Holocaust Survivor, Stuyvesant Graduate, and Nobel Prize Winner

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By The Photo Department

When I asked Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, for his advice regarding Stuyvesant, he told me something I never would have expected to hear from a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry. He said, “Take every opportunity to take a non-science course [...] You come to the sciences as it is, naturally, but the chance to take a course in poetry, or anthropology, or a foreign language is not going to come your way again easily because you’ll be caught up in real life and in a profession.”

Looking at Hoffmann’s past will give us a clue for understanding his perspective. Hoffmann, whose name was Roald Safran at the time, was born in Zloskow, Poland in 1937, two years before Germany invaded Poland. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and occupied his town, his family was transferred to the Lackie labor camp. He and his mother escaped to a friendly Ukrainian family in 1942. They hid Hoffmann and his mother in the schoolhouse attic where one of the family members taught.

Hoffmann explained the lesson that he learned from this generous family’s help: “It is very easy to make moral choices in peacetimes, but in a time of war, that family that saved us. They risked their lives to help five people in an attic in a schoolhouse, and they were a family of five themselves, the risks that they took. We paid them, but that’s not why they saved us— they could have lost their lives.”

Hoffmann’s father, Hillel Safran, stayed in the Lackie labor camp and led an attempt to break out. He was a civil engineer who had built bridges. This gave him access in and out of the camp and allowed him to smuggle weapons into the camp in an attempt to break out. Safran died during World War II.

The Soviet army freed Hoffmann and his mother in 1944. From hiding, they followed the Soviet army into western Poland and went through refugee camps in Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany, ultimately ending up in Munich in 1948.

All the time while talking about the Holocaust and World War II, Hoffmann maintained his calm and kind presence, never raising his voice or expressing any bitterness.

Hoffmann disagrees with the popular belief that surviving something like the Holocaust makes you a better human being. He elaborated, “That is a romantic notion, that suffering improves you. I don’t think that there is any evidence for this. All I can tell you from observing the behavior of my aunts and uncles and others who survived is they were normal human beings, and they were no better than other people. They were subject to all the usual foibles and failings that people have.”

It was through Hoffmann’s perseverance that he was able to live a fulfilling life filled with notable achievements. Hoffmann migrated to New York City with his mother in 1949 on the Ernie Pyle from Munich, Germany when he was 11 years old. Hoffmann moved all throughout New York and ultimately ended up in Jackson Heights. He recounted, “We first moved to Ridgewood in the corner of Queens and Brooklyn. Then we moved to the old Williamsburg before Williamsburg became gentrified. Then we moved up in the world to Queens again to Woodside and Jackson Heights.” He attended PS 93 in Queens, then P.S. 60 in Brooklyn, and finally came to Stuyvesant for high school.

When Hoffmann moved to America at age 11, he knew very little English. In fact, English became his sixth language. Hoffmann’s first two languages were Polish and Yiddish. He also knew German, Ukrainian, and Hebrew before moving to America. Hoffmann explained that there was no other option but to keep learning new languages and adjusting to new cultures. He said, “Americans have trouble understanding this, but my experience is not just because I am smart, but because we were refugees, and when we went from one country to another one you were put through a school, and nobody asked you what language you spoke. You did the local language, and you learned it.”

Hoffmann, just like students today, had to take a specific test to get into Stuyvesant. However, in Hoffmann’s time, only three specialized high schools existed: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. At the time, Stuyvesant was an all-boys school where the majority were Jewish. Despite the difference between the ethnic makeup of Stuyvesant in the 1950s and today, Hoffman thinks that not much has changed. “In my time it was 70 percent first or second generation Jewish-American immigrants, and today it is 60 percent plus Asian-American immigrants. You know, my mother wanted me to be a doctor. And that child of the local Korean grocer in Manhattan near my sister’s house who goes to Stuyvesant, their parents want them to be a doctor.”

Other things have not changed, like the large number of Advanced Placement (AP) courses offered and students’ desire to learn. Hoffmann remembered, “I think I never felt as much of a concentration of people wanting to know as I did [as] among those 900 boys in my graduation class. It was a wonderful experience. I have friends from that time who I remain friends [with].” Hoffmann took AP classes in math, physics, biology, and English. However, during Hoffmann’s Stuyvesant career, he was not the best science student. He preferred the humanities, like history and English. His predilection is evident in his extracurriculars: Hoffmann was in the history club, the United Nations club, and on the staff of The Caliper. Hoffmann’s favorite teacher was his English teacher, Mrs. Sara Brodie.

Hoffmann credits his experience on The Caliper, and at Stuyvesant generally, with teaching him how to write. He advises all Stuyvesant students to take writing courses and learn how to write clearly even if they are interested in the STEM fields. He explained that without a solid basis for writing, students will be unable to explain their scientific research.

In addition to enjoying many of the social-science related activities Stuyvesant offered, Hoffmann also entered and won the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, now known as the Regeneron Science Talent Search. His research focused on a bubble chamber, a then modern piece of physics equipment. Hoffmann did know that he was interested in chemistry during high-school, but he did not take AP Chemistry because a weak teacher taught the class.

Hoffman attended Columbia College after Stuyvesant as a pre-med, per his parents’ demand. However, the humanities continued to interest Hoffmann in college. He described, “If you had asked me what I would really like to do if I didn’t have to think about getting a job or a career, I would have said at the end of college that I wanted to do art history. But that would have killed my parents. That was not in their idea of what you should do.”

But chemistry was good enough for them. He was exposed to chemistry in some pre-med requirements and summer research. And ultimately, it was good enough for him too.

He ultimately won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1981, along with the late Kenichi Fukui. Hoffmann won for his research combining quantum mechanics with chemistry. He worked with R.B Woodward, an organic chemist. He described his conclusions saying, “We understood why certain reactions went easily. It sounds like numerology, but it comes from physics, which has to do with the molecular orbitals, which are just the places the electrons move and their sort of wave-like properties.”

After explaining these complicated and revolutionary ideas, Hoffmann reflected on the advice that got him to where he is today: “There is about one percent of the smart people I know [who] get by on brains alone. Ninety-nine percent [of them] get along by telling of their work clearly and comprehensively. They always have to explain their work. There’s no way—whether it’s a scientific research article or a report to your boss in industry—to do this without writing clearly. So, writing is very important.”

He added, “just to have fun” and “enjoy what you are doing.” That seems to have worked for him.