In 1929, Albert Einstein – theoretical physicist and Nobel prize winner – visited the Belgian Royal court and a friendship began between him and the Queen of the Belgians, born Elisabeth of Bavaria. They played music together.
In early November 1929, Einstein was visiting Paris, and Elisabeth wrote to him, “It would give us much joy if you could come to Brussels on your way back to visit us at Laeken. Bring your violin! So, hope to see you soon! With kind regards, Your Elisabeth.” Unfortunately, Einstein was unable to make to Brussels.
Luckily for her, he did not stay away for long, and in October 1930, he came by with several others and Elisabeth enjoyed their company and even took their photos with her own little camera. They also played music for several hours, and then he unexpectedly was invited over for dinner (spinach with eggs and potatoes) which was just with the King and Queen and no staff. He wrote to his wife, “I really enjoyed my visit, and I am sure they feel the same.” During a more formal dinner at the end of the visit, he was seated next to Elisabeth.
For Elisabeth, Einstein and making music were a way out of her golden cage. Music was like oxygen to her, and she enjoyed Einstein’s lack of interest in protocol and his apparent fame. On 10 December 1932, Einstein and his wife departed Antwerpen and headed for California. Einstein soon realised he could not return to Germany with the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. He did, however, return to Belgium and his rented villa was under the protection of county guards. He went to the German Embassy to surrender his German passport. During this time, he enjoyed musical breaks with Elisabeth, but his wife did not feel safe in Belgium. In September, they left Europe for good. Elisabeth and her husband wrote to him, “With sadness we see you leave to America and we hope to see you again soon. In our thoughts, we are with you, and we wish you a good journey and better days. May God protect you and bring insight into the minds of those people who are driven by madness to the wrong path.”
Einstein contacted Elisabeth once more to ask for help for an old friend of his, Julius Levin. He too had fled Germany, and with her “special interest” in him, he soon received leave to stay in Belgium. Einstein wrote to her, “I have also heard what you did for good old Levin, and that has done me the greatest pleasure. It is not just what you did, but especially how you did it. It was heartwarming. Such a combination of favour, seriousness and goodness is normally only found in a fairytale world.” He also promised her that he would not give up the violin.
Elisabeth’s husband died in a mountaineering accident on 17 February 1934 and Elisabeth was devastated. She wrote to her daughter, “My pain is endless, and the void becomes greater every day.” Her old friend Einstein wrote to her three days after her husband’s death. “Not so often have I been so deeply shocked as by the news of the heavy blow that destroyed your harmonious existence.” She finally found the strength to write back to him in May. “From the depths of my heart, I thank you for your compassionate letter. The beautiful, uplifting thoughts with which you honour my beloved husband, have touched me deeply in my indescribable grief.”
Elisabeth no longer found joy in her life, and she could not stand living in the palace anymore – always hearing her husband’s footsteps. Einstein heard of her state and wrote to her, “Madam Barjansky tells me also in her last letter that you spent your days in silence and loneliness since that admirable man at your side was ripped away so suddenly. I am convinced that art can offer a nice way of life, even if it seems difficult.” He added in a later letter, “I sincerely hope that the spring will bring you silent joy and encourages you to take up a happy occupation.” Further tragedy was to come when Elisabeth’s daughter-in-law Astrid was killed in a car accident. Einstein wrote to her, “That you are once again affected by a calamity is shocking. Normally, one is slowly pained by a treacherous emergency, like a dark cloud floating above us, but your fate strikes you like lightning from a clear blue sky.” Tragedy would strike Einstein too when his wife Elsa died on 20 December 1936.
Elisabeth sent her condolences to Einstein but he did not write back until August saying he wanted to wait until he had something of substance to say but “the wait was in vain.” Elisabeth did not mind the wait and wrote back, “It was so nice to hear from you after such a long time. It would be wonderful to see you again, I have taken up the violin again.” Einstein once again her to help a friend of his as the tensions were rising. Hitler had already marched on Austria. The man he asked help for survived the war.
Belgium was invaded in 1940, and Elisabeth stayed by her son’s side as they became prisoners of war. She wrote to Einstein in 1941, “When shall we see each other again? We continue to have hope! I think often of the beautiful and happy hours we spent together.” Elisabeth – with her German background – was not afraid to go up against the occupying forces, and she often used her influence to save many lives. For her actions during the war, she was recognised as Righteous Among the Nations. In 1944, her son and his family were taken to Austria where they were eventually liberated by American troops. Elisabeth was the only royal to remain behind in Laeken, and on 3 September 1944 allied troops reached Brussels. She welcomed General Horrocks with open arms.
On 3 January 1949, a telegram arrived from Einstein’s stepdaughter Margot at the Royal Palace in Brussels. “Fathers condition good no malignancy – no cause for worry – he will give you the news himself when well enough – respectfully – Margot Einstein.” It wasn’t until 1951 that Einstein himself wrote to her, “Your kind greetings have given me much joy and have awakened many happy and cheerful memories.” However, he refused to return to Europe, to Elisabeth’s sadness, but she understood it. Contact between Einstein and Elisabeth became little more than New Year’s wishes and birthday wishes. Einstein’ last letter to Elisabeth dates from 2 March 1955, and he wrote of worries about the political situation in Europe and how he considered himself “an involuntary scam artist.” On 30 April 1955, another telegram arrived from Margot, “On Sunday night – 1.15 a.m. – he left us while sleeping.”
Elisabeth survived him for ten years.1