Behind the Headlines: Return of Einstein Summer Home Brings Back Memories of Nazi Era
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Behind the Headlines: Return of Einstein Summer Home Brings Back Memories of Nazi Era

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A recent news item reported that the former summer home of Albert Einstein in the Berlin suburb of Caputh, which the Nazis eventually confiscated from “the enemy of the people Einstein,” will be returned to the heirs of the famed physicist.

The brief item took me back some 60 years.

I started living in the Einstein House, as we called it, in 1935 as a 10-year- old. The building then served as a student dormitory for a progressive Jewish boarding school called Landschulheim Caputh.

Even though the Nazis were tightening the vise on German Jewry, I remember my two years in Caputh as a rather idyllic time, brightened by some of the most innovative and caring teachers I have ever known. They created, somehow, a sheltered island amid the approaching storm clouds.

We put on a lot of plays, some classical but mostly those we or our teachers wrote ourselves. I remember playing the role of Thisbe in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” to an appreciative audience of parents.

Today, I recall only a few incidents when the outside reality broke through. In one, we were taking a hike through the nearby woods when we were waylaid by a bunch of Hitler Youth, who started cursing and spitting at us.

Our adult leader was the school’s physical education instructor, a burly Jew from Denmark, relatively shielded at that time by his foreign citizenship. In short order, he roughed up the two biggest of our tormentors, after which the rest beat a quick retreat.

A few years after I had left, the Gestapo closed the school and arrested the principal, teachers and some 80 remaining students. Few survived the Holocaust.

Skip half a century to 1992, when the German Foreign Ministry invited me to visit the country of my birth as an American reporter and asked me to set my own itinerary. As an afterthought, I put down Caputh as a stop, and one morning a chauffeur-driven car and a guide picked me up at my Berlin hotel.

We drove through Potsdam, largely destroyed during the war, and arrived in Caputh, which had survived unscathed. The main building of the school had been renamed the Anne Frank School by the East German Communist regime prior to reunification. It housed some 24 teen-agers with learning and physical disabilities.

The principal, Joachim Frede, said he did not know what the building was used for during the war, but that in 1945 it was reopened as a home for war orphans before becoming a special-education school in 1982.

I asked Frede to take me to the Einstein House, which with four other buildings scattered throughout Caputh provided living quarters for the Jewish boarding school.

The Einstein House was now uninhabited, but in good condition. It was exactly as I remembered it, a rambling, rustic, wood-frame house, with the outside staircases, balcony and window shutters painted white.

Someone had affixed a simple tablet, which read, “Albert Einstein lived and worked in this home from 1929 to 1932 during the summer months.”

I am glad that the Einstein heirs are getting the house back, though I doubt they would ever want to live there. Its hallways and rooms are haunted by the memory of too many of my teachers and schoolmates, whose short, illusionary safety dissolved in the carnage of the Final Solution.

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