CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD
Cults of historians, scientists, and everyday people persist in idolizing Albert Einstein. For his family, though, the name Einstein has cast a long, complicated, and difficult shadow. Today the two living grandchildren and five living great-grandchildren are weary of being hounded by Einstein worshippers and weary of trying to live up to the unprecedented achievements of their ancestor. They struggle to live private lives, well distanced from his fame, and they have succeeded: The most notable aspect of the Einstein descendants is how nearly invisible they are.
Even in anonymity, though, there is no escaping the family legacy. Albert Einstein, a man of remarkable insights, was also a man of many serious flaws. His quixotic behavior and strained personal relationships loom menacingly over his descendants. Today the Einsteins are a fractured family.
I recently spoke with Aude Einstein, Albert’s granddaughter-in-law and the mother of all five of his great-grandchildren. I had spoken to other family members previously while researching a book about Albert’s missing daughter, Lieserl, and I believed Aude was the only new source now available to me. I was petrified about calling her, and I rehearsed how I could broach the subject of her renowned ancestor without her hanging up on me. My anxiety was unfounded. As soon as I heard her welcoming voice, I thought it would be all right.
Aude Ascher Einstein is in her seventies and lives in Switzerland. She is now divorced from Bernhard Einstein, the grandson of Albert. We had a friendly, lengthy telephone conversation. A few days later, though, she wrote to me and retracted her interview. “My family and I myself do not want you or anybody to write about our family. Sorry, but it would hurt and be destructive for the already precarious, fragile situation of our family. I deeply regret to have talked too much with you on the phone.”
I was not surprised, and in deference to her wishes, this article contains no other information from our conversation. “One cannot,” Albert Einstein wrote, “expect one’s children to inherit a mind.” Yet his surviving family members are, to an extent, forced to define themselves against the judgments and expectations of a world that hungers for any lingering vestiges of the legendary genius.
Albert’s family life was steeped in drama from the start. All three of his children were by Mileva Maric, his first wife: Lieserl, Hans Albert, and Eduard, called Tete, all born between 1902 and 1910. Lieserl, their out-of-wedlock daughter, appears to have died when she was 21 months old, most likely of scarlet fever at her mother’s home in the Serbian province Vojvodina. Little is known about Lieserl; her only legacy is a complicated mystery filled with secrecy, subterfuge, and cryptic messages. Tete was admitted to the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital in Zurich when he was 38. He had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, but many people believe he was overdosed with drugs and harmed by the many “cures” that were used at the time. His father wrote to Mileva in 1932, “I am not in favor of psychiatric treatments.” Less than two months later, when Tete was struggling to keep his emotional equilibrium, Albert wrote to him, “When you come to visit you must teach me about psychoanalysis; I’ll try to keep a straight face.”
Tete and Hans Albert both tried to live up to their father’s astonishing achievements. Hans Albert’s adopted daughter, Evelyn Einstein, remembers that many of Einstein’s friends and colleagues thought Tete was the one who had inherited his father’s intellect. “He was definitely the genius,” she says. “Next to Tete, my father was just a plodder.” But Hans Albert was certainly smart enough. He studied at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and became a hydraulic engineer. “Rivers don’t like to be changed around,” he said. “They fight back.”
When Hans Albert was 21, he met Frieda Knecht, a woman nine years his senior. Frieda was, like his mother, Mileva, highly intelligent and intensely opinionated. Albert and Mileva, who had been rancorously divorced for three years, were united in their opposition to the proposed marriage. There were “such significant faults of heredity in both families,” Albert wrote of Mileva’s and Frieda’s families. “If they would never have children, I could rest easy. But the heredity of our own children is not without blemish.” This was an emotionally complicated statement; Albert had always accused Mileva and her family of having “bad genes,” never admitting that he and his family might too. Now he was saying that Frieda came from unhealthy stock, that she was 4 feet 11 inches tall due to dwarfism, that Frieda’s mother was unbalanced (when reportedly she had an overactive thyroid). Hans Albert and Frieda married despite these protests and remained together until her death.
With Lieserl gone and Tete institutionalized, it was left to Hans Albert to pass on the Einstein genes. Bernhard Einstein, born in 1930, was Albert’s first grandson; Klaus, born in 1932, was his second. In 1938 the family immigrated to America from Switzerland, settling in Clemson, South Carolina, where Hans Albert found work studying soil conservation with the U.S. Agricultural Experiment Station. But within a year tragedy struck: Klaus died of diphtheria. A number of biographers assert that his parents were adhering to the canons of Christian Science and had not sought appropriate medical attention.
Bernhard divides his time between Switzerland and California. He attended university in Zurich, and then worked for the Swiss army, developing armor plating for tanks. He once recalled that when he was 25, his grandfather “talked to me for the first time ever about physics. He asked me what I know about energy, but he dropped the question immediately when he realized that I could not discuss the subject on his terms. That was the last time I saw him.”
