Einstein on the run: how the world’s greatest scientist hid from Nazis in a Norfolk hut
In September of 1933, a modest cabin on a secluded heath in Norfolk unexpectedly became one of the most significant hiding places in the world.
One hundred years later, the seldom shared account of Albert Einstein’s three-week stay in a secluded heathland cabin, hiding from Nazi killers, has been transformed into a unique form of documentary drama.
Using Einstein’s own words, Netflix’s Einstein and the Bomb will shine a light on how the celebrated German Jewish scientist’s brief sojourn on Roughton Heath came at a crossroads in his life – and, consequently, changed the course of history.
“It was only as we looked closer that we realised quite what a seismic moment in his life it was,” said the screenwriter Philip Ralph, a “verbatim specialist” who used only Einstein’s actual speeches, letters and interviews to script the theoretical physicist’s dialogue.
“What my research revealed was that it was, in numerous aspects, the pivotal moment in Einstein’s life.”
At that time, Einstein was considered the top enemy in Germany. In May 1933, a pamphlet titled “Jews Are Watching You” accused Einstein of spreading false and damaging information about Adolf Hitler. The pamphlet also included a picture of Einstein with the words “Not yet hanged” underneath.
In September, the Nazis offered a reward of at least £1,000 for the murder of Jewish philosopher Theodor Lessing in Czechoslovakia, following his assassination by German secret agents. The Nazis had already committed theft by taking Einstein’s savings, raiding his summerhouse, and ransacking his Berlin apartment, as well as taking his violin.
The following day, Einstein finally gave in to his wife Elsa’s requests to leave their vacation home in Ostend, Belgium and escape to England by boat. He knew he would never return to Europe.
Ralph stated that before this moment, Einstein was a strong supporter of peace and non-violence. However, after three weeks, he delivered a speech to a large audience where he acknowledged the threat to European civilization and the need to combat it.
In 1939, he became concerned about the possibility of the Nazis obtaining a nuclear bomb before the United States, and therefore successfully urged President Franklin Roosevelt to speed up the development of their own nuclear weapon. This event was recently portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s popular movie Oppenheimer.
During his time on a secluded heath, Einstein realized that he needed to use his influence to speak out against the Nazi regime and urge world leaders to take action. According to Ralph, this shift in his thinking occurred during a three-week period in Norfolk and motivated him to sign the letter to Roosevelt, earning the title “Einstein and the Bomb.”
The tiny Norfolk cabin was owned by a reliable friend, Oliver Locker-Lampson, a Conservative MP who was against fascism and also a naval commander during World War I. He kindly offered Einstein shelter and protection in the cabin.
In a previous instance, Locker-Lampson brought attention to Einstein’s predicament in parliament and proposed a private member’s bill, which unfortunately did not succeed, to broaden citizenship opportunities for Jews who were living outside of the British empire.
In order to bring awareness to Einstein’s predicament, Locker-Lampson surprisingly invited members of the media to his hidden location and permitted them to conduct interviews and take photos of the renowned Nobel laureate.
A journalist from the Observer was shocked by the press call, as Einstein’s safety was at risk. The newspaper’s diarist wrote on September 17, 1933, that England was not a safe place for Einstein to hide from Nazi persecution. His wooden hut was even featured in the papers with details of its location, and the Cromer Council was discussing giving him an official address. It seemed that Germany was turning a blind eye to his whereabouts.
Einstein’s acceptance of a speaking engagement at the Royal Albert Hall, where tickets were sold to raise funds for Jewish academic refugees from Germany, was met with criticism from the Daily Mail. The editorial expressed sympathy for the German Jews and urged Einstein to refrain from agitating against the Nazi regime in the country.
Two days after delivering his famous speech, urging all countries to oppose the forces that jeopardize intellectual and personal freedom, which our ancestors fought hard for, Einstein departed for the US to work at the newly established Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Elsa was able to join him on the journey and he spent the remainder of his life in exile, using his influence to write letters of recommendation for Jewish refugees seeking visas to enter the US and playing a key role in establishing the world’s first organization dedicated to helping refugees, the International Rescue Committee.