Lansing at Large: Holocaust survivor, Nobel winner, speaks at Lansing

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“I am one of the last generation of survivors,” Roald Hoffman said. “I have got to talk about this. There are lessons in living, in ethics, for these young people in the behavior of the family that saved us, a story of people risking their lives. And a terrible story of an insane persecution.”


Professor Emeritus Dr. Roald Hoffman is the co-winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, a playwright and poet, the host of a 26-episode PBS series on chemistry, and, from 1939 to 1944, a young child surviving the Holocaust in Poland.


Hoffman spoke to ninth and tenth graders from Lansing High School on March 15 about his experiences between his birth and his ninth birthday.


“You will have to understand the politics first,” Hoffman told the students.
Hoffman’s mother was born in 1911 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hoffman was born in Poland in 1937. In the nine years afterward, they lived in the Soviet Union, the German Third Reich, and then the Soviet Union again, all without ever leaving their small village of Zloczow in what is now Ukraine.


“These changes did not take place peacefully,” Hoffman said. “These are bloodlands. This is not a peaceful, happy part of the world.”


His father was a civil engineer who built roads in and around their village. They lived with two other families in a three-story house near the center of town. Hoffman’s grandfather ran a store on the street level. The town of 11,000 people was about one-third Ukrainian, one-third Polish, and one-third Jewish.


“We were a well-integrated minority.”


When Adolph Hitler struck his deal with Joseph Stalin to invade and divide Poland in September 1939, Hoffman’s family ended up on the Russian side of the line.


“The Soviets were reasonably benevolent to the Jews,” Hoffman said. “It was not so good for the Poles and worse for the Ukrainians.”


The Soviet army began by arresting 700 of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, Hoffman said. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, and politicians were imprisoned in the castle above the town as “anti-Soviet agitators.”


The June 1941 invasion of Russia by Nazi Germany began with the assault on Russian-occupied Poland. Within a week, as German armies were nearing Zloczov, the Soviet troops killed all 700 of these prisoners and retreated.
The death of the Ukrainians and latent anti-Semitism led the Poles to welcome the Germans as liberators, and to begin collaborating with the Nazis, Hoffman said.


“Things became very difficult for the Jewish population.”


“The Nazis set into motion a plan based on their insane obsession about the Jews,” Hoffman said. “Behind the German troops, there were Einsatzgruppen. They set up in the castle above town.”


The Einsatzgruppen were mobile task forces of the Schutzstaffel, or SS, specially formed to begin the extermination of Jews in Poland.


“The police rounded up the Jews in town and herded them to the castle and machine-gunned them,” Hoffman said. “They killed only men. My grandfather, who ran the store in our house, was killed. His son Abram was shot and crawled out from under the dead and came back to town.”


“Our family remained in town until the end of 1942 when we were moved to the labor camp. These were three very difficult years.”


“No one was killed directly,” he said. “But there was bad food and disease – typhus and typhoid fever – and slave labor.”


“My father, as a civil engineer who had built the roads, was very valuable to the Austrian company hired to re-build the roads,” Hoffman said. “He had access in and out of the camp.”


“The guards were corrupt, sadistic, cruel, nice. They all could be bribed and the unit of bribery was a bottle of vodka and, beyond that, silver and gold. There were supposed to be no children. They were bribed to let me in. They could be bribed to leave camp but where would you go? We were a thousand miles from any safe place.”


Word began filtering into the labor camps about extermination camps.


“In 1942 and 1943, people began to plot an armed resistance. Arms came from my uncle who was a partisan fighter and my father, with his access, began smuggling grenades and handguns into the camp.”


The Jews in the camp began looking for Polish or Ukrainian families to hide them, preferably in a rural setting away from the police in town.


“We found a good Ukrainian schoolteacher to hide us and in January 1943, my mother and me, two uncles, and an aunt moved into the schoolhouse attic where we remained for 18 months, until June 1944.”


It was difficult for a 5-year-old boy to look out between the louvers in their only window to watch children playing in the recess yard behind the school. Hoffman’s mother played endless games of hangman and battleship with him and devised quizzes in geography.


His father was still working in the camp and supporting the resistance and, one day in June 1943, Hoffman and his mother learned that he had been betrayed, tortured, and killed.


“I was 6 years old. My mother cried and tried not to let me see her. We were told by a passer-by.”


They lived one winter in the attic and, for the second, moved downstairs to a storeroom. The family dug a hole beneath the floor and when German police or soldiers came to the school, they hid in the hole for hours at a time.


The village was liberated by the Soviets in 1944 and the family followed the army as they swept into Germany. They spent four years in refugee camps until they sailed for America in 1949.


Hoffman moved to Queens, went to school, learned English, attended Columbia University as an undergrad, and got his master’s degree and doctorate from Harvard. He came to Cornell University in 1965 and has remained here since.
His family remains in contact with the children of Mikola and Mariya Dyuk, the couple that hid them in their attic.


“We paid them with gold but that was not the reason they hid us. They were good people who hid us at great risk to their lives. They all would have been killed if we had been found.”


Nonetheless, Hoffman’s mother kept a roll of gold coins with her until the end of her life.


“I asked her why and she said ‘You never know.’ I would say ‘Mommy, this is America’ and she would say ‘You never know.’”

In Brief:

Softball, Baseball Sign-Ups Open
Sign-ups for baseball and softball are now open for players pre-kindergarten to fourth grade on the Lansing Recreation Department website, lansingrec.com. Registrations are also available for gymnastics and “Jump Around.”

Triphammer Arts Presents “The Sneetches” Family Concert
Triphammer Arts Inc. is pleased to announce a family concert featuring Dr. Seuss’ enduring story, The Sneetches, performed live at the CRS Barn Studio in Ithaca, April 14 at 3 p.m., with narration by Steven Stull and musical accompaniment performed by Rochester pianists Joseph Werner and Michael Landrum.


Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children and are available through Brown Paper Tickets, Triphammer.org, or at the door. Reservations are suggested.

Wild, Whimsical “Alice in Wonderland”
Running to Places (R2P) takes a running leap down the rabbit hole in “Alice in Wonderland Jr.,” a fast-paced, magical journey the whole family will enjoy. The show will be at R2P’s (temporary) Theatre at the Shops at Ithaca Mall, while R2P’s permanent home is under construction.


The show runs one weekend only: April 5 to 7, Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission; students and seniors $12, available online at runningtoplaces.org.

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