Sotheby’s to auction off JTA-Albert Einstein letters

One of the signed letters Albert Einstein sent to JTA founder Jacob Landau, which will be auctioned off by Sotheby's on June 15, 2012. (JTA Archive)

One of the signed letters Albert Einstein sent to JTA founder Jacob Landau, which will be auctioned off by Sotheby’s on June 15, 2012. (JTA Archive)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Albert Einstein stepped forward several times in the 1930s and 1940s to help raise money for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Now, more than half a century later, the international Jewish news service known these days as JTA is hoping the father of relativity can come through again.

On June 15, Sotheby’s will auction off a recently discovered signed correspondence between Einstein and JTA founder Jacob Landau dealing with the proper relationship between scientists and governments.

In one of the letters, from January 1947, Landau wanted to know Einstein’s opinion on the recent pronouncement by Norbert Wiener, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that scientists should not aid government-funded military projects.

Writing back — in German — to Landau, Einstein argued that “non-cooperation in military matters should be a vital part of the moral code of basic scientists.” He also called on public entities to support scientific research without interference and warned that scientific process driven by practical aims instead of a lust for knowledge ultimately would stagnate.

“The correspondence between Einstein and Landau is a particularly important one,” said Selby Kiffer, international senior specialist at Sotheby’s. “To have the perspective of Einstein on such a sensitive issue just after World War II is extraordinary.”

Sotheby’s Fine Books and Manuscripts auction on June 15 also will include other Einstein material, correspondence involving U.S. presidents and Civil War-era documents.

The Einstein letters were discovered in a yellowing folder earlier this year by a part-time JTA staffer sorting through old files. On top of the heavy talk about science and public policy, the correspondence also chronicles the futile efforts to arrange a meeting between Einstein and a visiting Jewish soccer team from Palestine. It appears that the soccer team was too busy to make it down to Princeton.

In addition to shining a light on Einstein’s views on still-relevant public policy issues, the upcoming Sotheby’s auction also brings the relationship between the Nobel laureate and JTA full circle.

The genesis of the relationship between Einstein and Landau is unclear, but evidence attesting to their friendship is extensive. Notably, Einstein served as godfather to Landau’s son, who was named — not coincidentally — Albert. Whatever the origins of their relationship, Einstein advocated and raised money for JTA on numerous occasions, particularly as Germany was being transformed by Nazi rule.

"It is very important," Einstein said in 1933, “to have an organization which can give to the world facts about the difficulties of Jewish life all over the globe.” 

Fifteen years later, in an appeal for support, Einstein insisted that the “Jewish Telegraphic Agency performs functions vital to [the] entire Jewish community” and its mission was “of greatest importance to all Jewry.”

One of his first calls for support of JTA came in 1934, when Einstein served as the guest of honor at a fundraising luncheon to help pay for the news agency’s new linotype machine. Einstein was the star attraction at a media tour of the new equipment. In later years, he would make additional fundraising pitches on behalf of JTA.

Fast forward to 2012, and once again JTA is depending on the power of Einstein’s prestige to help fund its technology upgrades: The proceeds from the sale of the letters — the catalogue for the auction values the correspondence at between $30,000 and $50,000 — are expected to help JTA fund the redesign of its website.

“Albert Einstein conceived of a universe where time and space were relative, but saw the value of JTA and the need to support it as constants,” said Ami Eden, CEO and editor in chief of JTA. “Who are we to argue with Einstein?”

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