Episode 5: Roni Grosz, curator of the Albert Einstein Archives

Find out what it's like taking care of the legacy of the world's most famous genius.

The guest: For more than a decade, Dr. Roni Grosz has served as curator of the Albert Einstein archives at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In that capacity, he oversees the largest collection of Einstein related material in the entire world. Visitors can see and touch the actual books that lined Einstein's home. There are thousands of documents, unfinished math equations, drafts of lectures, not to mention the many letters Einstein received during his lifetime – from dignitaries like President Roosevelt to questions sent to him by children all around the world.

The gist: Albert Einstein helped establish Hebrew University and was on the school's original Board of Governors. During his lifetime, he spent countless hours raising awareness about the university across the globe. When the Nobel Prize winning physicist passed away, he bequeathed his official archives to the university. The archives, currently housed in a handful of second-floor offices in a classroom building on the school's Jerusalem campus, will now be getting their own dedicated building – and it will be open to the public.

Further reading:

"Our Friend from Israel" is hosted by Benyamin Cohen. Our podcast theme music is by Haim Mazar, a Hollywood film composer who grew up in Israel. Follow our podcast on Facebook for behind-the-scenes access to the show.

Roni Grosz (left), curator of the Albert Einstein archives, being interviewed by host Benyamin Cohen (right). Roni Grosz (left), curator of the Albert Einstein archives, being interviewed by host Benyamin Cohen (right). (Photo: From The Grapevine)

Roni Grosz, the curator of the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, shows the original documents written by Einstein related to his prediction of the existence of gravitational waves.

Roni Grosz, the curator of the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, shows the original documents written by Einstein related to his prediction of the existence of gravitational waves. (Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)


Benyamin Cohen: On this episode of Our Friend from Israel ...

Roni Grosz: Einstein is a cool guy and he's whatever, you know, with the tongue, with the hair. But come on, tongue and hair, we've seen the others. Like tongue and hair, we have Mick Jagger also. But Mick Jagger's not on par with Einstein, you see.

Benyamin Cohen: Hello. And welcome to Our Friend from Israel, a podcast brought to you by fromthegrapevine.com. I'm your host, Benyamin Cohen, and each week we'll have a conversation with an intriguing Israeli. They'll come from all walks of life: actors, artists, athletes, archeologists, and other news-makers.

Benyamin Cohen: In today's episode, we travel to the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem to chat with Dr. Roni Grosz, the curator of the Albert Einstein Archives, to talk about what it's like taking care of the legacy of the world's most famous genius.

Albert: Einstein: E is equal mc square. It followed from the special theory of relativity that math and energy are both but different manifestations of the same thing.

Benyamin Cohen: Albert Einstein. What more could be said about the world's favorite genius. He came up with the theory of relativity. He was awarded the Nobel Prize. He was named Time magazine's person of the century. He is arguably one of the world's most famous scientists. And before he died in 1955, he bequeathed his papers to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a school he helped establish. It is now home to the official Einstein Archives, the largest collection of Einstein related material in the entire world. Visitors can see and touch the actual books that lined Einstein's home. There are thousands of documents, unfinished math equations, drafts of lectures, not to mention the many letters he received during his lifetime. From dignitaries like President Roosevelt to questions sent to him by children all around the world.

Benyamin Cohen: Spearheading this archive is it's curator, Dr. Roni Grosz.

Benyamin Cohen: So, you were telling me you grew up in Europe. Is that right?

Dr. Roni Grosz: I grew up in Vienna, Austria. And I had no knowledge about Albert Einstein except that he was a famous physicist.

Benyamin Cohen: When you went to school, when you went to college, what did you study?

Dr. Roni Grosz: I started Philosophy and Communications Science and I finished with a PhD at University of Vienna. So, I saw the ads that were published for this position and they asked, like, 10 different qualifications and I actually had nine of them. So, now you want to ask which one I didn't have. I didn't have the background in physics. But I had, I don't remember all of them, but I remember I had German mother tongue. That's very important here.

Benyamin Cohen: Oh, interesting.

Dr. Roni Grosz: I had the appropriate degree-

Benyamin Cohen: That's because a lot of the stuff is in German at the Archives.

Dr. Roni Grosz: Yes. And actually, without German, you won't find your way. And then I was hired and then here 14 years now.

Benyamin Cohen: How did Einstein's Archives end up here at Hebrew University in Jerusalem?

Dr. Roni Grosz: So, he was really among the founding fathers and he was also on the first Board of the Hebrew University after it was established. Einstein bequeathed his papers ... Einstein didn't have an archives. He just produced papers and from the 1920s on, a lady by the name of Helen Dukas-

Benyamin Cohen: Was that his secretary?

