A few weeks ago, I took my daughter Naomi to the Athenaeum where a “Light-Art Show” was projected on the facade of the building.
The one-night-only event on Oct. 6 featured images of German-American “Influencers,” ranging from Marlene Dietrich to Kurt Vonnegut, illuminating the night. It also highlighted the contributions of German Americans to Indianapolis and the U.S. more broadly.
Presented by URBANSCREEN, a German art collective, the show lasted 10 minutes. It was repeated, with breaks in between each showing, on into the evening.
Albert Einstein was among the projected “influencers,” an inclusion that originally gave me pause.
Einstein, born in Ulm, Germany in 1879, was a German citizen from birth, but when the famous physicist immigrated to the United States he renounced his German citizenship.
Partly because of this renunciation, I’ve never considered Einstein, who was Jewish, to be German, or German American.
Otherwise, the explanation as to why I feel the way I do is a little complicated, just as the history of the Athenaeum—built in the last decade of the 19th century as a German cultural center—is a little complicated.
I’ve shared with Naomi what I know about the Athenaeum’s past. That includes the name change the building was forced to undergo on Feb. 22, 1918, due to anti-German sentiment during World War I. It was originally called “Das Deutsche Haus,” or the German House.
Its current name comes from the Greek which means a gathering place of culture. While the Athenaeum more than lives up to its moniker, considering the wide variety of multicultural activities it offers, the Athenaeum Foundation also took a step, unveiled on February 22, 2018, to reclaim its German heritage.
That is, in February, a plaque was installed over the Michigan Ave. entrance of the Athenaeum reading “Das Deutsche Haus”
I figured that my 14-year-old daughter, who is currently a second-year German student at Carmel High School, would be interested in this history.
Naomi’s decision to study German hasn’t been met with universal praise in my family, although it has been accepted.
Naomi's great-grandmother on her mother’s side is Russian, and she can still recall the hardships of World War II. My own mother, who was alive during World War II, was certainly not a fan of my daughter’s Germanophilia. Both my parents are Jewish. My grandmother on my father’s side, who was born in Chelm, Poland, barely escaped with her life during the times when the Cossacks were burning Jewish villages—after torturing, raping, and murdering their inhabitants. Nearly all of her family members, those that survived the pogroms, were murdered by the Germans during World War II.
The polarities, however, have shifted. Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel, is the bulwark of democratic values in Europe while the rest of the world, including the U.S., seems to be going in the other direction.
As for me, I’m OK with Naomi studying German. I’ve told her that Yiddish is basically Middle-German with Hebrew characters, and lots of Hebrew vocabulary.
I consider myself pretty liberal, enlightened. I’m about as secular as a secular Jewish American can get. Still, I have to admit I was a little taken aback when I found out that Einstein was one of URBANSCREEN’s “influencers.”
If Einstein hadn’t immigrated to the U.S., he would have almost certainly met the same fate of my grandmother’s family.
Einstein, to me, was a Jewish American just as my grandmother was a Jewish American. My grandma Eve never considered herself to be a Polish American, because like most East European Jews in the early 20th Century, Eve Rae Levine wasn’t even a second class citizen in the country where she was born. Dogs had more rights in what was called the Pale of Settlement, which included both Russian and Polish territory over its history. In the Germany where Einstein grew up, things were better, and Jews were making gains in society. The Nazis, of course, put the kibosh on that.
With these thoughts in mind, I decided to ask the URBANSCREEN collective why they claim Einstein to be a “German Influencer.” They emailed me their response, which I appreciate, and even find touching in a way, even if I don't fully agree with it.
Here it is:
Albert Einstein lived for 47 years of his life in Germany, and then gave up his German citizenship because of the Nazi regime. Therefore, he is one of many personalities who have German roots and lived part of their lives in the United States, leaving behind a significant impact here.
Of course, the reason for his emigration was the Nazis‘ reign of terror and their inhuman treatment of others, most especially the Jewish people. However, we did not choose to factor religion into our work, but instead simply chose people who had or have a special relationship or tie to both Germany and the United States.
That the decision to give up German citizenship was not an easy one can perhaps be illustrated in the following quote: “Heute entschloss ich mich, meine Berliner Stellung im Wesentlichen aufzugeben. Also Zugvogel für den Lebensrest!” (Today, I decided to essentially give up my position in Berlin. So, migratory bird for the remainder of my life!)