Ahhh, Bern

Bern is a medieval city that has changed little structurally since 1410 when a law was passed, after a fire that burned all the wooden buildings, that decreed all buildings be made of stone.   Of course the old city now has contemporary shops and is connected by buses and trams to the new city, yet still, it retains its original character.  The four main thoroughfares of the old city are covered in cobblestones and because the available stone, limestone, is porous, the eaves extend out farther than usual.  Awnings that originally covered the carts of vendors have been assimilated into the architecture so that the walkways are now covered, forming arcades on either side of the streets.

Bern 2011 Bern, 1900

As you can see, the city remains much as it was, including a series of eleven fountains, each centered around a painted statue, where women in 1901 without running water assembled to do washing.

One of Bern’s eleven fountains, 2011  Women doing wash at a Bern fountain, 1900

Bern is where Albert wrote the five papers that established his reputation in the year 1905, his anus mirabilus, while he was working full-time at the Bern Patent Office, newly married (1903) to Mileva, and soon-to-be the father of Hans Albert.  In his memoir, he records that these were the happy years.  (Interesting that happiness is reported BEFORE the success for which he is famous.  Hemingway also claimed the years before his acknowledgment, when married to Hadley Richardson, were his happiest.)

The apartment where Albert and Mileva lived when they were first married has been preserved as a tiny museum in two floors, those being what we would call the second and third floors.

Einstein Haus

You first enter two rooms of their apartment, one with a tiny fireplace and Albert’s desk from the Patent Office added, the other with table, chairs, grandfather clock, and photographs.  All are wood and quite beautiful.  The desk is the kind with cubbies, each filled with Albert’s belongings.

Einstein’s Patent Office desk the main room

Between the two rooms in a little foyer is a closet with what appears to be Mileva’s wedding clothes and Hans Albert’s bassinet.  While it might be possible to look at period furniture dispassionately, the fabric of the clothing and the bassinet connected me to the real family.

Mileva’s closet Hans Albert’s bassinet

Up the original staircase is a room full of information about Einstein, all of which was familiar to me from reading biographies.  It was my husband’s first initiation into the various particulars, so worthwhile for his participation and interest.  (No, I don’t discuss my day’s work with him beyond whether it went well or haltingly.  Though peculiarities in the research might come out, he doesn’t get the full gestalt until a trip such as this one or when reading the published book.)

The real treasure trove of content is in the Historical Museum here in Bern, housed in a castle and devoting an entire floor to Einstein.  With video demonstrations, newsreel, photographs and artifacts, the museum recreates the context of his work, his life, his legacy.

History Museum, Bern

The Theory of Special Relativity is explained in animations, step-by-step, on four screens, the viewer able to rewatch each one as many times as necessary to understand the concepts.  This is the theory that presents the speed of light as the constant, and not space or time, as was previously thought.  As a writer, I’m struck with how much of grasping the concept is the same as understanding point of view.

The artifacts that were of greatest interest to me were those that demonstrated the particulars of daily life.  Seeing the heavy iron Mileva would have used, the telephone on which Albert might have called his mother, the stove that heated the rooms and old films of the trolley cars made the reality of their lives more palpable.

a 1900’s iron 1900’s telephone 1900’s stove

There were several rooms set up–a bedroom like where each lived in Zurich while in school, a store where Mileva might have shopped in Bern.  Such exhibits prevent me from imagining/writing their lives in a 21st century, revisionist way.

what their college housing looked like a store where Mileva might have shopped

Three facts I didn’t know emerged:  Einstein’s father’s company was commissioned to light Oktoberfest with electricity–suggesting that Albert might have attended, especially the year it was first completed.  I can imagine the  moment of flipping that switch and seeing the grounds lit for the first time would be quite a sight.

I also learned that despite being aware that he was not a good marriage partner, Albert fell in love again in old age, after Elsa’s death, after his platonic relationship with his secretary Helen Dukas.  His inamorata was a Princeton librarian, Johanna Fantova, aka Hannie, also a European refugee.  He wrote her love poems like those he wrote to Mileva and liked to take her sailing–a lifelong passion akin to playing his violin.  Fortunately for Hannie, they didn’t marry.  He bemoaned in his memoir that he failed miserably at marriage.  Twice.

