Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Doxerl and Johonzel

Feb 14, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



An iconic image of the 20th century depicts Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out in his variation of “Say cheese.” As a man so famous he stopped Fifth Avenue traffic in the same fashion as the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe, (who called him the sexiest man on earth,) he could afford such irreverence. However, the woman at whom he figuratively stuck out his tongue was a little known girl of his youth, the one who labored and loved by his side.

       Milos and Marija Maric viewed their daughter Mileva as possessing two disabilities: a severely displaced hip that made one leg three inches shorter than the other and a genius intellect. Although she had a dark Slavic beauty, they despaired of her marrying because of her ‘problems.’ These were daunting issues in 19th century Novi Sad (modern day Serbia). Still, Milos admired his daughter’s smarts and obtained special permission to enroll her in an all male high school. His labors paid off: her grade in physics was the highest ever awarded. A pre-feminist fighter, her dream was to be a physicist. By the time Mileva graduated from secondary school in 1894, the Austrian- Hungary Empire stood firm in its conviction to bar female students from university. Hence, when her scientific thirst remained unquenched her parents financed her educational aspirations and she left for Switzerland’s exclusive Zurich Polytechnic, the M.I.T. of Europe. 

          Mileva was only the fifth female to pass through the school’s venerated doors and it was here the twenty-two- year- old met the seventeen -year-old Albert Einstein, possessor of thick, curly hair and brown bedroom eyes.  It was not love at first sight, but it was a meeting of minds--akin to E meeting mc2. Albert was intrigued a girl could converse on his life’s passion: the realm of physics; Mileva was enthralled that Einstein, unlike her hometown macho males, was not threatened she passed the Matura (entrance exam) on her first try, even though it took him two.

For the first semester the two blossoming geniuses maintained a Platonic friendship: Mileva, who did not have a non-serious bone in her body, kept her eye on the prize of a diploma, while Albert was carrying the flame for Marie Winteler, from his native Ulm, who adoringly did his laundry. A year later Platonic gave way to passion,  and they embarked on a union fuelled by shared interests in music and math. Einstein’s friends were puzzled by his interest in the melancholy girl with the limp; her small circle of East European friends questioned her feelings for the boy with disheveled hair and mismatched socks. Albert brushed off such criticism, “Once you accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy.”

When separated they wrote letters in which he would address her as Doxerl (little doll) and she would lovingly respond to her Johonzel  (Johnnie.) For pillow talk they had electrodynamics and atomic kinetics. During a family vacation in Milan, Albert first showed his mother Pauline a photo of the woman he loved; she fell on her bed in tears when rather than seeing the lovely Marie Winteler as she expected, she was confronted with a dark-haired, brooding woman. Her mood did not improve when her son supplied details: Mileva was older, from the backwaters of the Balkans and, horror of horrors, a shiksa. In between sobs she admonished him, “If she gets a child, you’ll be in a pretty mess.” The twenty-two year old Albert, as fixed in his own romantic beliefs as he would be in his professional, brushed off Mutti’s agitated warning. He dashed off a poem in a letter, “Oh my! That Johnnie boy! So crazy with desire/While thinking of his Dollie/His pillow catches fire.” His next letter was of a more prosaic bent when he sent his lady an outline of his foot, requesting she knit him a pair of socks because his big toe always made holes in those from a store.

When Einstein graduated he accepted a position in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern which provided economic autonomy from his parents. In celebration he and Mileva enjoyed a rendezvous in Italy’s Lake Como district, shaped like a horseshoe, nestled in the lap of the Alps.  Perhaps something is in water as Franz Liszt conceived his daughter in Lake Como, as did  Einstein. When Mileva informed him  of her pregnancy it was Albert’s Big Bang moment: should he listen to Mutter or Mileva?  Eventually, unwilling to commit, Einstein ignored the pleading look in his girlfriend’s dark eyes and she returned to Novi Sad. In January 27, 1902, she gave birth to Lieserl and the absentee father wrote, “Is she healthy, and does she cry properly? Which one of us does she resemble? I love her so much and don’t even know her yet!” After this initial letter the baby vanished into the Balkan night, either given up for adoption or a victim of scarlet fever. Neither Mileva nor Albert mentioned her again, at least in any recorded source.

        The next year, after his father Hermann gave a deathbed blessing for their union, Albert asked for Mileva’s hand, a proposal based on both love and guilt: the pregnancy had forced her to leave school and had branded her with a scarlet letter. The January 6th wedding was a simple ceremony in the town hall in Bernand  a celebratory dinner at a local restaurant. What followed was the times which would one day be described as ‘the good old days.’ In 1904 Hans Albertwas born which helped mend the hole in Mileva’s heart from the loss of Liserl. On Sundays the proud papa could be seen in the streets of Bern pushing a stroller, pipe in mouth, notebook ever on the ready.

However, when the baby was asleep Albert and Mileva could return to the partnership of their student years at the prestigious Poly, and the nocturnal air was filled with talk of atoms, rather than any atomic love at that point. Albert said if he could only discover the single law that governs the universe he would be able to “read the mind of God.” An avid partner, Mileva worked alongside in his quest and in 1905 the merging of their minds bore fruit. It was to become known as Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis, (Year of Miracles,) one which was to prove the lowly patent clerk was on an intellectual par with Newton, Galileo, and Aristotle. He published five scientific papers that ushered in the birth of modern physics and irrevocably altered the course of history. The 20th century was born in those pages. He wrote of his collaboration with his brilliant wife, “How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on the relative motion to a victorious conclusion!” 

