Family Roots

Part of the Einstein exhibition.

Photo: Albert Einstein Archive; The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Meet the Einsteins

Born into a middle-class Jewish family, Albert Einstein showed great mental discipline at a young age. As a child he would play by himself for hours. The Einsteins taught their son self-reliance, and they let teenage Albert make his own decisions about his education, career, religion, and even citizenship. Einstein embraced this intellectual independence as the foundation for his scientific achievements.

The Einsteins were not religious, but by law all children were required to learn about their own religion. Jewish practices greatly interested Albert until the age of 12, when religion gave way to science. "Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true," he wrote. Yet, Albert maintained his Jewish identity throughout the rest of his life, later supporting the Zionist movement.

Hermann Einstein

Einstein's father was a moderately successful entrepreneur who, like his son, enjoyed professional independence. He encouraged Albert to become an engineer. Meanwhile, Hermann's brother Jakob Einstein, an engineer who patented several electrical inventions, encouraged the boy to study science and math.

Pauline Einstein

Albert's musically inclined mother insisted that her son learn to play the violin, which he began at age six. She instilled in Einstein the focus needed to complete complex tasks.

Maja Einstein

Born two years after Albert, Maja followed her brother's footsteps to higher education in Switzerland. She received her Ph.D. in romance languages from the University of Bern.

Love and Marriage

Photo: Albert Einstein Archive; The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

January 6, 1903—Albert Einstein marries Mileva Mari

The couple had one child, Lieserl, out of wedlock in 1902. Two years later Hans Albert was born, followed by Eduard in 1910. The boys were close to their father until he and Mileva separated in 1914. Reflecting back on his relationship with Einstein, Hans Albert remarked, "Probably the only project he ever gave up on was me." Eduard suffered from health problems throughout much of his life. He lived with his mother in Zurich until she died in 1948.

Einstein loved the company of women almost as much as he loved physics. It is perhaps no coincidence that his first wife, Mileva Mari, was a fellow physics student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. "My dear kitten," wrote Einstein in a 1901 letter, "I just read a wonderful paper by Lenard on the generation of cathode rays by ultraviolet light."

Albert's passion for Mileva ran deep, but that didn't stop him from meeting other women when they were apart. Still climbing the academic ladder, Einstein frequently traveled for work, and he met his cousin Elsa Löwenthal while on a brief trip to Berlin in 1912. By the time Albert and Mileva divorced in 1919, he had been living with Elsa for nearly five years; She soon became his second wife. But Einstein's flirtatious, often secretive letters written over the course of the next 36 years attest to his many affairs throughout the rest of his life.

Against the Odds

Mileva Mari, of Serbian descent, was working toward a Ph.D. when she met dashing Albert. Study mates turned into soul mates, producing daughter Lieserl out of wedlock in 1902. What became of the girl is unknown; she may have been put up for adoption, or perhaps she had died of scarlet fever by the time Albert and Mileva married in 1903. The Einsteins were parents again with the birth of Hans Albert in 1904, followed by Eduard six years later.

Einstein's Berlin apartment
Photo: courtesy AIP, Emilio Segrè Archives

February 14, 1919—Albert and Mileva Mari-Einstein finalize their divorce

With the success of his 1905 papers, Einstein had become a prominent scientist. In 1913 he was inducted into the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and he became a theoretical physicist at the University of Berlin a year later. There, with no teaching obligations, he immersed himself in physics. Mileva wrote to a friend complaining that science came first, the family second. Tension grew as Einstein continued to pursue clandestine relations with his cousin Elsa, who lived in Berlin. After a decade of marriage, Albert had fallen out of love with Mileva. Four months after he signed his divorce settlement in Zurich, Einstein married Elsa Löwenthal in Berlin.

Before Mileva agreed to a divorce, Albert sent her this list of "conditions," under which he was willing to remain married to her. Among his terms are, "You make sure . . . that I receive my three meals regularly in my room," and "You are neither to expect intimacy nor to reproach me in any way."

Frau Elsa

When Albert fell ill in 1917, his cousin Elsa Löwenthal nursed him back to health. He found her devotion endearing. Even before the couple married in 1919, Albert embraced Elsa's two daughters, Ilse and Margot, as his own children. Described as Einstein's "plump, wide-faced, watchful Frau," Elsa faithfully remained at his side as a travel companion and hostess. She died in Princeton in 1936.

112 Mercer Street

In 1935, Albert and Elsa Einstein bought a house within walking distance of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. There they lived out their final years, entertaining visitors from around the world in a comfortable but modest setting. Shortly after Elsa's death in 1936, Albert's sister Maja moved in and enjoyed her brother's company until she died in 1951.

Einstein and Elsa
Photo: courtesy AIP, Emilio Segrè Archives

Secretary Helen Dukas, who had accompanied the Einsteins from Germany, became a beloved member of the household over the years. She maintained the schedule and shielded Einstein from those she referred to as "the curious, the reporters, the crazies, etc. . . ." The cat, Tiger, and dog, Chico, rounded out the family.

Elsa's Final Days

After 17 years of marriage to the world's most famous scientist, Elsa Einstein passed away in Princeton, New Jersey. Those who knew the couple noted that Elsa enthusiastically accepted her role of celebrity wife. They also noted that over the years the romance between Elsa and Albert became lukewarm at best.