Albert and Johanna Fantova, sailing Einstein’s financial legacy

Finally, I saw the will above.  Mileva and Elsa were both dead before he died, so he provided $20,000 for his secretary, Helen Dukas, $20,000 for his step-daughter Margot (Elsa’s daughter), $15,000 for his son Eduard who was hospitalized in a psychiatric institution in Zurich, and $10,000 for his son Hans Albert, a hydro-geologist in California.  Any remainder, including all proceeds from his literary estate, was left to Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

I will leave those numbers alone.  They speak for themselves.

Posted in Anus Mirabilus, Bern, Eduard Einstein, Einstein, Elsa Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact, Hadley Richardson, Hans Albert Einstein, Helen Dukas, History Museum, Johanna Fantova, Margot Einstein, Mileva Maric, Oktoberfest, Special Theory of Relativity, Switzerland | Leave a comment

Adventures in Munich

Einstein spent his childhood from age one to fifteen in Munich, though the Munich of today is a reconstruction of the city, thanks to Munich being the Nazi headquarters and therefore the target of Allied bombs in WWII. When it became apparent to Hitler that Munich would fall, he didn’t move the art work out of the cathedrals because he felt it would demoralize the population. Instead, he had everything photographed. From these Nazi photographs the old city was reconstructed so that in the Alstadt, much appears as it did before.


Munich, rebuilt after WWII Allied bombing Rathouse (town hall) with the famous Glockenspiel


The two gates that remain from the medieval city are the Isator and the Sendlinger Tor. Both Einstein households—his parents moved farther out of town as the business prospered—were near the Sendlinger Tor, so I was particularly interested in what a child could actually see from there. In the opening scene of my novel, Einstein is a three-year-old, left by his mother in the city to find his way home—a practice she was committed to in building his independence. This is fact, but how he learned to find his way home is a matter of fiction. Originally, I imagined that he oriented himself by the towers of the Fraumunster Kirche, but standing at the Sendlinger Tor, I realized that these towers, high as they are, are not visible. As if to oblige me, there stood a child, a little girl of about three, and through her eyes it was apparent that I needed to revise the scene so that three-year-old Albert would orient himself by the Tor itself.


The Isator, Munich  Sendlinger Tor  Sendlinger Tor with obliging three-year-old


I also sought out the Luitpold Gymnasium, the high school that Einstein attended, hated, and from which he arranged to be dismissed at age fifteen when his parents moved to Milan and left him behind to finish school. (He had a dual purpose. Not only did he hate the militaristic German educational methods, but if he did not revoke his German citizenship before age seventeen, he would be obliged by law to serve in the German army.) The school itself looked too new to be over one hundred years old, which leads me to believe that it was rebuilt after the war, the school he attended possibly having been destroyed. This is a subject for further research.


Luitpold Gymnasium, 2011


It happens that Munich is celebrating Oktoberfest during our stay, though, unlike four million people annually, it was not the purpose of our coming. Oktoberfest is the annual celebration of the wedding feast of the long-dead King Ludwig I and has continued since 1810.  That means Albert might have attended as a child.  My husband and I took a stroll through the celebration, an immense fairgrounds full of the most hair-raising rides I’ve ever seen, plus booths selling wurst, very fishy-smelling fish on a stick, pretzels, and decorated, heart-shaped cookies worn on a string around the neck by both men and women, all dressed in traditional Bavarian costumes. The main attraction, however, seems to be the ubiquitous beer halls where hundreds pack in to get drunk, sway, and sing both American and German songs, loudly, to the music of an oompah band.


Oktoberfesters in traditional costume  Outlet for costumes


After a several mile circle of the grounds at 6:00 PM, having sampled nothing, we were driven home in a bicycle-powered, two-seat carriage—the vehicle of choice in the car-and-taxi clogged roadways. The driver told us that to get a seat in a beer hall, one had to go at 10:00 AM. Since Albert Einstein was an introverted child who preferred building houses of cards, watching chickens, and proving the Pythagorean theorem, I suspect he might have been as anxious to leave as I was. Furthermore, he didn’t drink—he claimed it made one stupid—and while not a teetotaler myself, after seeing Oktoberfest, I’ve no doubt he was right.






Posted in Einstein, Luitpold Gymnasium, Munich, Nazi headquarters, Oktoberfest, Research methods, Sendlinger Tor, writing | Leave a comment


It poured rain on our first day in Zurich and was the Swiss equivalent of Thanksgiving Day, besides.  Of the main churches, the Grossmunster was closed for a vocal concert, the Wasserkirche for services, and St. Peter’s Church for a string ensemble.  We did see the Chagall windows in the Fraumunster, (stunning, but not there in 1901 as Chagall was only fourteen and executed the commission when he was 80) and hear an amazing soprano sing for coins in the portico of the Wasserkirche.


Apart from the rain soaking through my raincoat, Sunday was the perfect day to go searching out specific Einstein sites.  I wanted to see the house where Mileva lived with her Eastern European countrywomen at Plattenstrasse 50 and also the room Albert rented at Unionstrasse 4.  I had seen both on the internet courtesy of Google Earth, but seeing them live was a different matter, like the difference between watching an opera on television or in a theater.  The rain did not dampen my enthusiasm for looking up to the fourth floor of 50 Plattenstrasse to the three windows that mark the only room up there.  This was Mileva’s room after she and Albert got together–for privacy, no doubt, though it meant climbing more stairs with her congenitally displaced hip and possibly having to descend a floor to use the bathroom.  She didn’t mind, apparently, though her housemates complained that she was unavailable to them once Albert came on the scene.

The building is stucco, painited gray, quite plain, on a street of old trees, sidewalks, and other more distinguished-looking houses with shutters.  The paint and the age of the trees might be different, but those three windows on the fourth floor suggest a large room up in the tree tops, a pleasant, light-filled nest for the two of them.  Strangely, given Albert’s mother’s antagonism for Mileva and her fear that Mileva would get pregnant, she sent care packages for Albert to Mileva’s address.

Mileva’s boarding house at Plattenstrasse 50

It was more difficult to find Albert’s room.  Unionstrasse is a tiny cul-de-sac which requires pinpoint navigation among a maze of streets.  A cooperative Swiss citizen helped, directing me in a combination of gestures and broken English.  The Swiss speak very good English–much better than my German–but the word cul-de-sac is not parlance learned in school.  Nonetheless, she managed to direct me to a lovely tree-lined street, and there was number 4 on the corner, buff-colored stucco building.  A plaque on the wall confirms that Albert Einstein indeed lived there.  An architect now has an office in the building.  I hope s/he feels particularly inspired.

Albert’s rooming house at Unionstrasse 4 the plaque on the house at Unionstrasse 4

From there I climbed farther up Ramistrasse to the ETH, the Polytech, where both went to school as members of the same class of five students.  The ETH itself is a massive building with a huge plaza that overlooks the city from a promontory, meaning that when Albert and Mileva went to the Cafe Metropole on the Limmat River, they went down a steep grade and had to climb back up, later.  Their houses were each up the incline as well,  so they were both in decent physical condition.

the ETH/Polytech

Today, Monday, I visited a tiny museum tucked back in the winding streets of the Alstadt (Old City) that showed a model of Zurich in 1800, before the ETH was built.  Of more interest were photographs of a 1910 house the city had renovated, which happened to look quite like the house where Mileva lived, including a rooftop room.  Renovation plans showed elevations of the interior, and there was a photograph of the interior of a renovated room with windows like in Mileva’s room and also of the original kitchen and common rooms before renovation.  It gave me a better sense of what the house looked like, including the areas where she and her friends met to play the piano and sing.  Albert played his violin for them there, with Mileva accompanying him.

photos of a 1910 house similar to Mileva’s an elevation of the 1910 house elevation, exterior Renovated attic room kitchewn 1910

