Elsa Einstein stands on her front porch. It is a morning in mid-September and the oaks down the hill along the lake are beginning to redden.A cool breeze stirs the folds of her skirt. She fills her lungs deeply with it and she watches it darken the liquid surface of the gray-blue Templiner See as it flows from Caputh northward toward Potsdam.
When the postman has gone, she retrieves the bundle of mail from the postbox.
A letter has come for Albert. He is in his study. She waits until he comes out for lunch to give it to him.
“A letter for you,” she says. He takes it from her. Looks at it.
“Are you not feeling well,” she asks?
“I am well,” he tells her. “Why do you ask me this?”
“You get a letter from Dr Freud. Should I not worry that something is wrong, that something is troubling you?”
“It is not your worry, Elsa,” he tells her. “Are not we all troubled now?”
“Will you show it to me? The letter?”
He looks at her, pondering what to say. He says nothing and returns to his study, only to come back out after it has gotten dark.
Elsa has made dinner for the two of them. She leans toward him across the table. She says nothing.
“I wrote to Dr Freud,” he tells her. “And he has answered me. That is all. It is not about you, nor about me. I asked him a question. I asked how we might, together, as men of learning and intellect, find a way, after all of the suffering we have endured, of delivering mankind from the menace of another war.”
“And, what did he say to you?”
“He despaired. He said that we are caught between Eros and death instincts. He has little hope for civilization.”
“And you are pleased with his response?”
“It is not what I expected.”
“Albert, please, you are a smart man. Men do stupid things. Hurtful and sometimes horrible things. They cheat on their wives. They gamble away the family’s earnings. They say mean and nasty things. They ignore the feelings of others. They seldom think of the less fortunate. They don’t consider the consequences of their actions. But not all men are like that.”
“I know that.”
“Of course you do. You are a good man. But you are a theoretician. And so you look for more. Your mind wanders among the unknowable while the knowable is standing right there in front of you.”
“What are you saying?”
“Albert, not all people have the time to think like you do. They need to sweep the floors. Make dinner. Patch the roof. They are not writing letters. They have enough to worry about. Thinking, like you and your friend Sigmund can do, is not even on their list of things to do in a day.”
“I know that, too.”
“And, do you know how many people there are in the world, Albert?”
“Two billion, hungry, frightened, souls. And how many of them are capable of starting wars or even of thinking about such things? How many? I can tell you. Less than ten in the whole world. Maybe less than five.
“And, now think of this, Albert, how many of those two billion people have the power to prevent a war if the five want to start one? I’ll tell you. None. Not one. Not even you. And how many of the two billion died in the war? Forty million. Forty million, Albert, each of whom would have stopped the war in a breath if they could have.”
“Yes. You are right.”
“But, Albert, tell me, how many of those five self-centered powerful men would have acted to stop the war before it started? What little would it have taken for them to do that? And, let me ask you, my dear husband, how many of those five died in the war?”
He shakes his head.
“Exactly. Now, in the letters you and Sigmund have written back and forth and all of the talk about your theories and such, what have you come to? I’ll tell you what. You both agree that, in the end, no one can stop warlike men from whipping up the people who are dependent, cowering, and somewhat easily swayed, to pick up arms and kill and die, all of which brings unheard-of and obscene wealth and power to those warmongering few.”
“And you despair that nothing can be done about it until we poor human beings, in the years to come, in what we both know now is the early dawn of our collective existence, evolve a civilization in which their love of life and their repugnance of war somehow becomes the norm and becomes written into our very genes. I guarantee you, Albert, that neither you nor I, nor Sigmund, nor his dear wife, Martha, will ever live to see that time.
“If you had asked me, Albert, I would have told you that the only way to see anything approaching an end to war is that if the people, the proletariat, become convinced that the only honorable thing to do is to give the commanders-in-chief, and ten of their closest military and economic advisors, the privilege of standing in the front of the line or at ground zero or whatever you call it, with a big red targets of honor on their chests and lead their soldiers into battle. To take the first bullet. Anything less than that will do nothing.”
“You know that will never happen.”
“Of course. Then, Albert, look around you. We are Jews. We are wearing the targets. We are living in fear of what will happen to us next. This is no time for theorizing and thinking about things until they wither and die under the weight of your heavy thoughts. It is time now for us to pack our things. To leave, while we can. Not the time for more letters or more talking.”
Albert is quiet. He goes to his room.
On 6 December, Albert packs his manuscripts and his violin. Elsa waits on the porch for him. He locks the door behind him, and they take the train from Caputh to Antwerp and never return.