Return of Einsteins home stirs childhood memories

The famed physicist had resided there during the summers from 1929 to 1932. As a 10-year-old, I started living in the Einstein House in 1935. The building, which sits in the Berlin suburb of Caputh, was then serving as a student dormitory for a progressive Jewish boarding school called Landschulheim Caputh.

Even though the Nazis were tightening the vise on German Jews, 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 a sheltered island amid the approaching storm clouds.

We put on numerous plays — one of the highlights of my time there. Some were classics, but most were written by ourselves or our teachers. 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 outside reality seeped into our lives. 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 P.E. teacher, a burly Jew from Denmark who was relatively shielded at that time by his foreign citizenship. In short order, he roughed up the two biggest of our tormentors. The rest of them beat a quick retreat.

Sometime after I left in 1937, the Gestapo closed the school and arrested the principal, teachers and 80 remaining students. Few of them survived the Holocaust.

Skipping ahead half a century to 1992, 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. 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. Prior to German reunification, the main school building had been renamed the Anne Frank School by the East German Communist regime. In 1992, it housed two dozen teenagers with learning and physical disabilities.

The principal, Joachim Frede, said he didn't know how the building was used during the war. But in 1945, he said, 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.

The Einstein House was 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 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.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent