Einstein Was a Birth Father

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     Of all the characteristics attributed to Albert Einstein, being a birth father is rarely mentioned, and not even known by most people. Yet it was a very significant reality of his early adulthood, and probably influenced his life and family relationships the rest of his adult life.
     I became aware that he had been a birth father when I visited the apartment in Bern, Switzerland, in 2013, where he and his first wife, Mileva Marie, had lived for several years following their marriage in 1903. There seemed to be very little information about the fact that they had a child, a daughter, in 1902, before their marriage. Being a birth mother myself, I was intrigued and decided to try to learn more.
     Until then, I had always thought of Albert Einstein as a brilliant scientist, but had not really considered him as a real individual with feelings, personal flaws and assets. It is probably the same for most people—his name is synonymous with extreme intelligence, perhaps with eccentricity, and not too much else. In truth, he was a very complicated man, with very complicated personal relationships.
     He had met Mileva Marie while they were both attending the Zurich Polytechnic, working toward what they both hoped would be doctoral degrees. The system was somewhat different from our U.S. university system, in that they took courses, then a large examination, and either graduated or not, but could later re-take the examination, and could also write a dissertation, outside of enrollment, and if it were accepted, obtain a doctorate that way.
     Mileva was primarily a mathematician, and Albert Einstein was primarily a physicist. It is not true that he was no good at math, but it is true that he skipped a lot of mathematics classes one year and studied from a friend’s notes for tests. It is also true that Mileva sometimes checked his math for his papers, but it is not true that she actually helped him formulate his general theory of relativity and should have been given equal credit as an author.
     Albert had had one previous girlfriend, and his mother hoped he would marry her, but he lost interest in her, and began a romance with Mileva. He saw her as brilliant as well as attractive. Letters which were preserved attest to a passionate relationship, full of sentimentality, sex, common interests besides academics, and common friends. It is amazing to read quotes from the letters and to try to think of him as a young, handsome man in love to the point of being silly with pet names and fantasies of their future together. There were a number of obstacles to this future.
     For starters, neither of them had much money. Einstein’s father did not do well in business, though he kept trying. In 1880, a year after Albert was born, his father’s business failed, and they moved to Munich, where he could work with his brother, Jakob, who was an engineer. They had a second child, a daughter named Maria (called Maja) in 1881, with whom Albert was close throughout his life. When he first saw her, he thought she was a wonderful new plaything, alive and moving, and said, “Yes, but where are the wheels?”
     Although the Einsteins were Jews, they were not actively religious. As a young child, Albert went through a period of being a very observant Jew, which was difficult since his parents were not. Although he did not remain religiously active, he did always consider himself a Jew and he did have his own spiritual beliefs.
     He did learn algebra and geometry on his own by age 12, from books his parents bought him, encouraged by his Uncle Jakob, and by a medical student who came to their house once a week to dine.
     As I read these facts in Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson (2007, Simon & Schuster), Albert Einstein began to become a real person to me.
     One of his traits was that he could not abide regimentation of any sort, did not care for rote learning, or rules that made no sense to him. (I can identify with that!) He did not like the German (Prussian) educational philosophy or methods, which were very rigid, besides the fact that he preferred to learn on his own, in his own way and at his own speed. Looking back, he said that his teachers were like members of the military. “The teachers at the elementary school seemed to me like drill sergeants and the teachers at the gymnasium (high school) like lieutenants.”
     His feelings about this, and about militarism in general, influenced his life in all ways and later put him in great danger, when the Nazis took over. By the age of 15, the school wanted him to leave, because his skepticism was upsetting the teachers, and he was eager to leave himself. He left school at Christmas, took a train to Italy, and wrote to his parents that he was not coming back to Germany, and he developed a plan to get admitted to a technical college in Zurich. He studied on his own, wrote a paper, and did get admitted to Zurich Polytechnic the following year, although he was still under the minimum age limit at 15 years old.
