City Tech to commemorate `Kristallnacht’

October 2, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Roald Hoffmann, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and escapee from a Nazi labor camp in Poland, will speak on “Returning, Remembering, Forgiving,” at New York City College of Technology (City Tech) on Thursday, November 8, 12:45 p.m., in the Atrium Amphitheater, 300 Jay St., Downtown Brooklyn.

The public is invited to this free event. It is being produced by City Tech’s Jewish Faculty & Staff Association (JFSA) in commemoration of Kristallnacht, the coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria that took place on Nov. 9-10, 1938, considered by many to mark the beginning of the Holocaust.

An American theoretical chemist and Cornell University Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Emeritus, Dr. Hoffmann will receive JFSA’s Distinguished Humanitarian Award. His talk will focus on his harrowing experiences during World War II as well as on his education and early experiences after coming to America in 1949. He will be introduced by writer, theater director and co-owner of Cornelia Street Café Robin Hirsch, author of “Last Dance at the Hotel Kempinski.”

After escaping from the Nazi labor camp in early 1943, Dr. Hoffmann and several family members hid in the attic and storeroom of a local schoolhouse for 15 months. He was 5 years old when he went into hiding.

“I lived through very dark times — my father, three of my grandparents and several of my aunts and uncles were killed,” related Professor Hoffmann in a 2007 interview published in the Journal of Chemical Education. “My mother and I survived, but we did not survive because we were better human beings. … We were helped by one good man [a friendly non-Jewish schoolteacher]. …Of the 4,000 Jews in Zloczów, where I was born, perhaps 200 survived the war.”
Professor Hoffmann and his mother emigrated to the U.S. after leaving Poland. He attended public schools in Brooklyn and Queens, following in what he calls “the typical path of immigrants.”

He then attended Stuyvesant High School, continued on to Columbia University and then to Harvard, where he received a PhD in chemical physics in 1962. His affiliation with Cornell University began in 1965, and he has taught first-year general chemistry there almost every year since then.
In 1981, he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with  Kenichi Fukui for their theories, developed independently, concerning the course of chemical reactions. His research on the theoretical investigation of organic and inorganic substances helped develop computational tools and methods such as the extended Hückel method for determining molecular orbitals.

A prolific author and frequent guest speaker, among his several books are “Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition” (co-authored with Shira Leibowitz Schmidt), “Roald Hoffmann on the Philosophy, Art, and Science of Chemistry” and, most recently, “Beyond the Finite: The Sublime in Art and Science.”

He is a published poet and playwright, too, and co-hosted the 1990 Annenberg/CPB educational series,  “The World of Chemistry.”

In 2006, Dr. Hoffmann visited his hometown of Zloczów for the first time since WWII. He found that the attic where he had hidden was still intact, but the storeroom, ironically, was now a chemistry classroom.

“We are delighted to give Dr. Hoffmann our distinguished humanitarian award,” says Dr. James Goldman, curator of the City Tech JFSA Distinguished Speakers Series since 1988 and former acting dean of continuing education. “He has worked hard to make the world a better place through his work and his deeds. And Dr. Hoffmann’s arc of life and his notable achievements in the sciences and the arts provide inspiration for City Tech students, especially those who are immigrants and the first in their families to attend college.”

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