A Life

February 27, 2014

Gracious Living Day by DayI just finished reading a biography (in Serbian) of Mileva Maric Einstein, the first wife of Albert Einstein.

It was hard for me to read this book. I drove my family crazy talking about it relentlessly at the dinner table and even to myself I sounded angry and shrill. Here’s why.

Mileva Maric was born in 1875 in Vojvodina (the same part of Serbia my family is from) when the region was still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Her parents were well off and unusual in their dedication to educating their two daughters as well as their son. Mileva’s father recognized early her talent for math and science and sent her abroad to best schools where she was frequently the only girl. When she met Einstein at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich he was 17 and she 21 years old.

Mileva and Albert Einstein Mileva and Albert Einstein

Mileva was said to be plain and had a slight limp, was shy and reserved. She was also deeply intelligent, hard working, disciplined and mature. She was musical, sang beautifully and played a number of instruments. She and young Albert were the only physics students at the Institute in their year and they became best friends. She grounded his undisciplined, disorderly personality and they spent most of their time together, working, studying and playing music.

They fell in love but Albert’s family was fiercely opposed to their marriage. The young couple decided to marry regardless as soon as they graduated and Albert found a job. During their last year at the Institute, Mileva got pregnant. She went home to Vojvodina and delivered a girl in her parent’s house.

They did get married, but Albert insisted that their daughter be given up for adoption. The fate of the child is not known but Mileva never recovered from the grief, doing poorly on her final exams that year and never receiving a diploma from the Institute.

Albert and Mileva had two more children and spent the next ten years raising their boys as well as working together on his projects and theories.

No one knows the depth of her participation in his work: whether she merely evaluated mathematical equations that proved the correctness of his theories or participated in the formation of the ideas as well. But there is ample evidence that she worked with him constantly during their years together.

Mileva with her sons, Eduard and Hans Albert Mileva with her sons, Eduard and Hans Albert

A fun loving but also immature man, Albert was not always faithful to serious Mileva and eventually left her and their two sons for his first cousin, Elsa.  As Albert’s fame grew, he moved to Berlin while Mileva and the boys remained in Zurich. Albert hovered on the periphery of their lives and grudgingly provided some financial support, but it was Mileva who bore the hardships of caring for her family during the great upheavals of the 20th century.

Mileva’s brother (a doctor) was mobilized into the Austrian army during WWI and was never heard from again after disappearing on the Eastern front. Her sister became mentally ill. Her parents lost all their possessions during the two world wars. Her younger son, Eduard, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and she took care of him until the end of her life. She died in poverty and her contributions to Einstein’s work have never been officially acknowledged.

It saddens me that she gave so much and got so little in return, that her life was unremittingly hard, and that she got no recognition for her contributions to science.

I try to remember that she did get recognition for her contribution to the life of her children, family and friends. People who knew her admired and loved her. So, maybe I should just accept her life for what it is – the life of a woman who did her best for those she loved, whose unselfish nature left no room for unmitigated ambition.

Still, there is a cloud of sadness lingering when I think of Mileva Maric, a cloud of sadness for every woman. And it’s hard not to imagine what could have been.  She deserved more.

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