Einstein at Home
Friedrich Herneck (1909-1993) is a German science historian from the DDR period who wrote among other books also a biography of Albert Einstein. In 1978 he published a book Einstein Privat which contained the transcript of five interview sessions he had with Herta Schiefelbein, who was the household helper of the Einstein family in the period 1927-1933. It had also a short introduction about Herneck written by Dieter Herrmann. This book brings the English translation of the German original. It is translated by Josef Eisinger who also added to his translation an Einstein biography of 36 pages to sketch the necessary background.
In the period covered by the interviews, Einstein was already famous all over the globe. In 1927 he was officially divorced from his first wife Mileva Marić in 1919 who then continued to live in Zürich with their two sons (Hans Albert and Eduard). She got Einstein's Nobel Prize money and half of his salary as alimony. Einstein married his niece Elsa Einstein right after the divorce. He and Elsa had an apartment in the Haberlandstrasse in Berlin. She had 2 daughters from a previous marriage. The eldest married already in 1924 but the youngest Margot lived with them until she married in 1930. In 1928 Einstein was overworked and was sick with heart problems for almost a year. In 1929, when Einstein turned 50, the Einstein family moved for a short while to a house in Caputh (near Potsdam) close to the place where their new summer house was built. The construction of this house was one reason, but it was also partially to flee the birthday ceremonies and the "personality cult" as he called it. They moved to the new building with view on the nearby lake later that year. Till 1933 they lived there part of the year and spent the rest in Berlin or they were traveling (twice to Pasadena where Einstein lectured in CalTech). In 1933 Einstein left Germany definitively.
Eisinger's biography covers the whole life of Einstein, but the previous paragraph sketches a brief summary of the part that situates the period in which Herta was insider to the Einstein household.
The interviews themselves are transcribed as questions (by F.H.) and answers (by H.S.). In his questions, and as a reaction to Herta's answer or when she does not remember, Herneck often adds additional comments from other biographers or other sources. For these, references and further details are often given as notes in an appendix. In the later interviews they are sometimes inserted as intermissions in the interview. The conversation is rather formal and somewhat old-fashioned but all possible details are covered. A detailed description of the Haberlandstrasse apartment: the ground plan, the furniture, the frames on the wall, everything, (repeated for the summerhouse in Caputh), what was included in the tasks of Herta, how she had to dress, what utensils she had at her disposal, how she was addressed by whom, etc. Obviously also many questions about the members of the family, what they used to eat and when, which visitors came and how often,...
So we learn that in that period Einstein carried very little money with him, he was not interested and very negligent in his clothing, he drank only caffeine-free coffee, he did not adhere to a strict daily schedule, he smoked the pipe a lot, he ate many vegetables with little spices and liked especially mushrooms and had several eggs for breakfast, he enjoyed playing the violin, sometimes while thinking about a problem, his English was not very good, but he had keen interest in Esperanto,...
In Caputh, Einstein owned a boat that he had received as a birthday present. He loved sailing very much and ... he had a weakness for beautiful women and flirted with several. The blonde Austrian Margarete Lebach was one of them. When he went sailing on his boat with Grete, Herta recalls some "loud discussion" between Einstein and Elsa. Later on Elsa settled in the situation and tried to avoid the troublesome situation and she left for Berlin every time she knew Grete was coming.
The last interview is concerned with the period when the Nazis took power in 1933. Einstein resigned from the Prussian Academy of Sciences and accepted a job at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton. Here it is more Herneck who is telling the story of what was going on since Herta was not aware of most of these events at that time. However Herta is interviewed about what happened in the Berlin apartment and with Elsa's children. Margot and her husband had left for Paris but Ilse and her husband stayed in Berlin and took care of Einstein's material. They employed Herta for a number of weeks before they too left Germany. The Kriminalpolizei came looking after Margot's husband in the city apartment but fortunately they had left already. Somewhat later a group of men in uniform came back for a house search when Herta and Einstein's secretary were packing up things to leave the apartment. The place was robbed of the pictures and the carpets. Remaining things and furniture was shipped to Princeton. Herta was interrogated by the Kriminalpolizei about "the Jew Einstein with an Aryan servant" but she had nothing to say in his disadvantage. Nevertheless all Einstein's possessions were confiscated anyway.
Not all of the information exposed in the interviews is really exciting, but at least it gives a minute description of how the Einsteins lived in those six years. This account stays far away from science and mathematics and tells about a day-to-day family household. One can hardly say that it was the household of ordinary people, given Einstein's celebrity, but still it was a family of people who each had their own character and idiosyncrasies. Herta certainly gives a happy and flattering picture and has her own description of all the celebrities that came visiting. Herneck's comments are a bit preachy but I take it that that was the common interviewing style in those days.