WHAT JEWISH HISTORY FORGOT: Famous Jews And Their Pen Pals

by Marnie Macauley April 25, 2018


einsteinRemember when becoming pen pals was a major way to reach out, meet and form fascinating relationships with people who lived half a country – or half a world away?  Did you know that Ann Frank had a U.S. pen pal, or that Albert Einstein was as much a humanitarian as he was a scientist? Let’s look at some of the more fascinating “alliances” made by MOTs – and others.


A teacher started it all.  Birdie Mathews taught for years at the Danville Community School, near Burlington. During vacations overseas, she saw the benefit of connecting students with pen pals abroad.

In 1940, one student, Juanita Wagner, age 10, wrote a letter, detailing her life on the family farm, and posted it to an address in Amsterdam. The recipient was a young Anne Frank.

Juanita’s letter prompted two replies from both Anne and her sister Margot (who wrote to Juanita’s sister Betty Ann). The letters were in English. No doubt Otto Frank translated. Anne also included a photo.

Anne’s letter was dated April 29, less than two weeks prior to the Dutch surrender to the Nazis, though there was no talk of the war in her correspondence.

“It was such a special joy as a child to have the experience of receiving a letter from overseas,” Betty Ann recalled years later.

The Iowa sisters wrote back but never again received answers from Anne or Margot.

After the war, Betty Ann, now a teacher herself, once again wrote. Otto Frank, in a long, hand-written letter described the now legendary story of the girls’ fate.

“When I received the letter, I shed tears,” Betty Ann recalled. “The next day I took it with me to school and read [it] to my students. I wanted them to realize how fortunate they were to be in America during World War II.”

For more information about Iowa’s involvement in WW11, go to: medium.com/iowa-history/anne-franks-iowa-pen-pal-and-other-stories-from-world-war-ii-83e008e03bd9


If ever there was an odd pairing, it had to be between the incomparable, incorrigible and unconventional Jewish comedian and the anti-Semitic T.S. Eliot, author of “The Waste Land.” The letters were written between 1961 and 1964.

Perhaps Groucho couldn’t resist the challenge or the opportunity to unleash his rancorous humor when he received a surprising missive from Eliot for a headshot of the comedian.

Groucho obliged and received another note from the poet asking for a photo of Groucho with a mustache and holding a cigar. Groucho again obliged. Eliot then wrote a thank you.

“This is to let you know that your portrait has arrived and has given me great joy and will soon appear in its frame on my wall with other famous friends such as W.B. Yeats and Paul Valery.”

Groucho was then off and running, pushing his own Jewishness, and punching holes in the Anglophile’s pomposity given the poet’s American roots.

Excerpted from Groucho’s letter: “Dear Tom…I think I read somewhere that your first name is the same as Tom Gibbons’, a prizefighter who once lived in St Paul.”

He may have feigned ignorance of the poet’s known information: “My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be.”

He calls him an “early American, (I don’t mean that you are an old piece of furniture, but you are a fugitive from St Louis). The name Tom fits many things. There was once a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. All male cats are named Tom—unless they have been fixed.”

In 1962, they finally met for dinner in London. It was one of the great dining disasters in history. In person, the two fizzled. “There were awkward lulls in the conversation,” according to Anna Knoebel at The Outlet. “Neither man was inclined to discuss his own work, while the other was eager to praise it. They stopped writing shortly thereafter.”

Groucho’s famous quip: “I have had a perfectly wonderful evening,” he once said to a host, “but this wasn’t it” may well have been said of the dinner. And so ended the pen pals.


“Professor Einstein is not a mere mathematical mind. He is a living being, sympathetic with all human advance… and he hates race prejudice because as a Jew he knows what it is.”

We all know of Albert Einstein’s legacy in science. His very name is used in popular speech to mean “genius.” What is less known is his commitment to human rights, in an era where such views were not the norm. Among many examples, Einstein and Freud wrote to each other about human nature, violence and peace.

Forgotten as well, was his friendship with the African-American singer, actor, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. He also wrote to a small girl in South Africa, encouraging her not to let gender stop her from her scientific aspirations.

While certainly his experience with anti-Semitism furthered his beliefs, his early correspondence on justice pre-dates the war. One superb example is his correspondence, starting in 1931, with early civil rights legend W.E.B. Du Bois, who requested a piece from Einstein to the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which Du Bois had co-founded 1909, 20 years after receiving a PhD. from Harvard, the first African-American to do so.

The letter from Du Bois, dated October 14, 1931, was originally written in German as Einstein was living in Berlin as well as Du Bois who was in Germany as a graduate student.

Excerpted: “Sir: I am taking the liberty of sending you some copies of THE CRISIS magazine. THE CRISIS is published by American Negroes in defense of the citizenship rights of 12 million people descended from the former slaves of this country. We have just reached our 21st birthday. I am writing to ask if in the midst of your busy life you could find time to write us a word about the evil of race prejudice in the world. A short statement from you on this subject would help us greatly in our continuing fight for freedom. I should greatly appreciate word from you. Very sincerely yours, W. E. B. Du Bois.”

The 51-year-old Einstein answered within two weeks.

“My Dear Sir! Please find enclosed a short contribution for your newspaper. Because of my excessive workload I could not send a longer explanation.

With Distinguished respect, Albert Einstein’s Essay:

“It seems to be a universal fact that minorities, especially when their Individuals are recognizable because of physical differences, are treated by majorities among whom they live as an inferior class. The tragic part of such a fate, however, lies not only in the automatically realized disadvantage suffered by these minorities in economic and social relations, but also in the fact that those who meet such treatment themselves for the most part acquiesce in the prejudiced estimate because of the suggestive influence of the majority, and come to regard people like themselves as inferior. This second and more important aspect of the evil can be met through closer union and conscious educational enlightenment among the minority, and so emancipation of the soul of the minority can be attained. The determined effort of the American Negroes in this direction deserves every recognition and assistance.”


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