     While boarding with the Winteler family in Aurau the year before, he met Marie Winteler, his first girlfriend. He remained connected to the Wintelers throughout life, even though he did not marry Marie. His mother never got over that, and did not approve of his later relationship with Mileva Marie, and died before he and Mileva married. This is significant, because it is one of the reasons he and Mileva did not marry before the birth of their daughter and therefore did not raise her. After his mother’s death, his father gave him permission to marry Mileva. Times were different then!
     At 17, Einstein officially enrolled at Zurich Polytechnic, in October 1896. He had renounced his German citizenship, and could not yet obtain Swiss citizenship, but he had begun to consider himself a citizen of the world, not of a specific country. His mother’s family gave him a small monthly stipend upon which to live. As he continued his scientific studies and experiments, he also developed his interest in music, playing the violin and piano. He was quite accomplished on the violin and continued this all his life.
     In 1896, he also met Mileva Marie, who was three years older than he, and in his class, the only female. The first year, they were just classmates. She tended to be melancholic, according to friends, and she was small, intense, had a limp from a congenital hip displacement, and some thought her ugly. She was from Novi Sad, a Serbian city then held by Hungary. She became, in Isaacson’s words, “Einstein’s muse, partner, lover, wife, bete noir, arid antagonist, and she created an emotional field more powerful than that of anyone else in his life.” By the second year of their acquaintance, they became more involved, and she was so frightened of her feelings that she left and audited classes at Heidelberg University. They began to write long letters, some of which have survived, which contain discussions of their scientific interests, but also their personal feelings.
     She returned to Zurich Polytechnic in April 1898, and they became a couple. He graduated in the spring of 1900, but she did not, having scores considered too low. They both went home for the summer, and he told his parents he wanted to marry Mileva, resulting in his mother throwing a big fit. She said, “You are ruining your future and destroying your opportunities. No decent family will have her. If she gets pregnant, you’ll really be in a mess.” Later, she brought up the fact that Mileva was 24 and he was only 21. (My own maternal grandmother, born in 1880, was 24 and my grandfather only 21 when they married in 1904, so I can picture this!)
     His father told him a wife was a luxury only affordable when he was making a comfortable living. Einstein did not have a job, and did not get an academic job for some time, partly because his former professors found him “impudent” and because he did not like to follow rules. He did eventually pick up sane tutoring jobs. Mileva came back to Zurich and they spent most of their time at her apartment, while she studied for her exams and he studied and wrote papers, finally sending one in for publication in December 1900. His family had quit their support and he still did have a real job.
     He did obtain Swiss citizenship in February 1901, and retained it the rest of his life, even while getting German citizenship again (and renouncing it again), Austrian and U.S. citizenship. He signed up for military duty, even, but was rejected for “sweaty feet, flat feet, and varicose veins” (probably spider veins). Around this time, he met Michele Besso, who became his lifelong friend and confidante, and who married Marie Winteler’s sister. He tried to help Einstein get a job, to no avail. He also met Marcel Grossman about that time, who did, in fact, guide him to the job at the Swiss patent office, his first real job. It took several months for the job to actually materialize, however. He had a temporary teaching job in the meantime. He and Mileva took a romantic vacation to Lake Como, their first, and that is when she did get pregnant, in May 1901. By way of time reference, the Queen Mother (current British Queen Elizabeth’s mother) was born in August 1900 and Queen Victoria died in 1901, the end of the Victorian Age as such. Not everyone was sexually repressed!
     Both Einstein and Mileva seemed ecstatic about the pregnancy, except for his lack of a job. Isaacson points out that there was, in fact, a mail-order birth control business at the time, which also sold an abortion medication of some sort, so they could have tried that had they decided not to have the child. Isaacson further states that, although having a child outside of marriage was frowned upon at the time, in their social strata, it was by no means unheard of. He says the official statistics for Zurich in 1901 show that 12 percent of babies were born outside of marriage, and that residents who were Austro-Hungarian were much more likely to have out-of-wedlock pregnancies. In Southern Hungary, the rate was 33 percent, and in Zurich, Serbs had the highest rate, Jews the lowest. Mileva was Serbian, Einstein Jewish. Yet, even 50 and 60 years later, in the U.S. as well as Europe, families were acting as if their daughters were the first ones in the world to have become pregnant outside of marriage!
