Dustin Hoffman warned himself not to get emotional as he learned about his family history on the most recently aired episode of the PBS genealogy series “Finding Your Roots.” Still, the 78-year-old Oscar-winning actor cried openly when he found out about his paternal ancestors and their fates.
By delving into his family’s past with the guidance of “Finding Your Roots” host Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Hoffman came to realize the importance of his Jewish identity — something that he had been brought up to suppress.
Hoffman was raised in Los Angeles by parents who moved from Chicago to make a clean break from their families and Jewish heritage. He was brought up without knowledge of either Judaism or his ancestors (at least on his father’s side, which is what is dealt with in the show).
Thanks to archival sleuthing by the “Finding Your Roots” researchers, Hoffman discovered that he never knew his father’s father because he had been killed by the Bolsheviks during the Soviet Civil War. Hoffman’s grandfather, Frank Hoffman, had risked making a trip back to what is now Ukraine to rescue his parents from anti-Semitic pogroms.
Shortly after the Bolsheviks killed Frank Hoffman, they also killed his father Sam Hoffman, who was the actor’s great-grandfather.
An item in an Soviet newspaper from 1921 revealed that Sam Hoffman’s wife Liba C. Hoffman was arrested for reportedly trying to bribe an officer of the Cheka (the Bolshevik state security agency) and was sent to a concentration camp. (Gates surmised that she must have been trying to find out what had happened to her husband.)
Liba Hoffman, who was already middle aged by 1921, managed to survive the hard labor and harsh conditions of the Soviet concentration camp. Almost a decade later, she arranged to leave the USSR for Argentina. After some time in South America, she managed to obtain an immigration visa for the US, where she arrived in the early 1930s at the age of 64.
‘I am a Jew. Wear that on your sleeve’
Liba Hoffman went to live with relatives in Chicago and presumably never met her great-grandson who was by then living with his parents in Los Angeles.
Dustin Hoffman broke down upon seeing the photograph of his great-grandmother on her Argentinian visa application and reading the medical report of US immigration authorities stating that she had dementia, extremely poor vision, and a prosthetic arm due to an amputation.
The actor called his great-grandmother a “hero” for her resilience in the face of the anti-Semitic violence perpetrated against her and her family. He also expressed regret that it is only now, as he nears 80, that he is finally learning about the brave and persistent people who have passed their genes on to him. His tears were clearly coming from not only sadness, but also deep disappointment for having been robbed of this heritage for his entire life.
When asked by Gates how this genealogical journey had changed him, Hoffman answered, “I am a Jew.”
“I am a Jew. Wear that on your sleeve. It’s not like being black, because when you are black it is self-evident. When you are a Jew, it sometimes takes an announcement. So I feel closer to the microphone,” he said.