Posted in ETH/Zurich Polytech, Fraumunster, Grossmunster, Marc Chagall, Plattenstrasse 50, Switzerland, Unionstrasse 4, Wasserkirche, Zurich | 1 Comment

Lake Como, Part II

We stayed in Tremezzo (tree-metzo) because it’s the location of the Villa Carlotta, an open-to-the-public villa with extensive gardens that Albert and Mileva visited on their ferry trip from Como to Colico.  It’s likely they stopped in other villages as well–so we visited Bellagio and Varenna, both charming and different–but the Villa Carlotta is the stop that Mileva mentioned in her glowing letter to her friend Helene Savic, then married and living in Belgrade.

Villa Carlotta

Built in the 1600’s for a powerful Milanese family, the Villa was bought in 1801 by an art collector responsible for its extant collection of Canova, Thorvaldsen, and Heyez.

In 1843, it was bought for the Princess Carlotta by her mother, the Prussian Princess Marianna of Nassau on the occasion of Carlotta’s marriage to Georg II of Sax-Meiningen, (note names for the villa’s ultimate fate) who was a passionate botanist and responsible for the 70,000 square meters of gardens, including rhododendron and azaleas that must have been astonishing when Albert and Mileva visited in May, as well as a cactus garden and a rain forest.

flower garden cactus garden

In the center rotunda of the villa stands a large-as-life sculpture of Mars and Venus in polished white marble, the figure of Mars standing stalwart, nude except for his helmet, sandals and a strap holding the cape that has fallen from his muscled body.  He holds a drawn sword, notable for its being the only metal part of the piece.  Venus, also nude, but round and supple, is the supplicant in the piece, as if begging Mars to reconsider.

Mars and Venus Eros and Psyche

In the next room, Eros and Psyche are caught mid-embrace, two beautiful, polished marble faces about to kiss in the lee of Eros’ spread wings.

It would be hard to imagine a more perfect set-up for the night Mileva got pregnant.  Unless it was the next night, after their drive in a horse-drawn sledge over the snow-covered Splugen Pass.  (When we crossed the Alps into Switzerland, there was no snow on the alps, though it was much colder than in Lake Como.)

I wonder if Mileva would have been so entranced had she known that after the birth of many children, the Princess Carlotta died at age 23, and that fewer than twenty years later the villa itself, on the defeat of Germany in WWI, would be confiscated by the Italian government.  Sad fate.

Beware of your affections, Mileva!

gardens, Villa Carlotta

Posted in Bellagio, Einstein, Lake Como, Mileva Maric, reading, Tremezzo, Varenna, Villa Carlotta | Leave a comment

The Einstein Tour Part I, Lake Como

My husband and I arrived in Milan yesterday after the (for me) sleepless overnight flight that is penance for the luxury of European travel, meaning no taxi fare seemed too high if it meant we might settle in at our hotel sooner. And Tremezzo, the small village on the west shore of Lake Como, midlake, where I had booked our room, couldn’t have made it more worth it. What overwhelmed me more than the lake itself, is the geography of the basin it’s in. Carved out by a glacier, the foothills surround the lake are covered in lush foliage with darker vertical veins, which in the haze of humidity appear velvetine, like the iris petals in the flower paintings of Georgia O’Keefe.

Lake Como glacial basin

On the lake shore, the Hotel Villa Marie, complete with its own cupola (on left, below), is the most picturesque in a row of tile-roofed and pastel-painted Italian villas.

Hotel Villa Marie in Tremezzo

This is not where Albert and Mileva stayed, though it’s one km from the Villa Carlotta where they disembarked from their ferry to tour the house and gardens. The ferry boats are still the most efficient means of transportation to various villages on the lake, so today Beloved and I boarded the “slow boat,” (Centro Lago in Italian), and took a gestalt tour of the mid-lake villages, including Bellagio, home to luxury shops, and Varenna, a charmingly-preserved fishing village with an 11th century stone chapel and unrestored 14th century frescoes. Tomorrow we will tour the Villa Carlotta. Today it was focused on what it feels like to be here. This morning, in addition to the lapping of water against the stone walls that separate the land from the lake, I heard the church bells ring two strokes with a non-melodious “clong.” I heard the rigging of the sailboats clinking against aluminun masts in the tiny harbor in front of the hotel, but masts were wood in 1901, so perhaps chattering would be a better word. Regrettably, the traffic noise is loud now on the road that wends around the lake. Albert, unlike Beloved, would not have needed to jerk Mileva from the path of drivers speeding around blind curves.

