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Hanoch Gutfreund

Hanoch Gutfreund, an eminent Israeli theoretical physicist, is today Professor Emeritus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the academic director of the Albert Einstein Archives, deposited there. He also heads the Israel Science Foundation executive committee and is the Chairman of the Bloomfield Science Museum Scientific Committee and holds several other public functions.

Professor Gutfreund was born in 1935 in Poland, in Kraków. His parents graduated from the Jagiellonian University, his father was law, his mother had foreign languages. After graduation, Father started practicing as an attorney, mother took care of little Hanoch (Henryk). They went on vacation to Nowy Targ, where his grandparents had a company dealing in the production of fabrics and a textile store. However, the promising prospects for the family were put out by the war. When the German troops invaded Poland, Hanoch and his parents set off to the East, stopping in Lviv, from where the Russians took them to the Urals soon after. My father worked clearing the forest, and my mother collected moss to insulate a wooden hut. Later they were transported to Kazakhstan, from there Hanoch’s father joined the Tadeusz Kościuszko 1st Infantry Division and with it he went along the entire combat route to Berlin.
“My parents met again in post-war Krakow. Only then did the horrors of the Holocaust become tangible to them. My mother’s parents died in the camp in Płaszów, my father’s youngest sister and her aunt died in the gas chamber in Bełżec, and my grandmother was shot together with her brother-in-law in the Nowy Targ forest. Several post-war incidents of murdering Jews by Polish nationalists in Galicia shocked my father and my family decided to leave Poland forever”, recalls Prof. Gutfreund. First, they came to the American zone in Germany, lived in Augsburg for two years and at the end of 1948 they reached Israel, where the family settled permanently.

Professor Gutfreund is visiting Poland and has numerous contacts here. In 2007, he came to Poland with a delegation of 15 scientists from Israel. In addition to meetings in the Warsaw scientific community, he also visited Nowy Targ, where the Professor spent his holidays and where his grandparents lived. Local media reported that Prof. Gutfreund used beautiful Polish to describe the pre-war city, the coexistence of the Polish and Jewish communities.

He obtained his doctorate in theoretical physics in 1966 at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In the following years, he held various academic and administrative positions at this university, including the head of the Institute of Physics, the head of the Institute for Advanced Studies, the rector and the president. He was a co-initiator and co-founder of the Neural Computing Center.
His research interests included theoretical solid state physics, superconductivity mechanisms, organic conductivity and superconductivity, statistical physics, neural network theory, computational neuroscience and history of science. For many years, Professor Gutfreund has tirelessly nurtured and popularized the achievements of the creator of the theory of relativity. Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University under the direction of Prof. Gutfreund is gradually making it possible to access on the Internet another of the 80,000 documents that the brilliant physicist and his honorary rector gave to this university. In 2010, Albert Einstein’s handwritten dissertation on general relativity was publicly shown for the first time. The manuscript is densely written with mathematical formulas. The author has underlined part of the text, some fragments have been crossed out and rewritten. This treatise by Einstein laid the foundations for modern physics that made it possible to understand the universe, time and gravity. “The original speaks for itself like a work of art,” said Hanoch Gutfreund, curator of the exhibition, to AFP. – “Anyone can look over Einstein’s shoulder and learn about the next stages of his work. The comments he added on many pages are testimony to the scientist’s struggle with difficult mathematical calculations. Visitors can see how difficult this task was even for a genius like Einstein.

For many years, Professor Gutfreund has tirelessly nurtured and popularized the achievements of the creator of the theory of relativity. “The original speaks for itself like a work of art,” said Professor as a curator of the exhibition. – “Anyone can look over Einstein’s shoulder and learn about the next stages of his work. The comments he added on many pages are testimony to the scientist’s struggle with difficult mathematical calculations. Visitors can see how difficult this task was even for a genius like Einstein.

