Russian Dolls: The Polianowski Sisters’ Memoirs on Albert Einstein and Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ann Lazarsfeld-Jensen


In the 1970’s two Russian sisters wrote their memoirs of working with Albert Einstein and Ludwig Wittgenstein in long essays published in the trans Atlantic literary journal, Encounter.  The intimacy of their experience with both men conflicts with the public image of misogynists given to callous expressions of their prejudice. The Polianowski sisters, Esther and Fania, had suffered the indignities of being born female at the fin de siecle despite the progressive attitude to the education of women in the Ukraine. They were cynical but tolerant of sexual discrimination perhaps because their lives had been torn apart by the greater terror of anti-Semitism that had driven them across Europe. It was their Jewish identity and suffering that inspired some significant intellectuals to befriend them including Dr Redcliffe Salaman, Frances Cornford and Shlomo Bardin, and brought them into the circle of the scholars they married.  That they had independently escaped and survived inspired awe even in a man like Einstein. The Polianowski women were included in academic circles at Cambridge University between the wars, and they found meaningful work teaching Russian, and married professors Myer Salaman and Roy Pascal.  Using a comparative historical approach to the life and writing of Esther Salaman and Fania Pascal, this article demonstrates that Jewish identity moderated gender bias among significant intellectuals in the 20th century giving marginalised women a measure of opportunity. However, it was limited opportunity. The Polianowski women did not achieve the careers they respectively planned in physics and philosophy, and their contribution as writers is not well recognised.

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