Alice Calaprice

Alice Calaprice: Deep Roots in Two Cultures

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YEREVAN/NOVATO, Calif. — Alice Calaprice was born in Berlin in 1941 to a German father and Armenian mother. Her grandfather Artasches Abeghian was one of the brilliant Armenian intellectuals of the first half of the 20th century. He received his doctorate in Germany and later taught at the universities of Berlin and Munich. Among other works, he published a German-Armenian grammar book and dictionary, a map of ancient and modern Armenia, a translation of Goethe into Armenian, and of Armenian writers into German. He was also a Member of Parliament of Armenia’s First Republic.

In 1951, Alice immigrated to the US with her mother and sister, Margit. She graduated in 1963 from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in sociology and minor in Near Eastern Studies. In 1970 she moved to Princeton, NJ, with her husband and two children. From 1978 to 2002, she worked as a senior editor at Princeton University Press and became an author and editor of several books. Now she lives in Novato, Calif.

Dear Alice, I first learned about you from your mother, the late Mrs. Rusan Abeghian (whose letters to me I treasure), who in 1996 sent me the first edition of your first book, The Quotable Einstein, which have been translated into about 25 languages! I was thrilled to read that book, which revealed many aspects of Albert Einstein the man. It later had three updated editions, plus you wrote a book on children’s letters to Einstein, a bibliography of his writings that you put into personal and historical context, and a biography for young adults, written with Trevor Lipscombe. Due to your knowledge of German as well as your writing and editing skills, you became one of the right people to help bring to light some previously unknown aspects of Einstein’s life, legacy, and personality. How much of the 42,000 Einstein-related documents has been presented to the general audience?

Artsvi, it’s great to be doing this interview with you. The first and last time we met was in 2003 in Princeton, which gave us a chance to talk about our families and maybe also about my longtime work with Einstein’s papers. It is hard to estimate how much of the archive made it into my books. The sheer number of documents in the archive reflects the complexity of his work, personality, and the times in which he lived. There are thousands more documents now than there were 43 years ago, when I prepared the original computerized index of the archive for which Prof. John Stachel laid the groundwork. In my books, I tried to impart some facets of Einstein’s remarkable life that could be found in the archive at the time my books were published. I am neither a physicist nor a historian of science, so my books were vetted by specialists but are written for a general audience. Einstein was not only a physicist but also a humanitarian, an astute political activist, and a man of many involvements and interests, such as philosophy, music, travel, and leisure-time activities like sailing. His name is known all over the world, but there are many myths about him that scholars have been attempting to correct.

And your Einstein work became An Einstein Encyclopedia, published in 2015 with two co-authors

Yes, I thought it would be useful to have a small, desktop encyclopedia that summarily covers the fundamentals of Einstein’s life. I had often wished I had such a reference at my disposal while doing research and spending hours to search for basic facts. Einstein scholars can now quickly find facts about his life, family, colleagues, works, activities, awards, interests, relationships, and so forth. Two Einstein-scholar friends — a historian and a physicist, both of whom had worked on The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein volumes — agreed to join me in this project. I had copyedited the fifteen volumes that have been published to date and thus had easy access to facts. Princeton University Press published the encyclopedia. I think we succeeded in presenting the most useful information, including reproductions of some interesting documents and photos from the archive. 

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You are an avid traveler and have visited about 45 countries. Which one stands out for you?

Thank you for asking about my favorite pastime! Traveling widely is, in my opinion, as important an educational pursuit as reading a wide variety of books. I’ve always been captivated by the foreign and the unknown, both in travel and in subject matter. Twenty-five years ago, I became especially curious about the remote parts of the world that many people don’t want to visit. I had also become more passionate about wildlife and conservation and wanted to combine the two interests. My first eco-trip was in 1995 to a part of Siberia called the Russian Far East; the organizers labeled it “In the Tracks of Siberia’s Great Cats.” Who could resist a trip to track tigers and Amur leopards! Our small group was the first non-scientist group to be allowed into that area after the Iron Curtain fell. We visited three nature preserves close to the coast during this trip. Today I can’t believe that I ventured out like that, but it’s still my most memorable trip. We didn’t see any wild cats, only some huge paw prints in the mud. One of the guides poured plaster on a track, made a mold, and later gave it to me. We also had to scale a cliff along the Sea of Japan because of high tides in the area we were exploring, and I think this might have been the most frightening experience in my adult life. I wrote a detailed journal about this trip, as well as subsequent trips to Botswana and to Mongolia and China, where I traveled with my adult children. Also memorable were Iran, the Amazon Basin in Peru, India — I went there twice — and Uzbekistan. You might remember that you had put me in touch with a friend of yours in Tashkent, whom I met there, musicologist Alexander Djumaev. I also loved Rwanda, Kenya, Botswana, and Namibia because of the chance to see wild animals. In Rwanda, just a few years ago, a friend and I, together with a small group of adventurers and porters, climbed a steep mountain, close to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in rainy weather. All this for the privilege of having a one-hour visit with a family of mountain gorillas! The porters carried rifles to protect us not from gorillas, but from Congolese guerrillas and poachers.

Alice, you have also been in your mother’s country — Armenia — when it was still a part of the Soviet empire… what about that trip?

