Einstein in Princeton

The Manuscripts Division is pleased to acknowledge that Mara Vishniac Kohn, daughter of the Russian-American photographer Roman Vishniac (1897-1990), has donated four 10 x 13-inch photographic portraits of Albert Einstein (1879-1955), from the Roman Vishniac Archive at the International Center of Photography (New York). The photographer visited Princeton to photograph Einstein in the fall of 1941. Most of the series of photos show Einstein seated in his office on the ground floor of Fuld Hall, at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. But several show Einstein standing and writing computations on a large blackboard, possibly at another location. Vishniac used his Rolleiflex intermediate-format camera with Kodak black-and-white 120 film. Other photos taken during Vishniac’s Princeton visit show the German refugee painter Eugen Spiro (1874-1972) painting Einstein’s portrait, and also Vishniac’s daughter Mara, who accompanied him, standing in Princeton University’s Blair Arch and the archway of nearby Lockhart Hall. Vishniac sent a selection of photo-prints to Einstein, who thanked him in a 28 January 1942 letter in German for the truly artistic photos (“wahrhaft kunstlerische Aufnamen”).

Roman Vishniac and his family were then living at 105 West 72nd Street, in New York City. It was there that Vishniac had found refuge early in 1941 after escaping from Vichy France and the horrors of World War II. Vishniac was born near Saint Petersburg, Russia, and is probably best known today for his pre-Holocaust photographic documentation of Jewish communities and life in Central and Eastern Europe. He did this work between 1935 and 1938 on a commission from the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Paris). These photos are the subject of Vishniac’s book, A Vanished World (1983). Many of them are now available online in the Vishniac Archive website and reproduced in Maya Benton’s Roman Vishniac Rediscovered (2015). In the 1950s-70s, Vishniac returned to his original academic interest in biology and zoology and did pioneering work in photomicroscopy. In fact, the Manuscripts Division has Vishniac’s author files in the Archives of Charles Scribner’s Sons (C0101). The files relate to publication of Building Blocks of Life; Proteins, Vitamins, and Hormones: Seen Through the Microscope (1971), for which he supplied both text and images. The Vishniac photographs have been added to the Manuscript Division’s Albert Einstein Collection (C1022).

Albert Einstein first visited Princeton in 1921 to deliver the Stafford Little Lectures on the Theory of Relativity (five lectures in all) at 50 McCosh Hall, 9-13 May. During this visit, President John Grier Hibben conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Science degree at Alexander Hall. Einstein was later awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics. He returned to Princeton in 1933 as a refugee from Nazi Germany to assume his post as a life member of the newly established Institute for Advanced Study. He would remain in Princeton for the rest of his life, residing at 112 Mercer Street. Relations between Princeton University and the Institute were close. Oscar Veblen and John von Neumann were among Princeton faculty recruited by the Institute. While not a member of the Princeton University faculty, Einstein’s office was at first on campus at 109 Fine Hall (now Jones Hall) from 1933 to 1939, when construction of the Institute’s Fuld Hall was completed. He gave occasional lectures at the Palmer Physical Laboratory (now the Frist Campus Center), in Room 302, still preserved as it was in his time, and he had many connections with Princeton faculty. Professor Eugene P. Wigner, later a Nobel Laureate in Physics, helped Leo Szilard with the famous Einstein letter (1939) to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the possibility of an atomic bomb. Einstein’s last lecture was at 307 Palmer Physical Laboratory, on 4 April 1954, in Professor John A. Wheeler’s seminar on general and special relativity. Professor Henry DeWolf Smyth, author of the Smyth Report (August 1945), the first history of the Manhattan Project, observed after Einstein’s death that Physics at Princeton had “immeasurably benefited by his presence at the Institute for Advanced Study.”

The principal archival resource for Albert Einstein are his own papers, which he bequeathed with full rights to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They remain there today in the Albert Einstein Archives. But the original papers were microfilmed before going to Jerusalem, and the Princeton University Library used the microfilm to create the Einstein Duplicate Archive (C0701). Though not as complete as the archives in Jerusalem, the Duplicate Archive may be consulted in the Manuscripts Division. Researchers may also request photoduplication. Hebrew University has been digitizing and providing online access to substantial portions of the Einstein Archive, with an effective search engine. Einstein’s writings and correspondence through 1925 have been published by Princeton University Press in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, with 14 volumes in print since 1987. Files about the Einstein Papers project can be found in the Princeton University Press Archives (C0728) and Valentine Bargmann Papers (C0657), in the Manuscripts Division.

Einstein had many friends in Princeton. Among the closest was Hanna Fantova (1901-81), a refugee from Czechoslovakia who served as curator of the Historic Maps Collection at the Princeton University Lbrary. The Hanna Fantova Collection of Albert Einstein (C0701) includes Gespräche mit Einstein, Fantova’s telephone log of her conversations with Einstein between 14 October 1953 and 12 April 1955–the last 18 months of his life. An English translation of these conversations, filled with details about everything from Einstein’s health to his opinions on Cold War politics, is available in Alice Calaprice, ed., The New Quotable Einstein (2005). The Fantova collection also includes 28 Einstein letters and 15 poems (all in German), 57 undated (mostly black-and-white) informal photographs of Einstein, and other materials. Einstein letters and photos can also be found in the papers of other local friends and acquaintances, such as Saxe Commins, Erich von Kahler, and Immanuel Velikovsky, as well as items pertaining to his stepdaughter Margot Einstein, secretary Helen Dukas, and friend Otto Nathan. The latter two were co-trustees of Einstein’s literary estate.

Reference queries about Einstein are among the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. All archival materials can be identified in the Finding Aids website. For information about doing research at Princeton, contact Public Services, at rbsc@princeton.edu

Roman Vishniac, Albert Einstein in his office, 1941.
COPYRIGHT © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy
International Center of Photography.

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