‘I haven’t achieved much recently’: Albert Einstein’s private fears revealed in sister’s archive

A glimpse at the “private, hidden face” of Albert Einstein, including the celebrated scientist’s thoughts on everything from his fears that his best work was behind him to his equivocal feelings about his fame, has been revealed in a cache of letters he wrote to his beloved younger sister, Maja.

The collection, which includes a previously unknown photograph of Einstein as a five-year-old and the only surviving letter written by Einstein to his father, comes from the archive of Maja Winteler-Einstein and her husband Paul Winteler. A mix of letters, postcards and photographs, many of which have not previously been published, the documents range in date from 1897 to 1951.

The only surviving letter from Albert Einstein to his father (estimate: £2,500-3,500).

The only surviving letter from Albert Einstein to his father, estimated to sell for £2,500-3,500. Photograph: Yves Gerard/Christie’s Images Ltd 2018

“What’s remarkable about them stems from the fact that he had this incredibly close relationship with his sister. It’s quite clear when he’s writing to her, there’s no role-playing at all,” said Thomas Venning at Christie’s, which will auction the letters at the start of May. “He was very conscious of what was expected of him after he became famous, and you don’t get any of that in letters to his sister. He says some things that I’ve never seen him say anywhere else, and I’ve catalogued many hundreds of his letters.”

In 1924, nine years after he completed the general theory of relativity in 1915, Einstein would write to Maja that “scientifically I haven’t achieved much recently – the brain gradually goes off with age, although that’s not so unpleasant. It also means that you’re not so answerable for your later years.” Ten years later, he would write to her: “I am happy in my work, even if in this and in other matters I am starting to feel that the brilliance of younger years is past.”

Venning said he had not seen Einstein admit this anywhere else. “It’s not him playing a role, you can see that thought going through his head. Which is true – if Einstein had died in 1916, his fundamental legacy would have been intact. He carried on working for another 40 years without making any other great breakthroughs. So it’s just an extraordinary moment which we get because of how close their relationship was. He didn’t have to reassure her,” he said.

Tackling topics from his hobbies of sailing and playing the violin, to his difficult relationship with his first wife, the letters are “unpublished snapshots of Einstein, his private face”, according to Venning. In one from 1935, Einstein makes a rare acknowledgement of his achievements, writing to Maja: “In our main avenues of research in physics we are in a situation of groping in the dark, where each is completely sceptical about what another is pursuing with the highest hopes. One is in a constant state of tension until the end. At least I have the comfort that my main achievements have become part of the foundations of our science.”

“It sounds unusually big-headed for Einstein – he was an incredibly low-key, humble person, always careful not to say anything that sounded too proud. But I think he felt he could say something to Maja,” said Venning.

In 1923, in a letter that Christie’s has valued between £6,000 and £9,000, Einstein writes to Maja of his international fame, telling his sister and her husband that “I am becoming very much loved and even more envied; there’s nothing to be done about it.”

“He’s not rejoicing in it, he’s just sort of accepting it. Einstein was the first scientist to be a world celebrity. Before that it just didn’t really happen to scientists, so he was in this unique position,” said Venning.

Einstein to to Maja & Paul Winteler, 15 April 1923. ‘I am becoming very much loved and even more envied; there’s nothing to be done about it’. Estimate: £6,000-9,000

‘I am becoming very much loved and even more envied; there’s nothing to be done about it’ … Einstein to Maja and Paul Winteler, 15 April 1923. Photograph: Christie’s Images 2018 Ltd

The shadow cast by the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, and the strength Einstein drew from his work, is starkly depicted in a letter written to his sister in September 1933. Earlier that year, Einstein had renounced his German citizenship in Antwerp, fearing for his life after the Nazis branded relativity “Jewish science” and publicly denounced him. He took up a role at Princeton University in New Jersey in October; his sister would follow him in 1939.

“What will happen if we come back from Princeton next year? Will we even be able to? What will life be like there? The only unshakeable things are the stars and mathematics,” he wrote.

“This is him facing up to the fact his whole life has changed. He’s going to a country he doesn’t really know. And so his whole world is falling to pieces, and he says this wonderful line,” said Venning.

Christie’s will put the letters on view to the public from 18 to 20 April, and auction the collection online from 2 to 9 May.

Plan to save Europe’s synagogues receives high-profile backing

Simon Schama, Howard Jacobson and Natasha Kaplinsky among supporters of campaign to protect Jewish heritage

Slonim synagogue in Belarus

Slonim synagogue in Belarus, where relatives of newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky worshipped before the Holocaust.
Photograph: Handout

Its gothic twin turrets and stained-glass window featuring a six-pointed star look out from a hillside over a town in south Wales. A Welsh dragon decorates the building’s gable. But rooms that once resonated to the murmur of prayers and readings from the Torah are abandoned; windows are broken, plaster is crumbling and the roof is open to the sky.