Sadly, history would never view them as an equal partnership.. When Helene, Mileva’s dearest friend, asked why she never affixed her name to the papers she replied, “We are ein Stein” (one stone.) But the nights no longer revolved solely around theories of relativity because a second son, Eduard, (Tete,) was born in 1910 in Zurich, where the family had relocated when Einstein became Herr Professor. Although the Missus labored into the night with her husband on his work, the responsibility of the children was hers alone. As the resident genius, he bore a Do Not Disturb Sign: one can imagine Mileva with  a finger permanently affixed to lip, silencing their children. “Shhh…Daddy’s working on unlocking the secrets of the cosmos.” Although Mileva was content to dissolve into Albert’s ever lengthening shadow, she still experienced heartache when the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to the husband and wife team, Pierre and Marie Curie.

   Mileva’s Annus Horribilis coincided with the start of World War I-and lasted as long- when Einstein accepted a position in the University of Berlin. Mileva was opposed to relocating because the Germans looked down on ethnic Serbians, and she suspected her husband harbored romantic notions for his first cousin Elsa Lowenthal (nee’ Einstein,) daughter of Pauline’s sister. She proved as astute in this observation as she had been in her scientific theories.  The divorced mother of Ilse and Margot was the polar opposite of Mileva: blonde, blue-eyed, Jewish. Moreover, unlike Mileva who only cared about cerebral affairs, Elsa was so vain she refused to wear glasses. At a dinner party she had started eating a flower arrangement, mistaking it for salad. She was nevertheless clever  enough to understand the cliché ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,’ and she prepared Einstein’s favorite goosecrackle. When he returned home he wrote his cousin/mistress, “Mileva is an unfriendly humorless creature who has nothing from life herself and smothers the joy in life of others through her mere presence malocchio!” (evil eye!)

       When the  young  Albert was two and a half his sister Maja was born. He had been expecting some kind of toy and when he saw the baby he expressed his dissatisfaction she did not come with wheels. The adult Albert was also now dissatisfied his wife no longer had the ‘wheels’ he required. The flame of his earlier passion for Doxerl had been extinguished. Einstein felt like he was a rope engaged in a tug-of-war  between duty to his sons and his carnal cravings. His later quote indicated which side he would land on: “And the moral of the story (Which one hardly ever discusses/) Is that the upper half plans and thinks/ While the lower half determines our fate.”

 He drew up an agreement which contained the stipulations for the couple remaining together for the sake of Hans Albert and Eduard. It was as cold as a mathematical equation. “A. You will see to it (1) that my clothes and linen are kept in order, (2) that I am served three regular meals a day in my room. B. You will renounce all personal relations with me, except when these are required to keep up social appearances. You will expect no affection from me…You must leave my bedroom or study at once without protesting when I ask you too.” From the document it is apparent  that emotionally Albert was no Einstein. He had once famously remarked, “God does not play dice with the universe;” however, he did just that with his wife. Mileva’s response to the misogynistic manifesto was a nervous breakdown which required hospitalization. When she recovered she realized that although she desperately wanted an intact family she still had enough vestige of pride from her years at the Poly not to submit to life as an unglorified maid. Einstein once again ignored the pleading look in his wife’s dark eyes to rekindle his earlier love and she returned to Zurich, sons in tow.

On Valentine’s Day, 1919 the Einsteins were divorced, and that same year Albert made his first cousin his second wife. Mileva, convinced the theories they had worked on would get the recognition they deserved, wisely demanded that her divorce settlement include earnings from any future Nobel Prize, which he garnered three years later. The wild-haired physicist, adorned with laurel, made no mention his ex had helped discover relativity. Not all of his learning nor liberalism prevented him from making his mate  an appendage to his own identity.

     The Jewish scientist  became a target of the Nazis and in 1933 he and Elsa and her two daughters immigrated to the United States where he became the wild-haired, sock-shunning Princeton professor who wept that his mathematical equation had led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Despite serial infidelities, the Einsteins remained married until Elsa’s death. He later quipped that he was doing well considering he had survived two World Wars and two wives. However, rather than castigate himself for his roving eye he immersed in self-pity, “I am a completely isolated man and though everybody knows me, there are very few people who really know me.” He also commented to a friend that he admired his father because the man had stayed with the same woman his entire life-“a project in which I grossly failed twice.” The great man could see past space and time, but had limited insight into his own heart.

Seven years later Hans Albert followed his estranged father’s footsteps and served as a Professor at Berkeley, but the two had minimal contact. This was not, as Einstein believed, because his ex-wife had poisoned the children against him. Rather, as Hans Albert bitterly explained, “The only scientific project my father ever gave up on was me.”

      While Albert was forever feted, Mileva retreated into obscurity, poverty and despair. Her life in Zurich was a never ending quest to care for Eduard, whose brilliant mind was blindsided by schizophrenia. She kept him at home, despite violent outbursts; when she passed away in 1948 he was committed to the Burgholzli Psychiatric Institute, where he remained till his death. Albert, who had not seen Eduard for thirty years, lamented the wasted potential of his brilliant son, isolated from any loved one after his mother’s death. He wrote it would have been preferable had Tete never been born.

           We will never know how much how much input Mileva had in Einstein’s opus magnum. But what we do know is it was fashioned from the days when Albert was a young man in love-in the days of Doxerla and Johonzel.