In a presentation titled “Returning, Remembering, Forgiving,” at a Cornell Hillel event on Wednesday, Prof. Roald Hoffmann, theoretical chemist, Cornell Professor Emeritus and 1981 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, spoke to Cornell students about his experience as a Holocaust survivor hiding from the Nazis during World War II.
Wednesday at sundown marked Holocaust Rememberance Day, an annual day dedicated to honoring the victims of the Nazi genocide. Hoffmann’s story allowed students to convene and reflect on the horrific history of the Holocaust.
During his talk, Hoffmann described the political and historical context of the changing territorial boundaries around Zolochiv, the town where he was born and grew up, which was then a part of Poland and today is part of Ukraine.
Hoffmann explained to a room of over 200 students how the Jewish population of Zolochiv, including his family, was persecuted after Germany invaded Poland in July 1941.
“The story that I tell you is in part a firsthand story, just a piece of it,” said Hoffmann, who is 84-years-old and was just five-years-old at the time of World War II. “But a larger part is what my mother told me and what I’ve reconstructed.”
Hoffmann and his parents were sent to a labor camp for 18 months before he and his mother were able to buy their way out of the camp. Hoffmann, his mother and several family members found a schoolteacher and his wife in a small Ukranian village who hid them in their home until June 1944. Hoffmann’s father, a trained engineer, stayed behind in an attempt to lead a revolt against the soldiers and free the other Jewish people in the labor camp, though the plan was betrayed and he was killed by the Nazis.
Seven of Hoffmann’s family members survived the Holocaust. Hoffmann said that his family had one of the largest surviving populations of any Jewish family in his town, though three of his grandparents and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins were killed by the Nazis.
“It’s only my mother’s perseverance in taking care of me that made me survive,” Hoffmann said.
While the majority of his talk centered around the Holocaust, Hoffmann explained that he could not talk about his birthplace without also mentioning the current Ukrainian crisis.
Hoffmann projected two strikingly similar photos of the wreckage of bombed cities: one of Warsaw, Poland in 1945 during World War II, and one of Mariupol, Ukraine in 2022.
“It’s impossible for me to show this to you without showing you what you’re going to see on the news tonight… and what you have seen for the past six weeks,” Hoffmann said. “We have war again [in Ukraine], terrible aggression ––When will we ever learn?”
Samantha Albert ’25, chair of cultural programming for Cornell Hillel, noted that Hoffmann’s story is one for everyone, not just members of Cornell Hillel and the Jewish community.
“Holocaust survivors’ stories are dwindling, so it’s really important to listen to those people who we are still able to talk to, and also to realize that most people on Cornell’s campus have amazing stories,” Albert said. “Anyone can learn something from [Prof. Hoffmann’s visit].”
Hoffmann ended his talk by imploring his audience to do the right thing, not only when things are good, but also in times of great danger and uncertainty, just as was done for his family.
“I’m telling you the story of survival because we had a savior, a good man and woman,” Hoffmann said. “But, how many hundreds and thousands of others did not have a savior?”
Hoffmann ended his presentation by posing a final question to the audience: “Who will speak for the dead?”