Dr. Roni Grosz: Who became his secretary and right-hand. And she started keeping papers that Einstein had discarded privately.

Benyamin Cohen: And also, a majority of what's here, just so we can explain to our listeners, is papers, documents, lots of letters that were written to Einstein from various important people, from everyday people. Can you talk about that?

Dr. Roni Grosz: Correct. Our claim to fame here is that this is the biggest collection of Einstein originals. And it is. Plus, all the originals of the letters that he received, again, like you said, some from famous people and some from all people of all walks of life. The bulk of the original Einstein papers we have are drafts of lectures of scientific drafts of calculations that stayed with him. Correspondence, by the nature, is an exchange of letters. So, all the letters that Einstein wrote, he sent away and didn't stay with him and in extension, didn't come to us.

Dr. Roni Grosz: There are some exceptions. We succeeded buying back or receiving as a gift Einstein letters from recipients. In quite a few cases, we have carbon copies that's, like, a second page that was below the original page from when it was typed on a type machine. You have to explain this for our young listeners, they don't know what I'm talking about.

Benyamin Cohen: Mimeograph? Is that-

Dr. Roni Grosz: No, it's a carbon copy. They probably wouldn't know what a typewriter is and for sure don't know what a carbon copy is. They think it's something on email, you know, when you click a button that says "CC." But that's the carbon copy, but actually, the way it worked was: it took two sheets of paper and you placed another sheet of carbon paper, which is like a flimsy black paper. And you squeeze all three into the typewriter and when you type, on the uppermost page, the physical impact of the letter pushes through to the last page and you get a little bit blurry, but you get a good copy of the letter that is written typed with typewriter. This is called a carbon copy. And when Einstein had a secretary and didn't write his letters by hand anymore, in very many cases, she used a carbon copy. Carbon paper. So we have a carbon copy-

Benyamin Cohen: Of letters that went out from Einstein.

Dr. Roni Grosz: So, for our archives, this is very, extremely valuable. But for us, it's not 'cause this is an extremely valuable source of information. Because it gives us the back and forth of the correspondence and this is ... What it's all about here is to build this mosaic or to weave this tapestry or whatever metaphor you want to use. What we do here in our work, we try, through the correspondence and the other papers, to reflect Einstein's life and work. So, for us to have outgoing letters is extremely valuable and I'm not talking about the market value. But this is only carbon copy. Though we view the carbon copy also as a kind of original because it was actually created at the same time than the other letter that actually went out.

Benyamin Cohen: So, there's lots of things here. Today, we're sitting in the Archives right now, we're sitting in a conference room that is lined with books that, many of which, actually belonged to ... These were books that were in Einstein's personal library, is that correct?

Dr. Roni Grosz: Yes. Though, like any household, there was no personal library. It was the household library or the books in the household. So yes, the big majority of them were Einstein's books, but if Helen Dukas had her own books, we would have a hard time to differentiate between Helen Dukas' books and then Einstein's books. Except if it's really scientific stuff, but for literature, we couldn't' say for sure.

Benyamin Cohen: If it was his or if it was just-

Dr. Roni Grosz: It mostly was his.

Benyamin Cohen: Right. But it could have been a coffee table book or something.

Dr. Roni Grosz: Yeah, but like, not every book in your household is really yours.

Benyamin Cohen: Right.

Benyamin Cohen: This new podcast, Our Friend from Israel, is brought to you by fromthegrapevine.com. If you love Albert Einstein, you'll love fromthegrapevine.com. We have hundreds of stories from the world's famous genius, whether it's about Einstein in pop culture, the stories behind iconic Einstein photographs, or the bizarre tale of the man who stole Einstein's brain, you'll find that and much more at fromthegrapevine.com.

Speaker 4: Albert.

Speaker 5: Albert.

Speaker 7: Albert!

Speaker 4: Albert!

Speaker 7: Hey, Einstein! Hey. May I have your autograph, sir? I want to be a scientist just like you.

Benyamin Cohen: In 2017, the National Geographic channel ran a 10-part miniseries about the life of Albert Einstein. The show premiered to critical acclaim and the Television Academy honored it with 10 Emmy nominations, including one for actor Geoffrey Rush, who portrayed Einstein in his later years. We ask Dr. Grosz why he thinks that more than 60 years after Einstein's death, the physicist is more relevant and beloved today than ever before.

Dr. Roni Grosz: That's the million dollar question here. Why is Einstein becoming more popular with time. You know, they say that Einstein was the first icon of pop culture, although pop culture only developed after Second World War, but he was like a precursor and he was like a public figure-

Benyamin Cohen: A celebrity.

Dr. Roni Grosz: Yeah, but, you see, before that ... Let's say before First World War, celebrities were members of the royal family. Every person, whatever country you were in, every-

Benyamin Cohen: Those were the celebrities.

Dr. Roni Grosz: Those were the celebrities that everybody would recognize and that they would name their kids after. You know? In between the two World Wars, the world was very much changing and it was changing to what it became in the second half of the 20th Century. So, Einstein was in this period in between the wars and that way became famous and he was the first icon of popular culture. Now, interestingly, all the others that followed after him, and we're talking the real big ones, like, I don't know. It was Presley and the Beatles and whatever, Marilyn Monroe, whatever actor and celeb you will name. No matter how popular and how crazy people were after them at their time, with the decades, they fade away.

Benyamin Cohen: Right.

Dr. Roni Grosz: If you remember, if you've seen films showing Elvis Presley concerts or people's concerts, people were really, really, really going nuts in ways unheard of before. But today, nobody's going crazy about Elvis Presley. They'll still say, "Yeah, he was a good musician and he was important." But the emotional aspect is lost. You know? But Einstein, people who knew him are elderly people nowadays. No one of the young generation had ever seen him in his lifetime. And still they're all crazy about him. It's a phenomenon. It puzzles me as it puzzles you. Einstein, if you ask anyone of these millennium kids, they will say he was the greatest scientist and the most this and the most that. And actually, one of the interesting aspects of Einstein was that not only was he the most important scientist, he was also very vocal about many other subjects, which probably adds to the importance of his personality and the impact he has today.

Dr. Roni Grosz: But think about it. Practically no one that will tell you that Einstein was the greatest scientist understands his science. What are you appreciating? If you go and say you like a rockstar, you say, "I like his music." You don't have to be a musician to appreciate it. And that's great. That's the greatest music for me. Or painting. Whatever. You name it. But here, if you don't understand the physics, what are you appreciating?

Benyamin Cohen: They still like him then.

Dr. Roni Grosz: And why is it, I don't know. For some reason, everybody is happy to identify with Einstein. Everybody wants to be associated with Einstein. Everybody wants to be a person that others think of, say, that this person would say, "Einstein is the greatest scientist." You want to be affirming Einstein, though Einstein doesn't really [inaudible 00:14:24] your information. That's yours, not mine, not anyone's. But people want to be in this position of being like, "I associate with Einstein. Einstein is a cool guy and he's whatever, with the tongue, with the hair." But come on, tongue and hair, we've seen the others. Tongue and hair, we have Mick Jagger also. But Mick Jagger's not on par with Einstein, you see? And why? And this is a question ... You know, Mick Jagger's an old guy. And I'm sure people still like his music. But it's not the same.

Dr. Roni Grosz: So, with Einstein, is really the question: why does he become more popular? And that's really the secrets to Einstein, the secret life of Einstein. Why does this exact thing that makes him more popular? Not only does his fame decrease slower than others. On the contrary, his popularity goes up.

Dr. Roni Grosz: So this is really something that I'm still trying to get to the bottom of it. I think this is where the answers lies, but it's obviously not easy to get to it and I didn't get to it. I can only see certain aspects of it. But I don't have the answer either but I'm sure there's something that attracts all these people. It is 15 years old that say Einstein's the greatest, the best that only know how to express their feelings through social media, which is so different from Einstein's lifetime.

Benyamin Cohen: They didn't have Instagram.

Dr. Roni Grosz: They didn't have anything. But they use this as a vehicle to voice their association or their interest to associate with Einstein with every... Many people don't know what Einstein said and what Einstein thought and they have no idea what his worldview was, and they still think he's the most important and most likable and whatever ...

Benyamin Cohen: World's favorite genius.

Dr. Roni Grosz: Yes. Quite obviously. And it reminds me of a scene that Charlie Chaplin invited Einstein to a premier show of one of his movies in City Lights. And they were sitting together and people were applauding them. So, you know, Einstein said to Chaplin, "You know something, they're applauding you and not me! Because you're the star of this film." And Charlie Chaplin told him, "Look, they applaud me because they all understand what I want to say. And they applaud you because they all don't understand what you want to say."

Benyamin Cohen: It's a mystery.