Of course, that trip was memorable as well! I had heard about a group of Armenians who were given permission to go there in September 1986, and decided to join them, then my mother and sister decided to go as well. It’s a special experience to breathe, for the first time, the air that one’s ancestors had breathed for centuries. I had the same feeling later, when, in 1991 or 1992, I visited Berlin, where I myself had taken my first breath.

In Armenia, my mother was, of course, much more emotional than Margit and I. She was, once again, back in Yerevan, where she had spent several years of her childhood. In 1966, she had already made her first return visit. Some of her many relatives came to the hotel for a tearful reunion and to meet Margit and me. For the most part, we were not allowed to leave our group and guide, and we were required to spend nights at our hotel. Somehow, a cousin and her boyfriend managed to get permission (or maybe not!) to whisk us out of town to their favorite restaurant in a fairly distant rural area, farther away than we were, in principle, allowed to go.

We were able to sight-see within Yerevan on our own and got around by subway. We managed to visit a cousin, Mher Abeghyan, the artist and son of Manouk Abeghyan, who took us to the wing of a museum that contained many of his paintings. In another cousin’s small apartment, we enjoyed a lavish dinner and wonderful hospitality. In the rural areas, we visited the usual famed venues, including the poignant genocide memorial at Tsitsernakaberd and several of the beautiful churches for which Armenia is famous. My mother became most emotional, however, when we visited Tbilisi (Tiflis) in Georgia, where she was born and, as noted in her memoir, had spent the most joyful years of her early childhood. When she was about 7 years old, after my grandfather became a member of Parliament during the First Republic, her family moved to Yerevan. After that, her life became very chaotic, with emigration to Germany four years later, wartime, divorce, and then off to America with Margit and me.

Alice, although you were a child when you knew your maternal grandfather, what kind of memories do you have of Artasches Abeghian?

By the time I was born in Berlin during the war, my grandparents and mother had been settled there for almost 20 years and were assimilated into German life, but they were fervently hanging on to their Armenian culture as well. I know that my grandfather was intensely involved in Armenian activities, even though the Armenian community in Germany was small at the time. I didn’t know about some of his involvements until I read about them after my mother’s death. I know he was revered by the displaced Armenians who ended up in postwar Germany. We were generally introduced to them as his grandchildren, suggesting to us that it was an honor to be related to him.

I’m sorry to say I don’t remember much about my grandfather firsthand, since I’ve forgotten almost everything about our years in Germany, which for me were years of war and postwar experiences and losses. My remembered image of him is his bald head bending down, fountain pen in hand, looking at papers and books. Occasionally, he would put me on his lap and show me how to use a dictionary. My grandmother, Natasha, lived in his shadow, but I think she was his equal intellectually, being well educated, cosmopolitan, and a compulsive reader and storyteller. I believe both my grandparents spoke to us mostly in German, and we called them Oma and Opa, the words German children call their grandparents. We spoke German with my mother as well, and later English, so I never became fluent in Armenian. But we did learn the Armenian alphabet and learned to write simple sentences, and Margit also speaks the language better than I do.

During your youth, you were involved in Armenian community life. I remember some translations of Armenian tales from German into English in the American-Armenian press of the 1960s… It will be interesting to know about those activities.

Yes, after we came to America, we became part of the Armenian community. I joined the Armenian Youth Federation Juniors in San Francisco, and later the “seniors.” During my college years, I became an active member and held several positions as an officer, including AYF West Coast Council president. As a delegate, I attended national conventions on the East Coast and in this way got to know Armenian communities in other parts of America. I was also a camp counselor at Camp Hayastan in Massachusetts for two summers, where each counselor directed the activities of a group of children. Several of my fellow AYF members are still friends. But being half-German, I always had an identity problem, as the pressures to “be Armenian” were many, and sometimes hurtful.

As to the Armenian folktales: My grandfather had translated them from Armenian into German, and he probably published some of them in German newspapers. When I was still a child, my mother showed them to me. I read them, loved them, and decided to translate them from German into English. My mother suggested I submit them to the Armenian newspapers, and some were published a few years later. As an adult, I translated more stories and thought I might try to get them published in book form, but then I learned that one or two authors had already done so, and I gave up on the idea.

Do you have any plans for a new book and trip in this new year?

I don’t have any plans for another book, at least not about Einstein! The motivation to continue writing about him has disappeared by now, especially since I’ve moved away from my colleagues. I had been asked to co-author a book about the Armenian displaced persons and the DP camp in Germany after World War II, but I recently decided I wasn’t up to it as an author. I had already bought a few books on postwar displaced persons in Europe and became interested in the topic, so I offered to collaborate if I can be of help in some other way. I decided to dig into my own family history instead, as people of my age often do! Coincidentally, last year a German cousin informed me she found a boxful of old letters among the belongings of her deceased mother. Among them were letters from my mother, my Armenian grandmother, and my father to my aunt and to my German grandmother, from 1946 until we left Germany in 1951. Some of them were heart-wrenching but enlightening, answering some of my unanswered questions. I also learned that my father, whom I met only once as an adult, became a pacifist after the war. My mother’s diary from 1931 and 1932, while she was in Geneva as a young woman studying languages, was also in the box. All this material was written in German. I am thinking that this treasure trove will provide some good material for memoir-writing!

As to trips, who knows how this year will unfold? A friend and I had planned to go to Armenia last fall, but of course that became impossible because of the coronavirus. Maybe this year, big adventures will become possible again! I still feel up to it!

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