Einsteins letter to Ataturks Turkey

by Bulent Atalay

A video prepared by Çankaya University in Ankara gives the historical background to the letter. According to the narrative (in Turkish) in 1949 Einstein meets a young foreign student, Münir Ülgür, at Princeton. When he learns that Ülgür is a student from Turkey, he shows visible excitement, “Do you know,” he says, “…your nation produced the greatest leader of the century!” Einstein then goes on to reminisce about having received an invitation from Ataturk in the early 1930s, “… to come and teach in one of our universities. However, as fate would have it,” he continues, “…it was not to be.”

[Note. In the early 1930s Einstein, already an international celebrity, was serving as a visiting scholar at Oxford’s Christ Church, while also trying to wade through a stack of permanent job offers. He had finally narrowed his choices down to three, Oxford, Caltech and Princeton University (Princeton, it seems, was his first choice, “… they were the first  to accept relativity.”) when a brand new institution emerges to lure him. Abraham Flexner, who had earlier made Johns Hopkins into a premier medical institution — first by introducing basic research into medicine in accord with the German model, and second, by accepting women into the program — had a new idea. He approached the Bamberger Family (of department store fame) to fund a new scientific ‘think tank’ in Princeton, New Jersey. The institution, the Institute for Advanced Study, would allow scholars to engage in pure mathematics and theoretical physics research (no laboratories), to collaborate with each other, without being burdened by teaching students. Then at the Bamberger Family’s insistence, Flexner would journey to England and convince Einstein to join the faculty of the Institute as one of his first faculty recruits. Einstein would serve as the nucleus around which other great scientists and mathematicians, many of them European Jews, would revolve.]

Meanwhile, in the late 1920s and early 30s, most of the world was immersed in the Great Depression. Germany, embittered by the suffocating terms imposed on it by the victorious allies, must have seen the future as especially hopeless, akin to a visitation by a medieval plague. Just when things could not seem more bleak, in 1933 Paul von Hindenburg, President of the Weimar Republic, made a disastrous decision. He appointed as the Chancellor of the Republic, Adolph Hitler, the head of the socialist, ultra-nationalist Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi Party). The climate of Antisemitism, percolating for years, suddenly erupted violently under the Nazis. Unemployed young men, clad in brown shirts, became the Nazi’s Stoßtruppen (“shock troops” or storm troopers), hunting for Jews in their murderous rampage. Systematically painted as unpatriotic, Jews were the first to be laid off from their jobs.

Sami M. Günzberg, a Jewish Turkish dentist, was attending an International Conference in Paris of the Union for the Protection of the Well-Being of the Jewish Population (OSE). It was there that he would meet Albert Einstein, the Honorary President of the organization, and together hatch a plan.  Einstein would write a letter to the Prime Minister, Ismet Inönü, “… I beg to apply to your Excellency to allow forty professors and medical doctors from Germany to continue their scientific and medical work in Turkey. The above mentioned cannot practice further in Germany on account of the laws… in granting this request your Government will not only perform an act of high humanity, but it will bring profit to your own country.” Einstein’s letter is dated September 17, 1933. By September 30, Günzberg would personally translate Einstein’s letter into Turkish, and with a cover letter of his own, submit it to the Turkish Government. And although Einstein’s letter is most likely meant for Ataturk, it is sent in care of the Prime Minister, Ismet Inönü. The cover letter is signed, “Dis Tabibi (Dentist), Sami Günzberg, Beyoglu, Istiklal Caddesi, No. 356.”

Inönü’s handwritten message at the bottom of the letter reads, “Their salaries will be unaffordable for us.” He rejects the offer. Above the words, “Your Excellency,” appears the rectangular stamp: “Office of the Prime Minister,” replete with a star and crescent. A handwritten note, “Maarif Vekaletine” (to the Education Ministry) is seen just above the date “9-10-933” (October 9, 1933). But when Ataturk hears about the letter from Einstein, he convenes a meeting with the principles, presumably the Prime Minister, the Minister of Education and Dr. Günzberg, and Einstein’s offer is accepted. The invitation is then extended to the German Jewish scientists, and the reform of higher education is underway, catalyzed by Einstein’s letter.

According to another source, Death on the High Sea: the Untold Story of the Struma, it was originally Atatürk’s idea to offer asylum to German Jewish scientists. The authors, Franz and Collins write, “Ataturk had set an ambitious course for modernizing his country along European lines. He had banned the traditional fez, ordering his countrymen to wear fedoras instead. He had changed to a Latin alphabet, introduced modern dancing and European music, and moved the Capital to Ankara… As it happened Atatürk had considerable problems with his teeth, and his dentist was Sami Günzberg. In their many lengthy sessions, Günzberg had spoken with Atatürk about the plight of Germany’s Jews under Hitler. Turkey’s leader had an idea: He could offer asylum to some of the most gifted Jews, they would help him transform his country into a modern state.”

Bulent Atalay

Author, National Geographic Books

Author, Smithsonian Books

Professor. UMW and UVA

May 22, 2012

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