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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

The Morris and Adele Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection at Vassar College

The Friendship of Albert Einstein and Otto Nathan

One of the greatest waves of emigration from Germany occurred during the 1930s when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party came to power. Nearly 500,000 citizens fled their homeland, where the specters of militarism and Antisemitism loomed large. Jews, artists, professors, and others sought toleration abroad, particularly in the United States. For these people, the great difficulty of living a life in exile, even during the Depression, was preferable to the life that had taken shape in Germany after the collapse of the Weimar republic. It is estimated that approximately 12,000 intellectuals emigrated.

Perhaps the most famous refugee scholar was Albert Einstein. Einstein had left Germany late in 1932 to visit the California Institute of Technology, but shortly after his arrival in the United States Hitler was named Chancellor. The renowned scientist issued a statement in March of 1933 stating that he would not return to Germany; a few weeks later he resigned his position as Professor at the University of Berlin and member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. At the time of his resignation, Einstein had ties to Caltech, Oxford, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. He took up residence in Princeton later in 1933. Here he came into contact with other scholars, including several from Germany.

Albert Einstein with Otto Nathan.

One of the people Einstein got to know at Princeton was Otto Nathan. Nathan was an economist who had served as an advisor to the German government from 1920 to 1933. In 1927 he was a German delegate to the World Economic Conference, held in Geneva. Like so many others, Nathan left Germany after Hitler’s rise to power. He came to the United States and taught at several institutions of higher learning, including Princeton (1933-35), New York University (1935-42), Vassar (1942-44), and Howard University (1946-52). Nathan also published a number of articles and books on economic subjects, such as Nazi War Finance and Banking and The Nazi Economic System: Germany’s Mobilization for War.

Einstein and Nathan had similar backgrounds and common interests, and a friendship quickly developed between them. They began to correspond regularly, discussing a variety of issues and topics. After Nathan left Princeton in 1935, they maintained close personal ties; for instance, Nathan played an important role by taking care of many of Einstein’s legal, financial and real estate matters. The two professors also collaborated on several social and political issues of the day. The great trust and confidence that Einstein felt for Nathan was expressed most clearly in his will of 1950. In this document, Einstein named Nathan the sole executor of his estate and further designated him a joint trustee, along with Helen Dukas, the scientist’s longtime secretary.

Einstein died in April 1955. In the months and years following, Nathan devoted himself to the work of serving as Einstein’s executor. Much of Nathan’s energy during these years was directed toward business matters involving the estate, and along with Helen Dukas, he also tried to gather and preserve papers of Einstein that had been scattered. Moreover, Nathan was intimately involved in negotiations to publish all of Einstein’s papers in a comprehensive way (an agreement to this effect was reached in 1971 with Princeton University Press). In 1982 Nathan and Dukas transferred responsibility for Einstein’s papers from the estate to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, and many materials were subsequently transferred to the Albert Einstein Archives which was launched at this institution.

At the time, however, not quite all of the original Einstein material in Nathan’s possession was sent to Jerusalem. The executor retained many of the letters that Einstein had sent to him over the years, as well as photographs, books, and other items that had been given to him personally. Of course to aid scholarship copies of the letters were made and deposited in Jerusalem. Not long after this, Nathan decided to give his own personal collection of Einstein material to two close friends, Morris and Adele Bergreen.

Morris and Adele Bergreen

Adele Naomi Gabel arrived at Vassar College in the fall of 1940. ‘A beautiful world awaited at Poughkeepsie,’ she later wrote. While here, she majored in Political Science, but took courses in a variety of subjects. Indeed, one of the great thrills for Adele at Vassar was the opportunity to encounter new disciplines, everything from Music to Optics and Spectroscopy. One of the courses she took outside of her major requirements was taught by Otto Nathan, then serving on the faculty of the Economics Department. The final two years of Adele’s stay at Vassar coincided with the two years that Nathan spent at the college. Their acquaintance would later grow into a friendship.

Immediately after graduating from Vassar, Adele Gabel started at Yale Law School, and within just two years she had completed her law degree. She married Morris H. Bergreen, and together they started a family. In the early 1950s, the Bergreens together founded the law firm of Bergreen & Bergreen, with offices in New York. The firm served clients all over the world, but also close to home. One person that the Bergreens occasionally gave legal assistance to was Adele’s former professor, Otto Nathan. Their relationship grew, and in his later years, Nathan held feelings of great warmth and gratitude toward the Bergreens. It was as an expression of these feelings that he decided to give to the Bergreens his own personal collection of Albert Einstein material. A few years later, in 1987, Nathan died in New York, at the age of 93.

Nathan’s Einstein collection remained with the Bergreens for many years. It was carefully preserved, but parts of it were made available to the public from time to time, as when the American Museum of Natural History mounted a special Albert Einstein exhibition in 2003. Nevertheless, the collection was not easily accessible. Following the death of Morris in 2001, Adele Bergreen began to consider the possibility of donating the collection to an interested institution. Discussions with Adele’s alma mater began in 2002, and an outright gift was made in 2003. Today the gift is known as the Morris and Adele Bergreen Albert Einstein Collection.