At our sidewalk cafe dinner last night we sat at a small table among many other couples at small tables, all speaking in whispers, until, as invariable happens with my friendly husband, we all began talking to one another. Beside us was a couple of honeymooners, obvious and perfect for imagining Albert and Mileva, though they were not yet married on their May, 1901 trip, but their heads likely inclined toward one another in the same way, though Albert didn’t drink so they wouldn’t have shared the same bottle of expensive wine, (red, of course.) Still, they might have lingered long, ordering each course and eating it before deciding on the next, sharing each as if unable yet to acknowledge different preferences, she serving out his helping first while he sat by helpless and helplessly in love.

Around these two sat three couples of oldlyweds, none of us jaded, I hope, but clearly in a different place as we lounged back in the wicker chairs, drinking from different liters of wine—his red, hers white, ordering not multiple courses—who can eat like that after 35?–but trying not to lick the plate of our measley one course apiece. One man called the rising, almost-full moon, the sun and told the groom to enjoy the next six months as if life would never be like that again. Perhaps not, but I didn’t sense regret from any table. The most senior were a couple from Wales and England, clearly enjoying their holiday together, though they were supposed to come six months earlier for a wedding and had to postpone for his illness. I was thinking how Mileva would have envied us all—the young lovers and the mature ones with our children grown and ably fending for themselves–she who was abandoned and left to care for a schizophrenic son.

Now my patient Beloved waits, out on the balcony of our room, overlooking the lake. The rocky tops of the Alps to the north—in fact in Switzerland—turn pink at sunset. His wife writes on, but it is dinner time and he is getting hungry. I suspect we will return to our same cafe, The Helvetia, because our Welsh and British friends—last night the end of their holiday here–confirm it has the freshest food in Tremezzo.  The veal in mushrooms and wine the newlyweds were eating looked stupendous.

Hotel Villa Marie (with cupola) in Tremezzo

Posted in Bellagio, Einstein, Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact, historical fiction, Italy, Lake Como, Mileva Maric, reading, Research methods, Tremezzo, Varenna, writing | 1 Comment

The Paper Garden

I have just uncovered that greatest of all delights, a book that runs so close to my vein that I look forward to going to bed at night so I can dip into it.  The book is The Paper Garden:  An Artist {Begins Her Life’s Work} At 72 by Molly Peacock. Perhaps it was my recent birthday that drew me to the book–one of the dreadful decade birthdays where it’s impossible not to glance back at goals unreached.  Anyway, the book turned up on my Amazon recommendations and given the title, I ran to the library.

The Paper Garden defies category, for while it presents a biographical portrait of the 18th century paper-cut artist Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788), it also contains memoir-like passages of the author’s journey of discovery and her reasons for attraction to the amazing flower collages which are reproduced (gorgeously, I might add) in the 2010 Bloomsbury Press publication.  Inspiration abounds to pursue whatever artistic passion consumes one, age notwithstanding, but what I find most riveting are poet Molly Peacock’s observations on making art.  (My novel, Shadow Dancing, (http://www.nancypinard.com/2.html) explored that subject, so it is dear and close, a subject I’ve tried to break down for my creative writing students into the bite-size pieces required when one embarks on eating any elephant.)