     So, he was in Winterthur teaching, and she was in Zurich with morning sickness. They thought that, if they got married, as soon as he had a job, their families would quit their objections to the marriage, especially in light of the child. He went to the Swiss Alps again for the summer to visit his mother and sister. Mileva took her exams again and did not pass them again, so she gave up on that. She went back to Serbia in July 1901 and told her family both pieces of bad news. Her Serbian Catholic family was not pleased. She stayed with them and then at a hotel in a small village, while Albert was still trying for a job, was tutoring, and was working on his theories, which eventually came together as his famous theory of relativity. At that time, the scientific establishment objected to much of it, because it conflicted with beliefs they were reluctant to toss aside. He did occasionally go to visit Mileva, but they could not be seen together in public by that point. Many married women did not even go out in public at that time when they were visibly pregnant.
     At long last, the patent office job came through and he moved to Bern in January 1902. A few days later, Mileva gave birth to their daughter, Lieserl. Although many of the letters from that time were later deliberately destroyed, some survive, including one in which Einstein asks what she looks like, is Mileva nursing her, and expresses his love for Mileva and for the baby, although he never traveled there to see her, and Mileva later returned without her. He never told his mother or sister of Lieserl’s existence, nor did he tell his friends.
     Most of the letters were destroyed or hidden, until 1986, well after his and Mileva’s deaths. His son Hans Albert was born in 1904, after their marriage in 1903. There is a letter from 1903 in which Albert says in response to Mileva’s going to Novi Sad for a month when Lieserl had scarlet fever, “I am very sorry about what happened with Lieserl. Scarlet fever often leaves some lasting trace behind. If only everything passes well. How is Lieserl registered? We must take great care, lest difficulties arise for the child in the future.” After that, no letters referring to her have survived, having been destroyed by Mileva’s family, by the family of her friend Helene Savic, and by Hans Albert’s wife, who found 400 letters and brought them to the U.S., and later the Einstein Papers Project discovered them.
     After Lieserl’s birth, Mileva had not moved immediately to Bern, nor did they get married just then. She returned to Zurich, apparently leaving the child in Novi Sad with family or friends. Most scholars believe Lieserl died of scarlet fever, though some believe she was adopted, was raised by Helene Savic, died in childhood, or alternately lived to 90, or that she was alcoholic, that she was disabled or mentally retarded, or some combination of the above.
     As I read this portion of Isaacson’s book, I could certainly identify with the anxiety and grief Albert Einstein and Mileva Marie went through at that time, and hoped I could learn more about what happened to Lieserl, since so few letters survived, and since they never talked about her to friends or family, never even told their sons about her. Many birth parents, even from my own time, did much the same thing, whether they stayed together or not. I can believe that the grief over the loss of this child, and the resentments about it, could easily have been important factors in the Einstein’s subsequent stormy marriage, their other relationships, Albert’s difficulty attaching emotionally to others, and in Mileva’s difficulties with physical and mental health.
     When I saw a reference to another book, Einstein’s Daughter by Michele Zackheim (1999, Penguin Press), I thought per haps it would have more details and possibly plausible explanations about what happened to Lieserl. I found the book on Amazon.com and ordered it, eager to read it. Unfortunately, it did not really offer much in the way of substantial information. The author, having learned of Einstein’s daughter, decided she could learn what became of her, although she knew nothing of Serbian or European customs concerning adoption in 1902, and nothing of Serbian culture. She went to Serbia in the middle of the war there, met some friends of friends, and some relatives of Mileva and her family. Mileva had died in 1948 in Switzerland, more or less estranged from family, including her younger son, Edward, who had become seriously mentally ill by then.
