BOSTON — Just a few photographs and postcards exist from Albert Einstein’s sole visit to pre-state Israel in 1923, and what might be the most quirky of them was just sold at auction for $56,250.
Boston-based RR Auction conducted last Thursday’s sale of Einstein memorabilia, including a postcard he wrote to Zionist leader Authur Ruppin during Einstein’s twelve-day tour of the Holy Land. Sold to an anonymous bidder, the postcard recalls Einstein’s deepened commitment to Zionism following the completion of his theory of general relativity in 1915.
Einstein artifacts have sold like gangbusters in recent years, including $125,000 paid for a signed version of the iconic smiley Einstein photo, sold by RR Auction last September. By way of comparison, a lock of hair taken from slain US president Abraham Lincoln’s corpse sold for $25,000 at a Dallas auction last week.
In his brief postcard note to Ruppin, Einstein wrote of “unforgettable days” and “cheerful company” while staying in Jerusalem. Throughout Palestine, Einstein was greeted like a beloved statesman, the target of swarming crowds and — outside the home of British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel — a cannon salute for the world’s first celebrity scientist.
The postcard’s colorful front image of a Red Star Line steamer includes a rare treat in the sky — a comical self-portrait of Einstein, along with a more refined sketch of a travelling companion, Ruppin’s wife Hanna. Einstein was also accompanied by his second wife Elsa, known for being the scientist’s “gatekeeper” during two decades of marriage.
The highlight of Einstein’s Palestine tour came atop Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, where he gave the inaugural lecture at Hebrew University. For several years, Einstein had fundraised around the world to help establish the first Jewish university, and to generate support for Zionism in general.
“Hitherto I have always found something to regret in the Jewish soul, and that is the forgetfulness of its own people — forgetfulness of its being, almost,” Einstein later wrote of that day. “This is a great age, the age of liberation of the Jewish soul, and it has been accomplished through the Zionist movement, so that no one in the world will be able to destroy it,” he asserted confidently.
Next to the self-portrait he doodled in the clouds above the ship, Einstein wrote the word Jerusalem. Emanating from his head are eight lines identified as “Heiligenschein” — German for halo — that add even more flavor to postcard.
During the Tel Aviv leg of his Birthright Israel-like tour, Einstein received honorary citizenship from Mayor Meir Dizengoff.
“I have already had the privilege of receiving honorary citizenship of the city of New York, but I am tenfold happier to be a citizen of this beautiful Jewish town,” Einstein told the crowd.
In the first modern Hebrew city, as well as in Jerusalem and Haifa, the Herr Doktor was pleased to speak in German to many Jewish transplants from his beloved homeland Germany. He deeply admired what German and other European Jews had wrought in just a decade and a half of Tel Aviv’s existence.
“The accomplishments of the Jews in just a few years in this city arouse the highest admiration,” Einstein wrote in a February 8 diary entry. “An incredibly active people, our Jews…”
In Haifa, Einstein planted two trees at the Technion, a scientific powerhouse established before Hebrew University. He also visited Tiberias and — as a day trip from Jerusalem — Jericho and the Dead Sea. Einstein’s tour and other travels are chronicled by Josef Eisenger in the 2011 book, “Einstein on the Road.”
Of all the assessments Einstein made during his whirlwind Yishuv tour, one stands out as particularly off the mark — that of the Zionist project’s demographic future.
At the time of Einstein’s 1923 visit to Palestine, fourteen million Jews lived on six continents, with just 90,000 of them residing in the Jewish homeland. With its tiny share of habitable land, Einstein foresaw a heavily symbolic role for Israel, in contrast to Theodore Herzl’s vision of a literal home for all Jews.
“On the whole, the country is not very fertile,” Einstein wrote to student Maurice Solovine. “It will become a moral center, but will not be able to take in a large proportion of the Jewish people. I am convinced, however, that the colonization will succeed,” he wrote.