A Cornell professor and Holocaust survivor shared his story of survival during World War II in a ceremony on Wednesday that commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The ceremony, which featured the lighting of six candles to remember the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, was hosted by Cornell Jewish Studies and the Hillel Cultural Programming Committee.
Roald Hoffmann, the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Emeritus and recipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, recounted how his family was captured by the Nazis, went into hiding and eventually regained freedom in a period of three years.
“First of all, I am here,” Hoffmann said, pointing out that it is already remarkable that he survived the Holocaust and could be present for the Cornell event.
Born to a Polish Jewish family in 1937, Hoffmann described his journey from growing up in the bloodlands of Nazi-occupied Poland to becoming a Harvard graduate and a world-renowned chemist.
He said that throughout his climb up the academic ladder, “the experience of survival stayed with me.”
Most of what Hoffmann remembers from the wartime was recounted to him by his mother, he said. The story begins in 1942, when his family was sent to a labor camp — children were not permitted in the Nazi labor camps, but the guards were bribed and the young Hoffmann was allowed to join his family.
“This was a testament to an incredible set of circumstances,” Hoffmann said. “We witnessed fellow Jews being shipped off to death camps — the Nazis even made them buy their own train tickets.”
While many others were sent to their deaths in extermination camps, the Hoffmann family was taken into hiding by the Polish Dyuk family. Hoffmann said he spent 15 months in an attic with only a small window to look out of; food and newspapers were delivered to him and his family in pails.
“The climate in Poland was like winter in Ithaca,” Hoffmann said. “Nevertheless, we survived.”
During the most dangerous times, the Hoffmanns moved from the attic to a first-floor storage room where they spent countless hours hiding under planks.
“Many years later, I returned to this hideout with my children, and coincidentally, it was turned into a chemistry classroom with a periodic table on the wall,” Hoffmann said.
The professor and his family were freed in 1944 “by the forces of evil, by the Red Army no less — the world is complicated,” according to Hoffmann.
Following Hoffmann’s story, Prof. Daniel Schwarz, english literature, author of Imagining the Holocaust, shared his own experience in Holocaust education.
“I don’t teach the Holocaust primarily as a historical phenomenon,” Schwarz explained. “Through the use of memoirs and diaries, I try to recreate what it feels like to have lived through that period.”
Hoffmann, who concurred with Schwarz, also emphasized the importance of imagining the Holocaust through speaking, reading and writing.
“What about the millions of people who did not survive, who did not have saviors, who will speak for them — who will speak for the dead?” he asked.