Listen to what Peacock says after noting how Mary Granville left unerased pencil marks on her cut-outs, as if unaware that anyone would ever view her work, let alone inspect her craft:

“Great technique means that you have to abandon perfectionism.  Perfectionism either stops you cold or slows you down too much.  Yet paradoxically, it’s proficiency that allows a person to make any art at all; you must have technical skill to accomplish anything, but you also must have passions, which, in an odd way, is technique forgotten.  The joy of technique is the bulging bag of tricks it gives you to solve your dilemmas.  Craft gives you the tools for reparation.  And teachers give you craft, for a good teacher urges you beyond your childish perfectionism.  From there you proceed into the practice that eventually becomes expertise.”   (Peacock, p. 28-29)

I’m thinking about this in terms of my own work–Isn’t the “childish perfectionism” what often causes me to be blocked?– the need for risk-taking in early drafts, before the slow, eventual process of plying and applying craft to remedy the problems.  I’m also thinking about Albert Einstein’s process and the question of the contribution made by Mileva Maric.

When I look at what the biographers report about how each of them managed their studies–Einstein able to dismiss the demands of academia and digest the newest thought (not being taught) at the Polytech in Zurich.  Maric, by contrast, was much more the disciplined partaker of academic demands–what normally is associated with being an A student.  She never missed class, did her reading and homework, took notes, attended labs, followed directions.  While Einstein got into trouble for “coloring outside the lines,” inventing his own protocol for lab experiments such that in Introductory Physics Lab he was flunked by Herr Professor Pernet, he was also teaching himself what worked and what didn’t.  He had disdain for repeating experiments and collecting data that had already been collected by someone else, saying “Nothing new comes of thinking about a problem the same way it was created.” In fact, he encouraged Maric to use data collected by others–a fact which annoyed Herr Professor Weber, as if Einstein was somehow advocating cheating.

Their particular, individual orientations toward problem-solving would seem to support the thesis that Einstein was in fact the person responsible for the theoretical leaps required to change the world’s thought.  Their son, Hans Albert, reported that his mother stayed up late at night, checking Albert’s work, re-working the math.  Where she scored a 9 to Albert’s 10 in theoretical physics, one might also imagine her usefulness as a sounding board for new ideas–that person who can see the notion, but possibly also the cracks.   Should she get credit for that?  Doesn’t it take both minds?

It would seem so , since the locus of Albert’s work was accomplished during their marriage.  Input from Michelle Besso, Marcel Grossman, and others continued after the marriage ended, but the revolutionary thought did not.

What conclusion do you draw?

Posted in Darwin, Einstein, making art, Mileva Maric, Molly Peacock, reading, Shadow Dancing, The Paper Garden, writing | 3 Comments

How much of this is true?

For the second time since I began writing fictional biography, someone said, “But how am I to know what’s true?”  My answer is that the scenes are made up, the dialogue, the emotional movement, but the settings are as real as I can make them, and I don’t tamper with known facts–assuming they are recorded somewhere and that I have found them.  I don’t change dates or rearrange events to my own ends, either.  In the case of SANDWALK, my fictional biography of the Charles Darwin family during the 17 months preceding the publication of Origin, it was relatively straightforward, thanks to Darwin being such a frequent and thorough letter writer,  available online at www.darwincorrespondenceproject.com, and their daughter Henrietta’s editing her mother’s letter collection into two volumes called Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters.

In the case of the Einstein book, it’s not so simple.  The letters were written in German, for example, so I’m dependent on translations.  And the executors of his estate were perhaps too conscientious in wanting to preserve Albert’s sainted image and destroyed much that was inconsistent with it.  Consequently, for the period I’m writing about now–August, 1901-November 1901–after Mileva had failed her exams and went home pregnant to Vojvodina (Serbia) to tell her parents and the time she turned up in Stein am Rhein, Switzerland to be near Albert, letters were either never written (unlikely) or were destroyed.   That means it’s up to me to figure out, based on what I can learn about her family and the cultural mores and religious values of Vojvodina in 1901, how that scene might have played with no help from actual accounts.

So, how does that work?  As a novelist, I have to look to the end game.  I know what happened to various family members, ultimately.  I know that Mileva’s father, very successful in terms of worldly goods, owning as many as four farms in various sections of Serbia and two other houses as well, felt he had failed with his children, that they had betrayed him.  I know that Mileva left Serbia to marry Albert after nearly dying, unwed, in childbirth with their first child Lieserl, that Albert never saw the baby, that she disappeared after age 2.  I know that Mileva’s brother was assumed lost in WW I, but then turned up in Russia and became a professor in a university, though his fellow Serbs and family considered his abandonment traitorous.  I know that her sister Zorka became schizophrenic and that she died on a bed of straw surrounded by 43 cats.

