Pho­to­graph of Roald Hoff­man cour­tesy of the author

Roald Hoff­mann

He grew up in an attic. He didn’t start in one, of course; no one ever held a gleam in their eye imag­in­ing the child they’d one day raise in an attic. It wasn’t the plan. But then an inva­sion came, the lat­est in a series of end­less wars, and the whole fam­i­ly end­ed up in a labor camp. A few bribes lat­er, they were out, and Roald, he grew up in an attic, in hid­ing, cramped togeth­er with his moth­er, two uncles, and aunt above a small school­house. Their father went back to the labor camp. He’s still there.

The fam­i­ly bought the papers of a dead Ger­man sol­dier to use for their escape, and Roald Safran became, for­ev­er, Roald Hoff­mann. There were racist quo­tas for immi­grants and they were bizarre. More Ger­mans were allowed in than Poles, so we made our­selves Ger­mans. I think about this a lot, these days,” he recalls in his office at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, because I think about the DREAM­ers. We snuck into Amer­i­ca with stolen papers. We were illegals.”

He want­ed to be a poet. Still does. His fam­i­ly want­ed him to be a doc­tor. At Colum­bia, he sat in on human­i­ties cours­es, espe­cial­ly lit­er­a­ture. In books, the world opened up for me. I worked up enough courage to tell them that I didn’t want to be a doc­tor, but not enough courage to tell them I want­ed to be an art his­to­ri­an. I set­tled on chemistry.

The com­pro­mise has last­ed: one sus­pects he no longer needs to, but after a few res­i­den­cies and many research projects, he end­ed up as a pro­fes­sor at Cor­nell. Sure, he want­ed to be an art his­to­ri­an, but he still teach­es chem­istry. He’s writ­ten three plays, but still he teach­es chem­istry. He host­ed a pro­gram on PBS, but still he teach­es chem­istry. He’s writ­ten four books of poet­ry, but still he teach­es chemistry.

And, yes, he won the Nobel prize, but he still teach­es chem­istry. He does all of it, after all these years, on a bor­rowed man’s name. I still teach,” he says, because I want to be a good boy.”

The plays, and the poet­ry, and the life of work, one can feel with no dif­fi­cul­ty, all have their fore­words writ­ten in his time in that attic. They all touch on his expe­ri­ence, but all look for­ward. Still, Pro­fes­sor Hoff­mann just wants to be a good boy: in 2006, he brought his son to the small Ukrain­ian vil­lage where he was raised, to see how the old attic was doing. On arrival, they were told the attic is still above a schoolhouse.

They use it, of course, to teach chemistry.

Roald Hoff­man

Pho­to cour­tesy of the author

Git­ta Rosenzweig

In the dic­tio­nary, the word pacif­ic is defined as peace­ful in char­ac­ter; Git­ten Rosen­zweig lives in a pris­tine white build­ing dan­gling over the Pacif­ic, but you can tell that the woman, like the ocean below her, is any­thing but.

Life is com­pli­cat­ed. Peo­ple are com­pli­cat­ed. Res­cued by a woman from her vil­lage, hid­den in a Catholic orphan­age, and trans­plant­ed to a new coun­try in the new world, Git­ta is com­pli­cat­ed: bril­liant, and suc­cess­ful, and plagued with anx­i­ety, and still thriv­ing. School came easy, and she felt pulled by the dense grav­i­ty of the law- some­thing about jus­tice I want­ed to iden­ti­ty in myself,” she claims- but pub­lic speak­ing gave her pan­ic attacks. Her accent gave her pan­ic attacks. Every­thing was scary: deal­ing with peo­ple, with clients, with rela­tion­ships. I felt that I had to find some­thing that I was com­fort­able with and wouldn’t have any anx­i­ety from.”

The call for jus­tice kept call­ing, until final­ly she answered in the only way she knew how, the only jus­tice she knew: she became an immi­gra­tion attor­ney. She loved the study of it- the prac­tice is the inter­ac­tion with peo­ple,” she notes. The law is the books, the ideas.” She devot­ed her life to the books. She devot­ed her life to the ideas.

In lat­er life, she took her sons back to Poland, to see where she was from, where she had been hid­den, from where she’d escaped. She found her birth cer­tifi­cate- proof that ever she had exist­ed on paper. And her son met a local woman from the world Git­ta had left behind. They mar­ried. Their daugh­ter, who is four years old, is now here in the new world, dan­gling over the ocean with her grand­moth­er. She sits qui­et­ly as we all talk, as her grand­moth­er tells her sto­ry. Occa­sion­al­ly she looks up, occa­sion­al­ly she lis­tens in, casu­al­ly and with­out a care in the world. She is, it turns out, quite pacific.

Git­ta Rosenzweig

Pho­to cour­tesy of the author

B.A. Van Sise is an author and pho­to­graph­ic artist focused on the inter­sec­tion between lan­guage and the visu­al image. He is the author of two mono­graphs: the visu­al poet­ry anthol­o­gy Chil­dren of Grass: A Por­trait of Amer­i­can Poet­ry with Mary-Louise Park­er, and Invit­ed to Life: After the Holo­caust with Neil Gaiman, May­im Bia­lik, and Sab­ri­na Orah Mark. He has pre­vi­ous­ly been fea­tured in solo exhi­bi­tions at the Cen­ter for Cre­ative Pho­tog­ra­phy, the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry and the Muse­um of Jew­ish Her­itage, as well as in group exhi­bi­tions at the Peabody Essex Muse­um, the Muse­um of Pho­to­graph­ic Arts, the Los Ange­les Cen­ter of Pho­tog­ra­phy and the Whit­ney Muse­um of Amer­i­can Art; a num­ber of his por­traits of Amer­i­can poets are in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of the Smith­so­ni­an’s Nation­al Por­trait Gallery.