Sitting snugly amid the blight of architectural disasters that constitute the Belgian Riviera from Knokke to De Panne, the small resort of De Haan glows with the promise of innocent summers: a cut-out from M. Hulot’s Holidays. Its eclectic Belle Epoque hotels, whitewashed cottages and rolling dunes first brought me here in 1990s with a friend and our small children for a week of sand-filled shoes, salty skin and early, exhausted nights.
Not then and not once in numerous visits since did I become aware of De Haan’s most famous resident. It was only recently that my glance fell upon a small black and white sign on the promenade, stating that Albert Einstein once walked where I now stood.
March 1933 – Returning on the Red Star liner Belgenland from a two-month tour of the US, Jewish physicist Albert Einstein learns that his summer home in Caputh near Berlin has been raided by the National Socialists. He decides not to return to Germany. Prior to docking in Antwerp, he is “encouraged” to tender his resignation from the Prussian Academy of Sciences, of which he has been a member for 19 years. He does so, and also takes steps to begin renouncing his German citizenship.
In the months that follow, European academic institutions line up to offer support. In addition to those already held at Princeton, Oxford and Brussels, Einstein considers accepting posts from Madrid University and the Collège de France.
Upon the advice of a local professor and under the protection of King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, Einstein and his second wife Elsa rent the Villa Savoyarde, a small house in De Haan’s Shakespearelaan. They are joined by Einstein’s research assistant Walther M., his secretary Helene D, two bodyguards and a stream of visitors. Einstein establishes a routine: walks along the promenade, tea on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Belle Vue. He resumes work on quantum field theory.
Summer 1933. Reporting from a conference in Chicago, an article by New York Times science reporter William Laurence confirms widespread scientific acceptance of Einstein’s mass-energy theory (E=mc2). In July, Einstein defends himself against accusations that he sympathizes with the Third (or Communist) International.
But around the same time, when approached by a lawyer on behalf of imprisoned Belgian pacifists, Einstein departs from his resolutely anti-militarist stance and encourages Belgium to arm itself in the face of Nazi aggression. He visits England and meets Winston Churchill, warning him of the threat posed by Hitler. Signing the guest book at Lloyd George’s country house in Churt, he writes “ohne” (without) in the address column.
Mindful of the possibility of permanent exile, Einstein travels to Switzerland to see his mentally troubled son Eduard. He meets frequently with Queen Elizabeth of Belgium to play the violin in a string quartet and discuss the alarming state of world affairs. He makes the acquaintance of Belgian artist James Ensor and allows locally resident artist Alfons Blomme to paint his portrait.
Early September 1933: it is reported to Einstein that a reward of several thousand Reichsmark has been placed on his head by Nazi sympathizers.
Einstein is unimpressed by potential bounty hunters. He continues to take his morning constitutional in the dunes of De Haan where he frequently meets a young girl who habitually greets him with the words: “You dope”. Einstein’s wife, however, is increasingly nervous and takes to sleeping fully dressed.
On or around September 9, the Einsteins sail for England and subsequently for the US. Einstein never returns to Europe.
Einstein’s mass-energy theory (E=mc2) was formulated in 1905 as a paper entitled: “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend upon its Energy-Content?” But Einstein on the beach is like anybody else: a body propelling itself forward under the seagull’s mournfully constipated cry, ever mindful of the great and mindless sea and its capacity for obliteration.
The sea simplifies and in doing so, it creates unusual equations, putting a little = sign between myself and Albert Einstein – two masses of energy content – together on the beach at De Haan.