Einstein at summer camp

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(Host) While Vermont summers are short, summer memories can last a long time. In our series “Summer Times”, VPR commentators reflect on the importance of the past and recall some unforgetable summer experiences. Here’s commentator Madeleine Kunin, who met one of the greatest figures of the 20th century at summer camp.

(Kunin) On hot summer evenings in Forest Hills New York in the late 1940s, my mother would take me to what was generously called the roof garden of our six-story apartment house.

It was to the black-tarred roof without a plant in sight – that we carried our lounge chairs, gasping for a breath of air that might waft above the steamy sidewalks.

But it was like a garden to me then because I could stay up late and look at the stars.

Most summers, my mother would succeed in getting me and my brother away from the heat and out of the city. I remember my mother spending hours sewing nametags in my clothes, towels, sheets and blankets.

The first camp I went to was in Skillman, New Jersey, near Princeton, run by the Kaufman family who were dairy farmers. Whenever I now smell newly mowed hay, it brings me back to those summers when we played in the hayloft and jumped down from a pile of hay bales.

I only figured out later that all of the children there were refugees from war torn Europe, at the end of World War II.

Most of the parents, including my mother, spoke with an accent, an accent that all of us children wanted to shed.

The highlight of that summer was the announcement that we would get a special visit from a very important person. Who could it be?

It turned out to be Albert Einstein and his secretary. As he walked around talking to the children, the camp director pointed to my brother and me and said, “Here are two children from Switzerland.”

I think he said something like, “I’m happy to meet you.” I remember exactly how I felt when I shook his hand. I swore I would never wash it.

I was impressed by the long curls that hung over the back of his collar, and by his gentle manner.

Only years later did I really know who he was.

Why did he come to this small summer camp filled with refugee children? I surmise now that he gave a donation to the camp and identified with these children. After all, he was a refugee too.

The smell of newly cut hay in summer camp was such a contrast to that of the smell of the acrid hot tar roof, I was left with a yearning to repeat those summers on the farm some day somewhere.

It’s even possible that summer camp in New Jersey lead me to live almost a lifetime in Vermont.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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