The Collection

Vassar’s Einstein collection is significant for a number of reasons. In terms of extent, it represents a sizable archive of material, composed of 76 letters written by Einstein, as well as other items he wrote or signed. The collection spans a long period of time, with the bulk of the materials dating from the early 1930s up until Einstein’s death in 1955 (and other items date later than this). There is great variety in the collection; though mainly composed of correspondence, it also includes manuscripts, ephemera, photographs, and books. Finally, one should note that the collection is also valuable because it has a clear focus: the common interests and activities of Einstein and Nathan.

The significance of the collection becomes even more apparent when one looks closely at the contents. The first series, or section, is made up of correspondence. It is divided into four subseries: Letters of Einstein, Letters of Nathan, Letters of Elsa Einstein, and Letters of Others. The letters of Einstein himself are the most valuable part of the collection. Some letters are hand-written; others are typed. The vast majority (though not quite all) were written in German to Nathan. They concern a wide variety of topics, from the personal (invitations) to the financial (regarding the mortgage on Einstein’s house) to the legal (regarding Einstein’s will). Many of these letters also discuss social and political issues of the day, such as the rise of Hitler and Stalin, and the fate of Jews in Europe. In July of 1936, for instance, Einstein tells Nathan that ‘the developments in Europe are unspeakably horrible. The Lord God appears to have appointed the devil to be the chief clerk of it.’ And in September of 1942, he writes, ‘The fate of European Jewry is terrifying. What can possibly have survived?’ Several letters written after the war touch upon Jewish affairs in America, and international politics.

Selections from the collection.

Letters of others in the collection are also interesting. Those written by Nathan are usually either addressed to Einstein, or relate to him in some way. Most are carbon copies. They frequently deal with financial or legal matters of Einstein, thus shedding light on how Nathan assisted in the management of the scientist’s affairs. Letters of Elsa Einstein (Einstein’s second wife) are all addressed to Nathan, and date from the early 1930s. They are very personal in nature and reveal the close ties that existed between Nathan and the Einstein family as a whole. Apart from these examples, there are also letters written to Einstein by famous figures like Sigmund Freud, Charles Beard, and Felix Frankfurter.

The second series, composed of manuscripts and ephemera of Einstein, is small but has great variety. One interesting item from the prewar period is a manuscript concerning the National Council of Jewish Women which ends with a call to help the Jewish people. There are also several notable documents from the postwar period, such as typescripts regarding U.S. relations with Russia; typescripts and manuscripts discussing war, atomic weapons, and politics; and a colorful peace petition, signed by Einstein and Henry Wallace. Evidence of a more literary and sometimes playful Einstein is present here too; there are, for instance, a number of poems composed for various occasions, such as a friend’s birthday (probably Nathan).

The last series of the collection is comprised of photographs. They are subdivided into signed photos and unsigned photos. Some of these are original photos given to, or obtained by Nathan, and others are reproductions of photos from other sources, such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Some are oversized, and others are rather small. In any case, the photos show plainly how photogenic Einstein really was. Happily, the examples in the collection capture him at various times in his life (from childhood to old age) and on various occasions, both informal and formal. We are especially happy to have images of Einstein and Nathan walking together in an unidentified garden. There are also wonderful images of Einstein taken by the famous photographer Philippe Halsmann. The informal shots of Einstein in this series are particularly charming; among them are photos of the scientist sailing in a boat on a lake, and sitting on his front porch, wearing big fluffy slippers.

In addition to these series, there are a number of books that are part of the collection, although they are housed separately in the rare book section of the library. Most of them are monographs written by Einstein, and some are inscribed to Nathan. One example is Einstein’s book The Evolution of Physics, which includes a brief but poignant note from Einstein to Nathan, dated 1938: ‘Dem lieben Freund Nathan in b’ser Zeit’ (to my dear friend Nathan in an evil time). Another example of an inscribed book is one by the famous Austrian physicist Hans Thirring called Die Idee Der Relativit‘tstheorie (The Idea of the Theory of Relativity) which includes a longish inscription, in German, to Einstein as the ‘Author of the Theory.’ This book also features Einstein’s personal bookplate on the front pastedown. Yet another book in the collection worth noting is Gelegentliches, published in Berlin in an edition of only 800 copies to honor Einstein’s 50th birthday.

The strengths of the collection, described above, make it a wonderful source for both teaching and research, particularly at an institution like Vassar, which traditionally has emphasized the importance of primary sources in education. In the short time that the collection has been housed in the library, it has already been used by both undergraduates at Vassar and outside researchers. Vassar students from a variety of departments and programs (German, History, Jewish Studies, Science, Technology and Society, etc.) can benefit greatly from the experience of examining unique sources like these. At the same time, the collection supports research and the investigation of new topics. We hope that it will be used by many in the months and years to come.

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