In a letter dated more than 10 years before the Nazis came to power, Nobel prize–winning physicist Albert Einstein warned his sister Maja of grave dangers ahead. That letter has now sold for $39,350 at an auction in Jerusalem, almost doubling the house’s estimate of $20,000.
The year was 1922. Adolf Hitler was a fringe political figure, known for his incendiary beer hall speeches targeting Jews and other “enemies of the people.” A year later, he was arrested and jailed on charges of high treason, but a burgeoning extreme right-wing movement continued to unfold at alarming speed. One faction, known as the Organisation Consul, murdered over 350 people between 1919 and 1922, many of whom were Jewish. Among their number was Walther Rathenau, the German foreign minister and a close friend of Einstein’s.
Police warned the physicist that he might too be a target: Scared for his life, he fled to an unknown location in northern Germany, now believed to be Kiel, and cancelled a number of a forthcoming lectures. His letter warns of “brewing economically and politically dark times” in Germany and in Italy. Einstein had taken the prudent step of distancing himself from the German state and establishing himself as a “free man” without university tenure, as he wrote to Maja. (In 1933, the Nazis passed laws prohibiting Jews from holding any official positions, including teaching at universities.)
The letter details the tension between Einstein, who had joined a League of Nations commission, and “all the anti-Semites among my German colleagues,” and his uncertain plans for the future. “I am about to become some kind of itinerant preacher. That is, firstly, pleasant and secondly—necessary,” he wrote. That itinerancy may have saved his life: In 1933, Einstein chose to leave Germany, eventually settling in the United States and becoming an American citizen.
When Maja received her brother’s letter, she was living in Italy with her husband. Less than 20 years later, Italian leader Benito Mussolini introduced anti-Semitic laws echoing those already in place in Germany, continuing along the dangerous trajectory Einstein had foreseen in his letter. Einstein invited his sister to come and live with him in Princeton, New Jersey, which she did until her death in 1951.