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When Einstein lived in Belgium

Einstein in Belgium

Einstein in Belgium, 1930

In 1930-31, Albert Einstein received an invitation to conduct research in Pasadena, California and to give lectures throughout the country. Albert and his second wife Elsa first took the night train from Berlin to Antwerp. Here they stayed in the beautiful Century Hotel on De Keyserlei. They then continued their journey to the United States on the Red Star Line ship the SS Belgenland.

Einstein in Antwerp, 1933

In 1933 Albert and Elsa were again in the USA where Einstein was touring and speaking on the theory of relativity. In February 1933 he heard that the Gestapo had raided his family’s apartment in Berlin. He and Elsa, accompanied by his stepdaughter Margot and his secretary, decided to sail back to Europe in March – again on the SS Belgenland. During the trip, they heard grave news. On 23 March the German Reichstag had passed the Enabling Act, which transformed Hitler’s government into a de facto legal dictatorship. They realized that as Jews that they would not be able to proceed to Berlin for fear of persecution. Even worse, stories were circulating that the Nazis had plans to dispose of the scientist because, as a keen pacifist, he openly criticized the new regime. Later on, the Einsteins heard that their cottage had been raided by the Nazis and Einstein’s personal sailboat confiscated. (The Nazis later sold his boat and converted his cottage into a Hitler Youth camp.)

Upon landing in Antwerp on 28 March 1933, Einstein immediately went to the German consulate and surrendered his passport, formally renouncing his German citizenship. He also wrote a letter of resignation to the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Einstein stayed briefly with an uncle and then with Professor Arthur De Groodt and his wife who offered temporary shelter to the couple in Cantecroy castle in Mortsel, near Antwerp.

Cantecroy castle in Mortsel
Cantecroy castle in Mortsel ©Kasteel Cantecroy
Albert and Elsa Einstein with Arthur De Groodt and family
Albert and Elsa Einstein with Arthur De Groodt and family ©Red Star Line Museum

Einstein in De Haan

Mrs de Groodt had connections in the pretty and fashionable coastal town of De Haan, which was then known by its French name Le Coq-sur-Mer. She found Einstein and his retinue a modest villa where they could live for a while. This was Villa Savoyarde at Shakespearelaan 3. They stayed in this villa for six months.

Einstein became a familiar sight in the town during the summer of 1933. He enjoyed a daily walk through the town and would frequently take a coffee and a pastry in the afternoon at the Hôtel Belle Vue. It was in De Haan that he met the Belgian painter James Ensor.

Hotel Belle Vue in the 1930s, De Haan
Hotel Belle Vue in the 1930s

One notable meeting between them took place on 2 August 1933 at restaurant Au Cœur Volant in Normandiëlaan in De Haan. Apparently, Einstein accused Ensor of knowing nothing about colours. Ensor in turn accused Einstein of knowing nothing about mathematics, and then left the restaurant early!

Einstein in Brussels

Einstein took part in scientific congresses in Brussels where he renewed his acquaintance with the Belgian King Albert 1 and his Bavarian wife Queen Elisabeth. They had already met in the early 1920s at the Solvay conferences on chemistry and physics in Brussels. Since then they had remained in touch through letters and occasional visits. As well as the German language, Einstein shared a love of the violin with Queen Elisabeth. According to Belgian tourist guide Brigitte Hochs, whose mother ran the Belle Vue Hotel in De Haan, the two played violin together.

Einstein leaves Belgium

In September 1933 Albert Einstein packed his bags and returned to the United States to take up a teaching post.

Finding Einstein in Antwerp

From Friday 19 April 2024 until Sunday 8 September 2024 from 10:00 to 17:00, the Red Star Line Museum is holding a free exhibition called A Welcome Refugee. You will discover Einstein’s close relationship with Antwerp, Belgium and Red Star Line. The exhibition brings this little piece of history to life with some unique objects, photos and stories, adorned with an audio play narrated in English. It’s a great way to become immersed in Einstein’s refugee story. You can discover the exhibition for free on your own or during a guided tour. 

The exhibition displays the original passenger list with Einstein on the SS Belgenland, photos by Germaine Van Parys of Einstein at the Rijnkaai in Antwerp, a photo of Einstein with James Ensor, a racist pamphlet ‘Judentum und Wissenschaft’ (‘Jewry and Science’, 1936) by Wilhelm Müller during the Nazi regime that presents Jewish scientists as a threat, a photo of Einstein’s swearing of the oath as an American citizen in 1940, and much more. Click for further details on Einstein: A Welcome Refugee.

Extract from the SS Belgenland‘s passenger list

Finding Einstein in De Haan

Villa Savoyarde at Shakespearelaan 3 is still standing. It has an information panel outside with brief details of Einstein’s visit.

Discovering Einstein in Belgium
Einstein lived here, April-September 1933

The owners obviously have a sense of humour. A large photograph of Einstein is staring out of an upstairs window!

Einstein in Belgium
I can see you!

In 2006, the town installed a bronze sculpture of Einstein sitting on a bench in a little park at the end of the Normandiëlaan. It shows Einstein as he looked during his brief stay in the town.

Einstein in Belgium
Your chance to sit next to a genius ©Tourisme Wenduine/De Haan Westtoer

The statue in De Haan is accompanied by one of his most famous quotes: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Where to stay in De Haan

De Haan is my favourite town on the Belgian coast. It is unlike all of the other resorts in that it’s not packed with high-rise apartment blocks. Indeed, it is forbidden to build more than five floors. In addition, it maintains the charm of the 1930s, with a lot of attractive villas.

So it’s an ideal place for a short break on the Belgian coast. But where to stay? What about following in the great man’s footsteps and making Hotel Belle Vue your destination?

Hotel Belle Vue De Haan
Hotel Belle Vue today

16 thoughts on “When Einstein lived in Belgium”

  1. An interesting slice of history, Denzil. Germany’s loss was America’s gain. How personal the Nazis’ attack in converting his cottage into a Hitler Youth camp. De Haan looks like an idyllic place to stay.

  2. Thanks Denzil. Fascinating as always

    It was the Red Star line that brought the Einsteins to Belgium on their way to New York. Like so many hundreds and thousands of others fleeing persecution. So nice that the facility in the Antwerp harbor is now a museum to help us remember

    All the best

    Patrick

    1. Thanks Patrick, yes the Red Star Line Museum puts on some really interesting presentations, a highly recommended place to visit, as you so rightly say.

  3. Interesting, I didn’t know about Einstein’s Belgian connection. De Haan looks an attractive place. I was also very struck with the young woman I assume to be Prof De Groodt’s daughter. Her hair is so un-1930s, in fact it looks just like mine in the 1970s!

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