So, knowing those things, what can I assume about these people’s characters and their likely responses to Mileva’s news?  Another interesting fact that seems totally out of context is that when Mileva was in residence at Stein am Rhein, Albert sent her two books.  One was a book on hypnotism by Auguste Forel, the most recent director of the Burgholzli Mental Hospital in Zurich.  Since nothing psychological has ever entered their letters before, what might that suggest?  Mileva found the book disgusting, though she’s not very specific on that score.  Perhaps because Forel was into eugenics?  Or is that why he disgusts me?

That’s another problem, of course.  The matter of being revisionist.  I know that Forel’s work was used by Hitler, but it’s 1901 and no one knows that, yet.  It’s got to be kept in mind.

So, therein lie a few of the problems and my manner of addressing them.

Auguste ForelMilos Maric, Mileva’s fatherStein am Rhein

Posted in Auguste Forel, Darwin, Einstein, Fictional biography, fictional truth, Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact, historical fiction, Milos Maric, reading, Serbia, Stein am Rhein, writing | 2 Comments

What was different about Einstein’s brain?

On Einstein’s death in 1955, his body was taken to an autopsy lab in Princeton, NJ.  He had donated his brain to science, prior to the cremation of his body.  There, Dr. Thomas Harvey removed his brain, then stole it.  He examined it in sections but could find nothing different.  When he finally returned the brain, it was studied further.  Here is a report provided by the Center for History of Physics on the website “How Stuff Works.”

“Inspecting samples that Harvey had carefully preserved, Sandra F. Witelson and colleagues discovered that Einstein’s brain lacked a particular small wrinkle (the parietal operculum) that most people have. Perhaps in compensation, other regions on each side were a bit enlarged; later they were found to have other unusual features. These regions, the inferior parietal lobes, are known to have something to do with visual imagery and mathematical thinking. Thus Einstein was apparently better equipped than most people for a certain type of thinking.”

Posted in Einstein, genius, reading | Leave a comment

The Business of Dowries

Most of what I knew about Jewish dowries, prior to researching the Einstein novel, came from the stories of Shalom Aleichem, via Tevye the milkman and Fiddler on the Roof.  I extend my gratitude and acknowledgment to Marion Kaplan and her book The Making of the Jewish Middle Class for furthering my education.

Some of Pauline Einstein’s objections to Albert’s love for Mileva Maric can be understood in terms of the German Jewish system of dowries.  The Jews of Imperial Germany, including the Einsteins, were predominantly middle class, interested in concentrating capital and creating economic and social alliances through marriages.  Not until after WW I, with the entrance of women into the workforce and inflation decimating middle-class savings, was the Jewish system of arranged marriages and parental control seriously challenged by the notion of companionate marriage.  At the time Albert and Mileva wanted to marry, 1901,  parental control via the dowry was the norm, among both Jews and members of the German bourgeoisie.  Those parents who chose to bow to the more popular romantic notions arranged situations for their children to meet appropriate partners, then denied that these marriages had been arranged.  The appropriate partners had, of course, been researched and a private investigator sometimes hired if the intended was not already known to the family by fortune and reputation.

Where Jews had for many years been limited by law to commerce and business, it makes particular sense that they would concern themselves with amalgamating finances and also tend to financial security where there was little security to be found for them elsewhere.  They also tended to marry within their group, by choice, but also by necessity given anti-Semitism. 

The dowry, which might include cash, real estate, jewels, and stocks, transferred property to the bride from her family at the time of her marriage. Its size indicated both social class and status, excluding those from lower ranks of society.  It bought security for women who were not educated and not expected to contribute to the economic prosperity of the new household.  While the woman might choose to invest her dowry in the husband’s business—as Pauline Einstein did, losing it to her husband’s poor business acumen—this was not required.  