     The author of Einstein’s Daughter seemed to have an agenda of discrediting Einstein in whatever way possible, portraying him as completely unfeeling and uncaring, an abusive womanizer, not nearly as brilliant as his reputation (she admits to not understanding a bit of his theories, but thinks if the establishment at the time rejected them, he was just wrong), and mentally unbalanced. Sometimes she is subtle about this, more often not. She contends that he had syphilis, and visited prostitutes from his early teens on. At various times in her book she speculates that Lieserl was retarded, due to Einstein’s supposed syphilis, or perhaps she had Down Syndrome due to Mileva wearing tight corsets while pregnant, so that the fetus did not get enough oxygen, or that she did, indeed, die of scarlet fever as a child, or that she did not die but was brain-damaged from then on, or that Helene Savic’s child (born before Lieserl, documented in letters) was actually Lieserl, or that she was adopted, although much more is said about Lieserl. It recounts his marriage to Mileva and later divorce, the lives of Hans Albert and Edward, Einstein’s career and friendships, his second marriage to his cousin Elsa, his life in the U.S., and his death. It is a thoroughly she says that was unheard of in Serbia, as was pregnancy out of wedlock (never mind the statistics Isaacson states), or that she was baptized, died, and was secretly buried.
     She went all over what was then Yugoslavia, becoming Serbia again, in the middle of the war, asking questions, without understanding that families often deny, cover up, or simply don’t know what all happened to cousins. Lieserl’s birth happened in 1902, well before several wars that destroyed records, lives, buildings, memories, and cemeteries. She contends that Einstein had syphilis, but that Hans Albert was normal anyway, but that Edward was retarded or schizophrenic, either of these due to Einstein’s supposed syphilis. Of course, tight corsets do not cause Down Syndrome, a genetic abnormality, nor does syphilis, aside from the fact that if he had it, he certainly would not have lived to 79 with a brilliant career. There was no real treatment in the early 1900s and it would have gone to his brain and he would have died. She also entertains the possibility that he fathered other children, based on some people claiming to be his daughter (and in one case, his son), all of which claims were proven false. Hans Albert’s adopted daughter, Evelyn Einstein, even claimed she might be the birth daughter of Einstein and his second wife, Elsa, his cousin, although Elsa was well past childbearing age by then. She says she is a good friend of Evelyn Einstein, which might explain some of her more far-fetched ideas. At any rate, she found out nothing that could be documented or proven, regarding either Lieserl or her other speculations.
     Returning to Isaacson’s book, which does seem to be backed up by letters, other writings and people’s memories, not enjoyable book, even if the reader must skip through some of the technical details about physics. It is well written and relies on credible sources. The other book is more like a historical novel, although it is not a novel and some of the purported history in it does not add up. One of the lessons to be learned from it is that interviewing friends and relatives nearly a hundred years after events which were hidden even at the time, and through a translator, is probably a waste of time. Although it seems a shame that letters were deliberately destroyed, even many years later, it is not uncommon for family members to think they are doing someone a favor by doing so, as if the deceased need favors, or as if it would be a favor. Although I wondered why Hans Albert’s wife would do such a thing, I realized that my own mother destroyed all letters I wrote her when I was pregnant with my first son, whom I did relinquish for adoption. She was terrified someone would find out, years down the road. They did, because I told them when I was reunited with my son. There are also no photographs of me during that time, and his birth father never saw him. My son was born in 1966, not 1902. How could I judge someone who had a child in 1902? Further, how little really had changed by 1966 when it came to attitudes about having a child outside of marriage. Thinking of Albert Einstein as a young man, a birth father, and as one who never got to know his first child, made him a real person to me, and also contributed to my compassion for all birth parents, including birth fathers.
     I would highly recommend Walter Isaacson’s book. I would not, however, recommend Einstein’s Daughter, unless one really believes what they read in the National Enquirer.

Excerpted from the April 2016 edition of the Operation Identity Newsletter
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