Remembering, Returning, Forgiving

Roald Hoffmann NobelPrize.ORG: I came to a happy Jewish family in dark days in Europe. On July 18, 1937 I was born to Clara (née Rosen) and Hillel Safran in Zloczow, Poland. This town, typical of the Pale of the Settlement, was part of Austria-Hungary when my parents were born. It was Poland in my time and is part of the Soviet Union now. I was named after Roald Amundsen, my first Scandinavian connection. My father was a civil engineer, educated at the Lvov (Lemberg) Polytechnic, my mother by training a school teacher.

International Herald Tribune:
ITHACA, New York On July 23, I traveled to Zolochiv in Ukraine, the town I left as a small boy. I was returning for the first time in 62 years, to remember.

Remember whom? The people who lived there and are forever gone from us - the Jews of Zolochiv. They were there for centuries, as their gravestones once testified.

There are no gravestones left. A group of us, survivors and their children, went to dedicate a memorial in a bare, fenced-in field.

Before World War II, the town beneath the castle on a hill had a population of roughly 12,000, about equally divided between Ukrainians, Jews and Poles, who called it Zloczow. Living together, living apart.

The Jewish community had many strands - here lived a great Hasidic rabbi, Yekhiel Mekhl, the Maggid of Zloczow. The great Yiddish poet Moshe Leib Halpern came from the town.

The Soviets occupied Zolochiv from 1939 to 1941. And then began the darkest of times for the Jews - three years of Nazi rule. In the first week of the war, the SS Einsatzgruppe C shot 2,000 Jews at the castle, the same place where the Soviets had killed many Ukrainians days before. By the end of the war, there were no more than 200 Jews left. I was one of perhaps five children who survived. Among those who didn't were my father, three of my four grandparents, and many aunts, uncles and cousins.

We survived. How? By chance. Through the unimaginably courageous acts of good people. Millions around us were passive; hundreds of thousands collaborated, participating actively in atrocities. But thousands of Ukrainians helped Jews survive.

Among those whose actions redeem one's faith in humanity were Metropolitan Andrei Sheptyts'kyi, of the Greek church in the region, and his brother Klement. And the good teacher who hid us in the unlit attic and then a storeroom of his village schoolhouse for 15 months, Mikola Dyuk.

We left, for the United States, Israel, Brazil, Australia, even Germany. Who cared about our house? (I saw it upon returning, recognized in a Proustian moment, the colored stones inlaid in the stair landing.) Who worried about bank accounts? There was a life to live. Later, I wanted to take my mother there, but she said no, only bad memories are there. No Jews remain in Zolochiv.

But I remembered that somewhere there - oh, I don't know where - lies my father. That there was a Jewish cemetery in Zolochiv. That in those terrible days at the castle in July 1941 my grandfather, Wolf Rosen, was killed, and my uncle Abraham crawled out from among the dead with a bullet in his wrist.

At the dedication of our memorial at the cemetery, I go over to talk to the old women standing by, their gold teeth gleaming. I ask them if they knew the Cukierna Mackocka - a candy shop is what kids will remember. Later these women surround me and ask, "Did you know Dr. Berg who lived in the center? Did you know the Gottlieb family?" They remember. But I am not sure what they are remembering.

I watch my son Hillel and my sister Elinor climb into the attic of that village schoolhouse. My son has a son, five years old, exactly the age I was when we went into that attic. The storeroom where we were hidden is now a classroom with Mendeleyev's periodic table of the elements on the wall. A chemistry classroom.

Can one forgive what happened - the pain, the killing? Forgiveness comes from the soul, it is individual. I can only speak for myself.

I can forgive. But only if I remember, and, importantly, if I see that the people in whose midst the killing took place remember. If they do not, if their children are not taught that it must not happen again, then my soul hardens.

There are wounds from that time, physical and mental. They can be healed, in part, by righteous actions today. Recognizing the sacred nature and historical significance to the Jewish community of places of spirit and memory - the Jewish cemetery, the castle courtyard where so many were killed, the obliterated synagogues - is an act of universal charity.

We are grateful for the memorials we have been allowed to build by today's Zolochivers. And while there is no end of death still left to commemorate, there was Jewish life there - what life! This, too, needs to be shown. Ukrainians, Poles and Jews - we need to remember, together. To put the horrors of the past truly behind us.