The bride remained passive, sometimes ignorant of ongoing arrangements until she was informed that a young suitor would be coming to visit. The groom, particularly if he was older, might participate.  If the parties found one another agreeable, an engagement might be enacted on the spot, the financial arrangements having already been negotiated.

If a young woman’s parents were deceased, her brothers took charge of arranging her marriage.  Discharging this responsibility was regarded as a necessary moral prerequiste to their own marriages.

Familial, friendship, business and professional networks might be used to find appropriate partners, sometimes crossing national borders. 

Matchmakers were hired in the event a family had no appropriate connections.  The matchmakers specialized in a particular financial class and geography and worked for a percentage of the dowry. 

Advertising in local Jewish newspapers was an option for those who chose not to consult matchmakers.  The size of the dowry indicated the type of person sought.  For example 75,000 marks would attract a lawyer, doctor, or independent businessman, the price being adjusted to the locality.  A Berlin professional might command more.  A well-off shopkeeper with an income of 10,000 marks annually, would command a dowry of 30,000 marks.  20,000 marks would buy a mid-level civil servant—as Einstein eventually became when he was hired at the Patent Office in Bern.  5,000 marks got a woman a craftsman, and 2,000 bought her an elderly, well-situated gentleman, aka an old man.

In addition to bringing the dowry, there were certain qualifications for the woman, the primary one being her age.  After twenty-three a woman was no longer considered desirable.  Pauline Einstein was married at eighteen to the twenty-nine-year-old Hermann.  Albert, their oldest, was born four years later.  (Jews were the foremost practitioners of birth control in that era, Zurich, Switzerland being the center of that industry, 250 km from Albert’s birthplace in Ulm, Germany.)  Hence, when Pauline Einstein complained that Mileva was too old at twenty-five, it wasn’t only because Albert was four years younger. 

If a woman’s dowry was too small, she might be forced to move from the city (desirable) to the country (undesirable) to find a partner.  She might be forced to marry an older man, a widower with children, or an Eastern European Jew, all undesirable.  The worst fate a woman could suffer was to be mated to an American. 

What a strange twist history imposes, when Jewish women without dowries and sent to America, escaped the death camps in post-Imperial Germany. 


Posted in arranged marriage, dowry, Einstein, Fiddler on the Roof, Marion Kaplan, matchmakers, Mileva Maric, Pauline Einstein, reading, Research methods, Shalom Aleichem, Switzerland | Leave a comment

What is an alp?

It’s not a rocky peak in Switzerland, Italy, or France, or so I learn from a 1908 volume called Peep at Many Lands:  Switzerland by John Finnemore (London:  Adam and Charles Black).   It’s one of those lovely old books, embossed red cloth cover with no picture, kept in the storage at Dayton Metro Library.  The book that is, not the alp.

No, an alp, in 1908 at least, is a meadow on the way up to those rocky peaks.  The peak is above the treeline, the alp below.  The livestock of Switzerland graze on the lush grass that springs up along with a kaleidoscope of wild flowers after snow melt.  In times past–the time of the book’s writing–there was great celebration in the villages on the day the livestock, cattle, sheep, and goats, would leave the lowland barns behind, flowers woven into their horns, to begin the two-day climb to the alp for their summer’s stay.  The owners and their sons stayed in rude chalets on the mountains all summer long to tend the flocks.  Where cattle were grazing, the men set up cheese-making dairies.  Alpine Swiss cheese is not a standardized product, but one that takes on the flavor of the particular herd in a particular alp’s dairy.

What about storms?  The shepherds gather the flock into circles where they stand with heads down to weather what comes, including thunder, lightning and hail.

Does this still happen?  I’ll be there in September, to find out.  Meanwhile, there’s the internet.  Why is it relevant?  Because Einstein and his mother and aunts and cousins vacationed for a month each summer in the Swiss Alps.  It’s best I  know what I’m talking about–in the parlance of the day.

Swiss cattle grazingAlpine shepherd’s hutAlpine dairy thenAlpine dairy now

Posted in Italy, reading, Research methods, Switzerland | Leave a comment