The life story of Albert Einstein contains one haunting mystery.
What happened to Einstein's first child Lieserl, the daughter that his lover and future wife Mileva Marić gave birth to out of wedlock in 1902? Lieserl was an Einstein family secret--one so deep and dark that Einstein biographers didn’t even learn of her existence until more than three decades after the physicist’s death, when a cache of Einstein letters was uncovered that contained a few cryptic references to her.
But so far, researchers have failed to turn up any other information about Lieserl, who vanished from the written record of her parents’ lives after September 1903 and does not seem ever to have been mentioned by either of them ever again. Did she die in childhood? Was she given up for adoption? Numerous theories have emerged, but unless new clues are unearthed, it seems likely that the world will never know her fate.
This much we do know. As Walter Isaacson details in his Einstein biography, in May 1901, the young physicist sat in a train station in the village of Como, Italy, awaiting Marić’s arrival. He had graduated from Zurich Polytechnic 10 months before, and was living mostly with his parents in Milan while he struggled to find an academic job. All that time, he continued his long-distance relationship with Marić, who remained behind in Zurich to finish her studies. Einstein had convinced his lover to meet him for a romantic vacation at Lake Como, a resort known for its breathtaking snow-capped scenery. It was during their stay there, according to Isaacson’s book, that the couple made love, and Marić became pregnant.
According to Isaacson, Marić then returned to Zurich, where she discovered her condition and faced a difficult decision. She still had hopes of becoming a physicist, a dream which her parents had spent a lot of money to help her achieve. The couple was not married, and having a child out of marriage would have scandalized their families. With access to abortion-inducing drugs in Zurich, Marić could have terminated the pregnancy but she decided to have the child that Einstein had fathered.
After Marić failed her graduation exams for a second time, she gave up her scientific ambitions and prepared to return home to Serbia to inform her parents of her academic failure and her pregnancy. Before her departure, she wrote to Einstein and asked him to send her father a letter, affirming his plans for their future together. In the fall of 1901, Einstein—desperate for employment—took a post as a tutor at an academy in a village near Zurich for meager pay, while he waited for a friend to make good on his promise of a better job at the patent office in Bern. Marić spent November lodged in a hotel in the nearby village of Stein am Rhein, where Einstein occasionally came to see her. Then she returned home to Novi Sad, Serbia, and stayed with her parents for the remainder of her pregnancy.
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In December 1901, Einstein got a letter from his friend Marcel Grossman who assured him that the long-awaited position in the patent office would soon be available. In a letter to Marić, Einstein discussed the dilemma of what to do about the baby who was due in less than two months, whom the couple already assumed to be a daughter and had named Lieserl. “The only problem that would remain to be solved would be how to keep our Lieserl with us,” Einstein wrote. “I wouldn’t want to have to give her up.” But even as he pondered the complications that having a child out of wedlock might bring, he also seemed interested enough in being a father to advise Marić to nurse the child rather than give her cow’s milk, which he feared “might make her stupid.”
To make matters even more difficult, Einstein hadn’t told his own family about the pregnancy. His mother disapproved of Marić, and didn’t want her son to have anything to do with her.
In late January of 1902, Einstein moved to Bern, to await the job that he expected to get. A few days later, on Jan. 27, Marić gave birth to Lieserl in Novi Sad. Apparently the birth was difficult, and perhaps because of Marić’s exhaustion, it was her father who wrote to Einstein to give him the news. Einstein wrote back to Marić, full of excited-sounding questions. “Is she healthy, and does she cry properly? What are her eyes like? Which one of us does she more resemble?” He marveled that “I love her so much and don’t even know her yet!” He also noted: “She’s certainly able to cry already, but won’t know how to laugh until much later. Therein lies a profound truth.”
Despite his supposed interest, Einstein never went to meet his child.
But despite his supposed interest, Einstein never went to meet his child. Although the physicist sometimes could be cold and distant to those in his life, it’s also possible that he didn’t make the trip because he was running low on money while he awaited the patent office position. (As Isaacson notes, the day after he wrote to Marić, Einstein placed a newspaper advertisement offering to give private tutoring in mathematics and physics.)
After that, Lieserl’s story becomes murky. A few months after giving birth, Marić moved back to Zurich to wait for Einstein to get the job and fulfill his promise to marry her. But according to Isaacson, she didn’t bring Lieserl along with her. After Einstein finally married Marić in January 1903, she moved into his apartment in Bern, without the child. (“I am living a very pleasant cozy life with my wife,” Einstein wrote to a friend.)
Then, in August 1903, Marić learned that Lieserl—who was a little more than a year-and-a-half old at the time—was ill with scarlet fever. She took a train home to Novi Sad to see the child. About a month later, in September 1903, Einstein wrote to Marić, who was still in Serbia. He worried that the illness would have lasting after-effects on their daughter, and hoped that she recovered well. But he also asked: “How is Lieserl registered? We must take great care, lest difficulties arise for the child in the future.”
While in Serbia in the fall of 1903, Marić discovered that she was again pregnant—this time with the couple’s first son, Hans Albert. Einstein wrote to his wife that he was happy to be a father again, and that “I had already given some thought to whether I shouldn’t see to it that you get a new Lieserl.”
But what happened to the child that Einstein spoke of replacing? It’s possible that she didn’t survive her case of scarlet fever, a common childhood cause of death at the time, or was left with disabilities that led to her being placed in a home for disabled children. But researchers who’ve combed through surviving government records have been unable to find any documentation at all of her existence.
One theory, mentioned by Isaacson in his book, is that Marić gave the baby to her close friend Helen Kaufler Savić. A possible clue is a letter that the pregnant Marić wrote to Einstein in November 1901, suggesting to him that he should write to her friend. “We must now treat her very nicely,” Einstein’s lover explained. “She’ll have to help us in something important, after all.”
But as Michele Zackheim noted in her 1999 book “Einstein’s Daughter: The Search for Lieserl,” public records seem to undermine the theory that Savić adopted Lieserl. Instead, documents show that Savić, who married in 1900, had two daughters of her own--Julka, born in October 1901, and Zora, born in December 1902. Savić’s grandson Milan Popović, who edited a 2003 collection of Marić’s correspondence, gave more weight to a story that he heard from Serbian writer Mira Aleckovic, whom he says told him that her own grandmother recalled that Lieserl died in September 1903.
There’s also the possibility that Lieserl was adopted by someone else. In the 1930s, a con-woman named Grete Markstein approached Einstein’s friend Dr. Janos Plesch in London, claiming to be an illegitimate daughter of Einstein’s. Einstein, who by then lived in Princeton, N.J., reportedly saw Markstein as a swindler, but took the matter seriously enough to hire a private investigator. As Alice Calaprice, Daniel Kennefick, and Robert Schulman note in their book “An Einstein Encyclopedia,” the possibility that Einstein thought that Lieserl might have re-emerged to stalk him “cannot be dismissed.”
In any case, Einstein and Marić never seem to have mentioned Lieserl to anyone again, and their long-lost daughter remained hidden until long after they were both gone. But the revelation of her existence is part of what helps us today to see Einstein in a different light—not just as a scientific genius and intellectual hero, but as an imperfect human being who, like the rest of us, made his share of mistakes and harbored painful secrets deep within.