1, 1939, leading to Great Britain’s formal declaration of war against Germany, the Nazis had been consistently and methodically persecuting Jews since Hitler seized power in 1933 and more overtly doing so after the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws (September 1935).
At the time Einstein wrote the letter, more than half of all immigrants to the United States were Jewish, most of them refugees fleeing the Nazis. However, American immigration regulations at the time required that most expatriate Jews applying for visas be sponsored by two American citizens (preferably by a relative) and Einstein himself personally wrote many such sponsorship letters. Though he does not specify the services provided by Mr. Hyman in support of Jewish rescue efforts, it is most likely related to sponsoring the immigration of Jews to America.
“Dedication Week” was a campaign to raise public consciousness regarding the need for Jewish rescue. Less than two weeks before sending this letter, Einstein gave the official dedication speech for the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair to a crowd of 100,000 visitors, and Mr. Hyman was almost certainly among them. (See my Jewish Press front page essay “The 1939 World’s Fair Palestine Pavilion,” Dec. 2, 20016.)
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In this incredible July 17, 1945 correspondence to Dr. Jacob Shatzky, Einstein evidences his Jewish sensibilities, his deep and personal connection to the Jewish people, the personal pain he felt for the Jews of Europe during the Shoah, and his personal involvement in raising crucial funds for the UJA:
Through the 1945 campaign of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York the men and women in your city can take part in one of the world’s great humanitarian crusades.
I was fortunate enough to have been spared the physical pain and the constant fear of death that came to those living under Hitler. Yet no man who knows what was going on – and I least of all – was able to escape the anguish caused by the knowledge that such barbarous persecution was being visited upon an entire people. All of us suffered with them in their woe, and rejoiced with them in their deliverance.
Freedom without bread, it has been said, has little meaning. Of greatest importance at the present time, therefore, is the effort to bring food, medicine and shelter to the survivors; to rebuild their shattered lives; and to help the homeless by building up Palestine as a home and haven of refuge for additional tens of thousands.
The major agencies for carrying out this program are represented in the campaign of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York – and their minimum need for 1945 are $84,000,000 as compared to the $30,000,000 raised in 1944. Casual generosity will not meet this budget – only if each and every one of us digs deep and gives from all his resources, can we hope to raise the full sums required.
Jacob Shatzky (1893 – 1956) received a traditional cheder education in Warsaw before studying history and philosophy at universities in Lemberg and Vienna and receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Warsaw (1922), where his dissertation topic was “The Jewish Question in the Kingdom of Poland during the Paskiewicz Era.” After fighting with Pilsudski’s Legion during World War I and winning several military decorations, he was asked by the Polish Foreign Ministry to report on Jewish affairs in Poland, particularly the April pogroms in Vilna. When the Ministry did not react to his report, he resigned his post and taught history at Jewish high schools in Warsaw.
In 1923, Shatzky immigrated to the United States where he established himself as a prominent Jewish historian. Although his deepest interest remained the history of the Jews in Poland, he published numerous studies on all aspects of Jewish history and also wrote extensively on Jewish literature, literary history, folklore, and biography. His best known works include The Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648 (1938); Jewish Educational Policy in Poland from 1806-1866 (1943); and The History of the Jews in Warsaw (3 volumes, 1947 – 1953).
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Finally, in this April 21, 1948 correspondence in German (written one month before the birth of Israel) on his embossed letterhead to Dr. Frederic T. Weishut, Einstein manifests his belief in the Jewish God who looks after the affairs of man:
Many thanks for sending the pictures [probably photographs], and also that you went to the pain of having them reproduced again. If you’d like any of them returned, please let me know.
Hoping that you are satisfied by your new position, I remain,
With friendly greetings,
P.S. Maybe [transliteration of God’s Sacred Name] was looking out for you when you did not get the government position.
Einstein was broadly regarded as the symbol and leader of the entire group of refugee scholars. Weishut, who had been the assistant to Einstein’s late friend, the chemist Fritz Haber, was one of many scientists who obtained Einstein’s assistance in emigrating to the United States in the face of Nazi persecution. Einstein seems to be suggesting that when Weishut failed to land a government position (most likely because he was Jewish), God was actually looking out for him and facilitated his leaving Germany before the Holocaust, thereby saving his life.