The Noble prize in the area of chemistry was granted in 1981 to Roald Hoffman and Keinich Fukui independently, for research on the process of chemical reactions. Prof. Hoffman is the only chemist who was awarded in 1990 with the Medal of Priestley for his scientific achievements in both organic and non-organic chemistry. He speaks six foreign languages and is fascinated by lots of scientific areas beside theoretic chemistry, such as philosophy or art. He is also an acknowledged drama writer and a poet.

Roald Hoffman, in fact Safran, was born on 18 July 1937 in a Jewish family in Złoczów (Ukraine now). He received his name to the honour of a Norwegian researcher Roald Amundsen. His father, Hillel Safran, was an engineer of land construction, and was granted the title at the Lvov Polytechnics. His mother – Klara Rosen was a teacher. He speaks about his nationality: ‘There is no doubt that we were Poles and Jews – my parents were educated in Polish schools and lived in the atmosphere of culture of interwar Poland’.

Tragedy of the Second World War

In July 1941, when Roald was 4 years old, German armies invaded Złoczów. Later his grandpa and a few other relatives were murdered by Einsatzgruppen – shooting units which were implementing ‘final solution of the Jewish issue’ on invaded areas. In the beginning of 1942 the family of the Safrans and other relatives were transported to the labour camp. The father of the family – Hillel and other forced labourers had to build roads for the German army. When he found out what the Germans were really planning to do with Jews, he and his wife decided to escape. They go help from an Ukrainian Mykoł Filipowicz Diuk who lived in nearby Uniów, where he was a teacher and head-teacher of a school. The school was on the ground floor and on the first floor he lived with his family – wife Maria, two daughters and a son. In January 1943 on the attic of the school Klara Safran with her son Roald and her brother Samuel Rosen with his wife Józefina found a refuge. Nobody noticed their absence in the camp – or nobody was interested in the number of people unable to do work for the German army.

18 months of uncertainty

Hillel Safran had to stay in the camp. He wanted to organize an armed riot there with the help of Friedrich Rosen, the second brother of his wife. However, he was betrayed by his comrade Jew. It was in June 1943. The Germans ordered all inhabitants of Złoczów to go out onto the market and watch the execution of Hillel. Friedrich who was able to hide from the Germans, joined the hiding family. Later Diuk took the hidden family to a household room on the ground which did not have any windows. Under the table there was hole of about one or two metres deep, covered with a flap and carpet. In some situations it was necessary to go down in it and sit on a panel supported on bricks. In June 1944 the Red Army entered and after 18 months of their hiding the Safrans and Rosens regained freedom and returned to Złoczów. Their house was still there but was occupied by somebody. They had only taken a few photos hidden in the attic and went to Przemyśl, and then to Cracow.

Change of identity

In Cracow mother of Roald met Naftal Magulies whose wife had been killed during the war. A new political system in communist Poland and lack of perspectives made them emigrate to America. In order to make it easy, they got married. Unfortunately, there was shortage of immigrant contingents for Poles. It was easier for Germans to get the American visa, so Naftali bought a birthday certificate of a deceased German from a German priest in Mittenwald. Later Friedrich Rosen defrauded the certificate of wedding contracted between a German Paul Hoffman and a Polish Jewish woman Klara. In 1946 they set off into a journey through the Czech-Slovakia to a camp for displaced people of Bindermich near Linz (Austria), and then – in 1947- to a camp for displaced people in Wasseralfing (Germany).

New life in the USA

When in 1949 Roald arrived in the United States with his mother and foster father, he could not speak a word in English. He began his education in Stuyvesant High School in New York and spent summer on a youth language camp in the Catskill mountains. In 1954 his sister Elinor was born. A year later he began his studies at Columbia University from which he graduated in 1958 and gained the BA title. At once he began his studies at Harvard University at which in 1960 he gained the MA title in physics and continued on his PhD studies. In summer 1959 he set off for his scholarship to Sweden. He met Eva Borjesson there, a receptionist in a hotel – they got married a year later. In 1962 at the Harvard University he received PhD in chemistry and worked under supervision of a laureate of the Noble Prize – William N. Lipscomb. At the age of 25 he gained PhD and at the age of 27 he did a discovery for which he was nominated for the Noble Prize. He was awarded with it on 1981, 2 months after his foster father Paul Hoffmann died. In 1965 he moved to the Cornell University in Ithaca at which he became professor in 1968. As a 40-year-old man he began to write poems.

He published 4 toms which were translated into a few languages. He also wrote plays and led an intellectual-poetic cabaret in New York. In 19633 his son Hillel Jan was born, and in 1965 his daughter Ingrid Helena was born.

Nobel Prize

The discovery which Roald Hoffmann and prof. Robert Woodward did in the mid of the 60s of the last century was based on finding the general rule allowing for predicting a process of pericyclic reactions. During those reactions organic compounds change their structures from the chain into the ring structures or the other way round and, as a result, they create very valuable products, for example, medications. Also, there are often compounds completely worthless or even poisonous. The chemists were acting at random and were never sure what product would create a compound undergoing cyclization. Woodward and Hoffmann discovered that the secret is connected with orbits on which electrons of particles go. They noted that the so-called orbitals go round with the direction of clock hands, and go opposite the other time. Depending on a direction, a demanded or non-demanded product was created. How to predict which direction will the orbital go? The solution of the puzzle turned out to be as simple as romantic: orbital always goes round towards orbital of the same symmetry, the one with which it can match ideally. The so-called rule of Woodward-Hoffmann revolutionized knowledge about organic chemistry and became the breakthrough in pharmaceutical industry. The Noble Prize was granted only to Roald Hoffmann as Robert Woodward had died earlier. Hoffmann reminisces that time in 1981 in this way: ‘The only person who accepted my Noble Prize with absolutely uncritical enthusiasm was my mum. We went to Stockholm with our whole family: wife, parents-in-law, mother, cousins. My mum simple was very happy. Her euphoria went onto me. I also became one of very few Noble prize winners who were awarded with the Order of Frog. This is a custom made up by Sweden students. A Noble prize winner must do a series of high leaps. However, Noble prize winners are usually too…noble for it. I succeeded in it. I was awarded with the Order of Frog. This is just one of those very few good sides of receiving the Noble prize before the age of 60’. And why didn’t Hoffman return to his real surname? ‘Doing it we would have to admit that we arrived here illegally and mum was full of fear and panic about our deportation. For the same reason she never allowed me to get engaged in politics. If I had changed my surname I would also have brought pain to my foster father who brought me up, after all. In a column ‘father’ I even today write: Paul Hoffmann. The last time the change of my surname came to my mind when I was awarded with the Noble Prize’.

Prof. Roald Hoffmann is an unusual personality in the history of chemistry and one of the most famous theoretical chemists. He received a lot of awards, including 25 honourable titles at universities all over the world and is considered as one of the most prominent chemists of all times.

Struggling with the past and remembering her murdered family was very painful for Klara Hoffmann, who never wrote her history. It was done by her son Roald and his sister Elinor, and on 23 September 2007 the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Institute Yad Vash granted Mykol and Maria Diuk the title of the Righteous among the World Nations after their death. Contact with the Diuk family was maintained for years.

Translated by Aneta Amrozik

Niedziela 17/2019 (28 IV 2019)

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl