Dan Rattiner's Stories

Einstein Square: New Southold Park Mural Marks Genius’ Summer Here

He rented a beach cottage on the North Fork in 1939.

Over the years, people who have changed the world have come to the East End. Andy Warhol was one. Marilyn Monroe was another. Albert Einstein was a third. Few people in history have changed the world as Einstein did. And now, just a few months ago, a small new private park, available to all for sitting, reading or just contemplating the universe, opened facing out on Main Street in Southold, not far from where Einstein rented a beach cottage on West Cove Road on the Nassau Point peninsula in Cutchogue in 1939.

The park, called Einstein Square, is in an empty lot between two stores on the south side of Main Street in Southold. One of the two stores is a music and antique shop run by Ron Rothman. The other was, until recently, Rothman’s Department Store, a store that had everything and was a hangout for Einstein during that summer he was here. Now it is for rent, and the owners of the property are looking for a tenant who might celebrate the legacy of Einstein—perhaps a coffee house—and honoring a man who worked in his cottage trying with chalk and blackboard and mathematical equations to prove his Unified Field Theory. He never succeeded in doing so, but he spent the last half of his life trying.

During those days of June, July and August beneath the summer sun, he enjoyed sunbathing, swimming and sailing in Horseshoe Cove and Peconic Bay in a tiny, wooden eight-foot catboat he’d had shipped out here. He called his boat Tinef, which in Yiddish means “little trifle.” He also came to play violin with a few local musicians at the home of David Rothman, the store owner in town he’d met early on, on Friday evenings. As a quartet, they played Mozart and Bach and Beethoven and had dinner together.

The famous formula E=mc2, which changed science’s view of the universe, came to Einstein when he was living in Germany as a young man. When Hitler came to power, Einstein was already quite famous, though he soon became an unrelenting critic of Adolph Hitler. As a result, he felt his life might be in danger, and one day, about to embark on an extended tour abroad, he locked up his longtime home in Germany and told his wife, “look long and hard on this place for you may never see it again.” Sure enough, while on tour, Hitler’s thugs broke into Einstein’s home during the night, confiscated Elsa’s kitchen knives, having declared them “weapons,” and even confiscated Einstein’s boat, which they said had been used for smuggling.

Indeed, Einstein and his wife did not come back to Germany. Finishing their American tour, they came back to Belgium, where Einstein denounced his German citizenship, sailed off to the safety of England, and soon thereafter chose to accept a position at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton. He and his wife Elsa moved there in 1933.

It was in 1939, with the Institute for Advanced Studies on summer sabbatical, that Einstein, still recovering after the passing of his wife in 1936, came to rent his little beach house facing out onto the cove. He was 60 years old at this time and he wanted only to lose himself in his work and enjoy the beach. Accompanying him were his sister, Maja, his stepdaughter, Margot, his son, Hans, and his secretary Helen Dukakas. Also, his little Airedale terrier.

Among guests visiting him were friends from Princeton and also two other scientists who, in 1939—at a time when the war against Nazi Germany was about to begin—had driven out to ask him if he would write a letter to President Roosevelt urging the creation of a laboratory to attempt to create an atomic bomb, because the Germans were already trying to do that. He wrote the letter and, because of it, the lab at Oak Ridge Tennessee was created, atomic energy was harnessed, and World War II ended sooner rather than later after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

At Einstein Square in Southold you will find a historic marker, a statue of Einstein facing the street, a half-dozen stone benches set amongst flowers and planters, several USB charging stations and a grand mural, eight feet wide, on the side of the Rothman store, showing Einstein in his baggy shorts, sandals and t-shirt, sitting alongside David Rothman, the department store owner, in tie and jacket, discussing the state of the world and what concerto might be among the pieces they would play on Friday night.

No wonder, he later told friends, that his summer in Southold was the happiest summer, ever. Consider all he had been through.

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