Dr. Roni Grosz: Why would somebody say, "I think this is the most important expression of science, of thought, of whatever," and not understand it? The correct reaction would be, "Sure, this is important, but I don't even have a glimpse of it. And I cannot judge it and I cannot tell you if science was right or wrong and I can only repeat what others say." But for some reason, this is totally irrelevant. But Einstein stands for something. And so this is the thing, this is where we approaching the correct view. Einstein stands for something that everybody wants to be associated with. What exactly it is, I don't know. Because it's not exactly what he said. People are not so much attracted by what he said. But he became an icon for something that everybody likes to associate with.

Benyamin Cohen: If you're enjoying this podcast about Albert Einstein, you'll also want to check out our interview with Dr. Avi Loeb, the Chair of Harvard's Astronomy Department. Dr. Loeb, who considers Einstein one of his role models, is actively searching for alien life.

Dr. Avi Loeb: And my young daughter, who is 12 years old, asked me to bring the alien home if we ever find it.

Benyamin Cohen: Like ET.

Dr. Avi Loeb: My wife, on the other hand, said that if they ever offer me a ride on the spacecraft, I should make sure that I leave the car keys with her and that they don't ruin the lawn in the backyard when they lift off.

Benyamin Cohen: Check out that episode with Dr. Avi Loeb at fromthegrapevine.com.

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Benyamin Cohen: And now, back to the show.

Benyamin Cohen: Is there an original theory of relativity?

Dr. Roni Grosz: There is an original theory of relativity for the general relativity. And we have this. The real original, like, let's say, it's an earlier document. The famous documents are of 1905. The famous four papers that were published in one year that Einstein wrote in the evenings after finishing his job at the patent office in Bern. The manuscripts don't exist anymore. Einstein sent them to the publisher and the publisher typed them and threw it out.

Benyamin Cohen: Wow. And during your time here at the Archives, what has been one of the most interesting or surprising things that you've discovered about Einstein?

Dr. Roni Grosz: Well, several things. One is, for sure, that the public Einstein is not the real Einstein.

Benyamin Cohen: What do you mean by that?

Dr. Roni Grosz: The way the world views Einstein is-

Benyamin Cohen: With the tongue sticking out?

Dr. Roni Grosz: Well, that's only on occasion, but kind of like the lost professor who was only interested in his studies. Again and again, documents that surprise us because they don't fit with this image. So, the image that the public has is very rough, but there is much more [inaudible 00:21:42] grain details to it.

Dr. Roni Grosz: So, what actually surprised me, when I started here, I thought ... When I first realized that there are no Einstein letters at the Einstein Archives, almost no. Because they were all sent away by Einstein. Then I figured out there would be, I don't know, a few hundred Einstein letters that he had sent during his lifetime that are still in private homes. Now, after 14 years here, I think it's not a few hundred but a few thousand.

Benyamin Cohen: Wow.

Dr. Roni Grosz: And though it's a finite number, I have no clue what the number really is. I think it's over a thousand and these things trickle-

Benyamin Cohen: Sure, they continue to-

Dr. Roni Grosz: Into the market and I don't see an end, I think I'll retire and I'm sure I won't get to the bottom of it. Of course, it's the perfect right of every heir to keep his Einstein letter, but I would very much advise not to keep it for too long. First of all, they are conservatory issues. And then, the best place, the best repository for an Einstein letter is at the Einstein Archives where we add it to our collection and make it public and offer it to the general public.

Benyamin Cohen: Where could the general public, if they wanted to do that kind of a search, what's the website address-

Dr. Roni Grosz: So, our website is www.alberteinstein.info, which gives you direct access to search in the database.

Benyamin Cohen: Okay. Well, I've taken up a lot of your time, so I really appreciate you sitting down with us today. I think that I've learned a lot and I think our listeners will have learned a lot as well, so thank you very much.

Dr. Roni Grosz: Sure, you're welcome.

Benyamin Cohen: Our Friend from Israel is a production of fromthegrapevine.com. Extra notes and a transcript of today's episode can be found at ourfriendfromisrael.com. Our show is produced by Paul Kasko. Editorial help from Jamie Bender and Alana Strauss. Our head engineer is Everett Adams. Our theme music is by Haim Mazar, a Hollywood film composer who grew up in Israel. You can visit our website at fromthegrapevine.com to find more episodes of the show. Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or your favorite podcast app. Feel free to leave us a review there. When you do, it helps others discover Our Friend from Israel. I'm your host, Benyamin Cohen, and until next time, we hope you have a great week.


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Related Topics: Albert Einstein

Episode 5: Roni Grosz, curator of the Albert Einstein Archives
Find out what it's like taking care of the legacy of the world's most famous genius.