In 2012, 57 years after Einstein’s death, more of his documents were released. Some of them are so personal that archivists have long wondered whether to publish them. For example, 24 love letters written to his cousin, future wife, Elsa Einstein, with whom he had an affair before divorcing his first wife Mileva Maric. “When enough time passes, everything becomes more acceptable” – Prof. Gutfreund explained to journalists the final decision. – “Publication of archival content is not only to satisfy the curiosity of nosy people, but also to educate and become the subject of research by scientists”.
Among the archives published at that time were also letters from admirers and fans of Einstein. “I saw your picture in the newspaper. In my opinion, you should have a haircut”, wrote a 6-year-old girl about an unusual a physicist’s hairstyle.

In recent years, Prof. Gutfreund devotes the most attention to the theoretical thought of Albert Einstein. He has written several books on this subject. The latest of these, published in 2020, is “Einstein on Einstein: Autobiographical and Scientific Reflections”. It was co-written with Jürgen Renn and published by Princeton University Press. “Our discussions have led to four books we are co-authors. Among them, “Einstein on Einstein” can be considered a comprehensive summary of the ideas expressed in the previous three”, he explained.

As a professor of theoretical physics, for decades I had taught everything that Einstein had done, except for general relativity. But it was only after I ceased to be the rector of this university that I found time to examine the contents of the Albert Einstein Archives. It was then that I first read Einstein’s original 1905 work. It opened my eyes. These articles are worded quite differently from the textbooks I used to teach. Then it dawned on me that when we teach physics to students, we only tell them about the results. We ignore the struggles, debates, methods and failures that led to them. I believe that if I knew what I know today, my lectures would be a greater intellectual challenge for my students.

In his opinion, Einstein’s iconic status results from his genius and specific historical circumstances, in particular the growing role of mass media since the beginning of the 20th century. “Einstein became one of the first media stars of science at a time when the world was hungry for such celebrities. Shortly after the end of World War I in 1919, Einstein rose to fame when British astronomical expeditions confirmed his predictions of light from distant stars refracting through the Sun’s gravitational field. Suddenly it became clear, also to the wider public, that science is an international matter and that Einstein embodies this international, bridge-building function of science”, said Prof. Gutfreund in one of the discussions about this book.

On another occasion, he confessed that as a professor of theoretical physics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, for decades he had taught everything that Einstein had done, except for general relativity. But it was only after he ceased to be the rector of this university that he found time to examine the contents of the Albert Einstein Archives. It was then that he first read Einstein’s original 1905 work. “It opened my eyes. These articles are worded quite differently from the textbooks I used to teach. Then it dawned on me that when we teach physics to students, we only tell them about the results. We ignore the struggles, debates, methods and failures that led to them. I believe that if I knew what I know today, my lectures would be a greater intellectual challenge for my students”, he said at a lecture at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin.

Professor Gutfreund is visiting Poland and has numerous contacts here. In 2007, he came to Poland with a delegation of 15 scientists from Israel. In addition to meetings in the Warsaw scientific community, he also visited Nowy Targ, where the Professor spent his holidays and where his grandparents lived. Local media reported that Prof. Gutfreund used beautiful Polish to describe the pre-war city, the coexistence of the Polish and Jewish communities. “Were it not for this tragedy, maybe we would be neighbors”, he said. – “For my colleagues it is the first visit to Poland. There is Oświęcim on the way. To come only there is worse than not to come at all”.  In May 2014, at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, he gave a lecture on Polish threads in the biography of Albert Einstein. He told the audience about Einstein’s contacts with Polish colleagues: Leopold Infeld, Myron Mathisson and Ludwik Silberstein. This cooperation influenced the reception of the Einstein’s theory of relativity in Poland.
In November 2015, Prof. Gutfreund accepted the invitation of the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw and took part in the conference “100 years of general relativity”. He then spoke of a re-examination of the importance of Einstein’s theory of relativity. He also helped organize the exhibition of the correspondence of Maria Skłodowska-Curie and Albert Einstein, presented at the Science Picnic in 2015.
In September 2017, he participated in the celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the Holocaust of Jewish Residents of the Nowy Targ District. On the occasion of the 150th birthday of Maria Skłodowska-Curie in November 2017, he told the Polish media about her friendship and relations with Albert Einstein.