Bernhard’s sister, Evelyn, is the only one of Albert’s descendants who still speaks openly with me. She lives in a home that is a jumble of history. When I first met her, in 1995, she was in her fifties, with cropped brown and silver hair, dressed in black pants and sandals and a bright crimson shirt. On her collar was a Silver Star Trek pin. Due to illness, she could barely walk. She scooted among leaning towers of paper in an old wheelchair decorated with garishly colored plastic Star Trek gewgaws. On the day I visited, her house was a disaster. A water pipe had broken and flooded the living room; every surface was covered with piles of damp papers, and the sofa was heaped with dissolving cardboard boxes.
“Don’t be concerned; my house is always a bit upside down,” Evelyn said, laughing. She invited me to sit on the clammy sofa. “I have to apologize for not dressing up for your visit,” she continued with precise diction in a deep, lilting voice. “You see, my mother didn’t teach me how to dress. And, as you can see”—she gave a sweeping gesture—“I have inherited my family’s slovenly behavior. I’m not elegant.”
Evelyn was an infant when she was adopted by Hans Albert and Frieda. I listened in astonishment as she told me, “Since I was young, I have been told that I was really Albert Einstein’s daughter.” She believes that she may, in fact, be the result of an affair he had with a dancer in New York. But she does not insist: “I realized that this big, dark secret about my birth was an open book to many people. Since I have no proof, I thought that if I broached this subject to people they would think that I am crazy, a total fruitcake! So I never spoke about it.” Thus Hans Albert, Evelyn’s adoptive father, may possibly be her half brother, and Evelyn’s brother, Bernhard, may be her nephew. Evelyn takes perverse delight in the scenario.
Evelyn, born in 1941, is a highly intelligent woman, but her life as an Einstein has been awful. From the beginning, she felt closer to her mother and distant from her father. Married and then divorced, she had no children. Among a number of other jobs, she worked as a dogcatcher, a reserve policewoman, and a cult deprogrammer. After battling cancer and liver disease, she began to slide downhill. For a while she was living in her car and eating out of the trash. “I can tell you every good garbage Dumpster in the area,” she said, “but I never panhandled a penny.” With tenacity she pulled herself up, began to collect disability insurance, and settled down to a cloistered life, still possessing a wry sense of humor.
“When I was 14,” Evelyn said, “Bernhard took me for a ride on his motorcycle to the woods outside Zurich and told me that his wife, Aude [Albert’s granddaughter-in-law], was pregnant. After Thomas was born, I remember feeling bad that my grandfather, Albert, did not live long enough to meet his first great-grandchild.” I met Thomas in 1995 when I joined him and his aunt Evelyn for lunch at a fish restaurant in California. A handsome, quiet man, he seemed nervous about being with Evelyn but was very polite. In the conversation, he mentioned a “trust.” Evelyn asked what it was. Thomas jumped to another subject, but I could see fire roiling in Evelyn’s eyes. She later filed a complaint in California state court, alleging that her nephew and the trust’s attorney had hidden a cache of letters from Albert Einstein to various family members estimated to be worth $15 million. Evelyn and her brother, Bernhard, had been named the beneficiaries of the trust. After a long legal battle and negotiations, the case was settled.
Thomas, the father of three teenagers, is a physician, certified in emergency medicine and anesthesiology. He presently administers anesthesia for plastic, dental, and oral surgeons in California.
Evelyn’s favorite nephew seems to be Bernhard’s second son, Paul Einstein, born in 1958. Since Paul was musically inclined, Bernhard gave him Albert Einstein’s violin. Today he is married and living in the south of France, where he is a composer and violinist. In 2004 Paul performed at the German Physical Society’s celebration of Einstein’s 125th birthday in Ulm, where Albert was born. Paul played Mozart’s Sonata in E Minor, Albert’s favorite piece.
Eduard (Ted) Einstein, Aude and Bernhard’s third son, was born in 1960. Instead of going to college, he learned masonry and construction. He now owns several furniture warehouses and a retail furniture store in the Los Angeles area, where he is married, with children. Ted once appeared in a commercial driving a new Oldsmobile, touting its worth and declaring, “You don’t have to be an Einstein to figure that out.”
Aude and Bernhard’s only daughter, Mira Einstein Yehieli, was born in 1965 and now lives in Israel with her husband, a musician, and family. Evelyn told me that the last time she saw Mira was many years ago. “She was quite pretty, musically talented.”
Charly Einstein, Aude and Bernhard’s last child, was born in 1971. He and his family live in Switzerland, where, according to a childhood friend, he grew up loving computer games, at one point selling them at a store he owned called Einstein’s World. Later he worked as a spokesman for a large hospital in Switzerland.
In an online posting, great-grandson Charly addressed what it was like being related to Albert Einstein: “Sometimes it appears to me that people think that he is some kind of God. Therefore it feels like many look upon me as if I was a great-grandson of God. To be honest, that is an extremely weird and alien feeling to me.”
Albert Einstein was an anomaly; neither his parents nor any of his progeny showed his inspired scientific insight. Despite that—despite his grappling with his last name—Charly feels a common thread connecting him and the rest of the family to his great-grandfather. “We Einsteins do not believe in authority. We solve problems in highly unconventional ways,” he has said, “in our own way.”