December 5, 2019

Living in Einstein’s House

There was a recent report that the former summer home of Albert Einstein, in the Berlin suburb of Caputh, will be returned to the heirs of the famed physicist. The Nazis had confiscated the residence from “the enemy of the people Einstein” during World War II.

The news item took me back some 60 years. I started living in the Einstein House, as we called it, in 1935, when it served as a student dormitory for a progressive Jewish boarding school, called Landschulheim Caputh. I was 10 years old.

Even though the Nazis were tightening the vise on German Jewry, I remember my two years in Caputh as an 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 ones mostly written by our teachers and 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 beat up the 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 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, before reunification, by the East German communist regime as the Anne Frank School, and housed some 24 teen-agers with learning and physical disabilities.

The principal, Joachim Frede, said that he didn’t know what the building was used for during the war, but, in 1945, it was reopened as a home for war orphans, before being put to its present use 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.