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Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann Reflects on the Holocaust During November Talk at City Tech

Deputy Consul General Mateusz Stasiek (left), Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York, with Roald Hoffmann.
Photo courtesy of the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York

Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann reflected on the events that attended the 1939 invasion and five-year occupation of Poland by the Nazis during World War II. Dr. Hoffmann’s talk at New York City College of Technology/CUNY on November 8, 2012, was hosted by the College’s Jewish Faculty & Staff Association (JFSA) and more than a dozen community-based co-sponsors in observance of the 74th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Hoffmann, who is Jewish and whose birth name was Roald Safran (Hoffmann is the surname adopted by his stepfather in the years after World War II), was born in 1937 in the small Polish town of Złoczów. Today a part of an independent Ukraine, the town is now called Zolochiv.

Hoffmann’s father was a civil engineer familiar with the local infrastructure, which made him of value to the Nazis. For a while the family was allowed to remain in its own home, but was later relocated to a labor camp, where many of the Nazi guards could be bribed. After being paid off, the guards allowed young Roald, age 5, his mother, two aunts and an uncle to escape internment in early 1943, after which they were hidden by a Ukrainian couple in the attic and storeroom of a nearby schoolhouse where the husband taught.

There they remained for 15 months. Their hideout was filled with schoolbooks, enabling Roald’s mother to teach him to read and write and to study maps during their long and cramped confinement. In his talk, Hoffmann recalled often looking out of the attic’s tiny window and watching other children, some of whom were Jewish and had been provided with false identities by local priests, play in the yard below.

Hoffmann’s father had remained behind in the labor camp where he was tortured and killed by the Nazis in June 1943 for his involvement in a plot to arm camp prisoners. Most of the rest of the family, with the exception of one grandmother and a few other relatives, died in the Holocaust.

Roald and other family members were first able to leave their hideout following the rousting of the Nazis by the Russian Army in June 1944. After war’s end and despite being Jewish, he attended a nearby Catholic school, where he sang in the choir, went to confession, and got his best grades in the study of the Catholic catechism.

“We survived,” Hoffman told his City Tech audience, “by chance, by political awareness, and through the unimaginably courageous acts of good people. Millions around us were passive; hundreds of thousands collaborated with the Nazis, participating actively in atrocities. But thousands of Ukrainians helped Jews to survive. Among those whose actions redeem one's faith in humanity was the good teacher Mikola Dyuk, who hid the five of us in that dark attic and little storeroom of his village schoolhouse for all those months.”  

Although his City Tech presentation was titled “Returning, Remembering, Forgiving,” Hoffmann repeatedly used the phrase “perhaps forgiving” throughout his talk. That usage was possibly explained when he asked, “Can one forgive what happened, the pain, the killing? Forgiveness comes from the soul, it is individual. I can only speak for myself. I can forgive. But only if I remember, and, importantly, if I see that the people in whose midst the killing took place, remember. If they do not, if their children are not told what happened, and taught that it must not happen again, to anyone, then my soul hardens.”

Following relocation to the United States in 1949, Hoffmann went on to graduate from New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, where he won a Westinghouse science scholarship. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia University and later his Master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard. He began teaching in the Department of Chemistry at Cornell in 1965 and has remained there ever since, becoming Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters Emeritus. In 1981, he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which he shared with Kenichi Fukui, for their theories, developed independently, concerning the course of chemical reactions. For the past 12 years, Hoffmann has hosted a monthly series called “Entertaining Science” at Manhattan’s Cornelia Street Café.

It would be 62 years before Hoffmann would return to the small town and tiny schoolhouse where he was born and in which he spent those 15 months in confinement. The schoolhouse had been refurbished, and upon first entering a space that once contained the storeroom in which he was hidden during the worst of times, he was amused to see that it had become a chemistry classroom with Mendeleyev's periodic table on the wall.

City Tech Professor Richard Hanley, English, was in the audience on November 8 and was especially impressed by “the calm, dispassionate way in which Hoffmann told the story of his family’s plight in Poland before and during WW II – a tone that made the tale he told both more chilling and more emotionally moving.” Professor Darrow Wood was equally “fascinated by so many interconnecting stories and histories.”

For Professor Jane Mushabac, English, who moderated a Q&A session following Hoffmann’s presentation, “His talk about returning to his village was evocative, poignant, clear and enlightening. Hoffmann’s humanity and brilliance are twin gifts and it was no surprise to learn that he has written five books of poetry and several plays.” And for Professor Mary Nilles, English, “Roald Hoffmann’s presentation was one of the most moving and impressive I have ever attended at the College. His message – to remember, to teach and hope to forgive – should be widely shared. The video of this presentation should be made available to everyone at City Tech.”

The Hoffmann presentation was organized by Dr. James Goldman, City Tech’s now-retired acting dean of continuing education, who has served as curator of the JFSA Distinguished Speakers Series since 1988. In addition to Goldman, other speakers included City Tech President Russell K. Hotzler and writer, theater director, Hoffmann friend and co-owner of Manhattan’s famed Cornelia Street Café Robin Hirsch, author of Last Dance at the Hotel Kempinski, who introduced the guest speaker. Also participating in the program was Deputy Consul General Mateusz Stasiek, Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York, who presented a letter from Consul General Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka saluting Hoffmann for his “intellectual achievements in the field of chemistry, for passing the memories of the Holocaust to younger generations, and for thoughtful contributions towards fostering Polish-American scientific and student exchanges.” Hoffmann also was recipient of JFSA’s 2012 Distinguished Humanitarian Award.


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