Updated: We Are Not Alone

Published with Permission

Written by Katharine Trauger


What would it be like to be the mother of one of the world’s greatest thinkers?

First, you live an uneventful life in pre-Nazi Germany, married to Herman, a mattress salesman. You, Pauline, stay busy setting up household repeatedly, as your husband’s businesses often change. He settles into electrochemical manufacturing and you move again, after your son is born.

Nothing about this birth or your heritage foreshadows your son’s greatness. In fact, your family worries that he might be slow-witted. When his sister, born two years later, passes him in speech skills, you join the others’ alarm.

Eventually he talks, hesitantly, and you learn to accept life with an odd child who has his own timetable. During the “why” stage of development, one of his favorite questions is, “Why do we hurry?” He does everything slowly and people notice.

When his Uncle Jake brings your son a compass to entertain him during a childhood illness, it fills him with questions, even keeping him—and you—awake at night pondering invisible forces. He is five and admires all gadgets, seeming to have inherited his daddy’s skills, and enjoys jigsaw puzzles, mechanical toys, and card towers. You decide to trust his slowness does not come from low intelligence.

At age six, he receives beginner violin lessons, a gift that grows into a comfort and joy for him, a relief valve, and an avenue for the flow of ideas that he uses for the rest of his life.

You and your husband, secular Jews, place your son in a Catholic private grade school. You discover he dislikes organized schooling very much, and would rather spend time writing songs for his violin, or building models and mechanical contraptions.

His teachers consider him a difficult student. He questions the necessity of having teachers, at all, preferring the time he spends at home learning from his daddy’s mechanical and engineering friends.

He enters Germany’s collective school system at age ten and chafes within the system. Feeling motivated only by fear or force, he adopts distrust for authority in this unhappy place. His challenge of the status quo grows deeper. His grades are unimpressive.

To lure your son into learning, your husband’s friend, Max, tries high level textbooks, complete with weekly assignments. At last, the dormant intellectual pathways open and his rightful education begins, at home, in his spare time, after school.

Your son devours Euclid’s Elements and dubs it “that holy little geometry book.” He actually reads, understands, and enjoys the works of Kant. How your heart must love the old friend for making such improvements in your precious firstborn! This new stimulus ushers in a deeply religious time of your son’s life. He expresses himself by composing and playing on his violin, little songs of worship to God.

It was bound to happen—your husband’s business fails, due to the advancement of electrical technology. You must move again, this time to Italy, and with great apprehension, you leave your son behind to finish his education.

He is miserable, separated from his beloved family, fearing military enlistment, and dreading the environment of collective school, where teachers believe he will not amount to anything. He fills the days recalling textbooks borrowed from his friends and meditating on what frozen light would look like. At this time, he writes his first scientific paper on magnetism.

Finally, he cannot bear his life in Germany. At age fifteen, he flees to join his family abroad.

How shocked you are to see him on your doorstep, a dropout and draft evader! Your worries increase until he tests high enough in math and physics to gain admission to a Swiss university. His years of university study are a joy mixed with the old school troubles. Some of the brightest minds on earth are his music, hiking, and sailing friends. Because of cutting class to study on his own in his apartment, though, he finds few friends among the faculty.

One even prevents his employment after graduation.

Your husband is bankrupt. Your son has a reputation as unemployable. Anti-Semitism is mounting.

Finally, your son finds a small job that leaves him time to analyze his favorite topic—light. He publishes four papers on such subjects as the existence of atoms, and submits his doctoral paper. At first, the world ignores your son, but after one famous physicist notices him, the invitations to lecture come, and he rises to popularity.

He dreams of receiving a Nobel Prize.

Now famous, he suffers a painful blow—one of his colleagues steals his newest discoveries and receives credit for publishing them. This action tests his long-held pacifist beliefs, but he overcomes his bitterness.

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