But now the Old Synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil, built in the 1870s, could be reborn. It is part of an extraordinary scheme – to be launched this week by the historian Simon Schama – to map more than 3,300 historic synagogues across 48 European countries, and restore the most significant sites.

The synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil was the centre of a community of around 400 Jews, many from eastern Europe. Its members ran a button factory, a chocolate business, a betting shop, property companies and other local enterprises. The annual Jewish Ball was attended by many of the town’s citizens, Jews and non-Jews.

But by the 1980s, a minyan – a quorum of 10 men – could no longer be reached, and the synagogue was sold. The grade II-listed building became a Christian centre and later a gym; today it lies empty and vandalised.

Now, however, there is hope that it will be preserved and restored as a Jewish museum, part of the scheme being rolled out this week. The project, commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, has identified synagogues built before the second world war, from Cork in Ireland in the west to Vladivostok in Russia in the east. Each has been catalogued with construction dates and materials, the Jewish community it served, its present use and condition, and a “significance rating”.

Simon Schama.

Simon Schama. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Schama will launch the project in parliament on Wednesday with the backing of more than 40 high-profile supporters including Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, architect Daniel Libeskind, television newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky, artist Anish Kapoor, authors Linda Grant and Howard Jacobson, and former government ministers Malcolm Rifkind and Tristram Hunt.

Before 1939, there were an estimated 17,000 synagogues across Europe, but the majority have been lost. Of the 3,318 surviving buildings, only 718 still function as Jewish places of worship; others are abandoned, in ruins or used for other purposes such as warehousing, factories, restaurants and theatres. One houses a swimming pool; others are funeral homes or fire stations.

The project faced “special challenges around Jewish heritage”, especially in eastern Europe, said foundation member Michael Mail. “The Holocaust was followed by communism. Many buildings were abandoned and essentially lost their communities of users. In preserving these buildings, we also preserve the stories of the communities that for hundreds of years were the heartlands of the Jewish people. These places can serve as profound portals into the worlds that were once there.”

The inventory was undertaken by the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, assisted by heritage experts in individual countries.

“We can’t save them all, so let’s save the best, the most important, the most at risk,” said Mail. “We’ve homed in on 160, and narrowed those down to 19 that we’re particularly looking at, where there’s a good chance of saving and restoring the buildings. Each one of those has a different story. In many cases, these buildings are the last witnesses to a Jewish life that was. This is not just Jewish heritage: it is Europe’s cultural and historical heritage and we’re in a race against time to save it.”

Natasha Kaplinsky.

Natasha Kaplinsky. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

One of the first buildings in line for restoration is the Great Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus, built in the 1640s. Before the second world war, 17,000 Jews lived in Slonim, more than two-thirds of the local population. An estimated 200 survived.

The synagogue, a baroque building overlooking the marketplace, was used as a warehouse after the war but has been abandoned for 18 years. It has been vandalised and is in danger of collapse, but some of the interior paintings and carvings are intact.

Among those rounded up and killed in Slonim were Kaplinksy’s relatives. The newsreader discovered her Jewish family history when she travelled to the city for the television series Who Do You Think You Are?

“It was devastating to find out that a large number of my family were killed by the Nazis,” she told the Observer. “One key moment [in the Slonim trip] was going to the synagogue where most of my family used to worship before being rounded up and burned alive.”

The synagogue is a “majestic building, absolutely stunning. You can see its history on its walls, but it is falling apart. I was horrified to find swastikas painted on the outside walls.”

After the programme was made, 27 Kaplinsky family members from all over the world met in Belarus to learn more about their history. “We ended up in the synagogue,” Kaplinsky said. “It was hugely symbolic that the building that tore our family apart brought us back together. It was a very special moment.”

There were lessons to be learned from the past, she added. “When you look around the world you can see the devastation caused by prejudice and hatred. We need to educate future generations and remind them of history.”

Discussions are now under way to restore the Slonim synagogue as a Jewish museum, educational and cultural centre, and a place of worship.

In Merthyr Tydfil, the proposal to restore the Old Synagogue as a Jewish museum of Wales and cultural centre is supported by the city council and local politicians.

Gerald Jones, the Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, said the restoration plan “would see this building once again playing a part in the life of our community”. The foundation is seeking funding from partners including the Heritage Lottery Fund in the UK. It is also hoping for donations from people with family connections to synagogues.

The Old Synagogue, Merthyr Tydfil.

The Old Synagogue, Merthyr Tydfil. Photograph: Handout