Holocaust-Survivor Chemist Lectures at Leisure World on Controversial Historical Figures

Written by Fred Shapiro on . Posted in Features

As an instructor at the Leisure World Center for Lifelong Learning, George Birnbaum has presented a series of seminars over the past few years delving into the biographies of well-known people, especially those not necessarily on the right side of public opinion. Exploring the backgrounds and personalities of men with controversial histories is a favorite pastime for Birnbaum. He has also taught classes at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Rockville, Maryland.

Birnbaum was born in Krakow, Poland, and survived the Holocaust in Poland and Hungary. He and his father were a few steps from a train in which the Nazis transported 10,000 Jews from the ghetto to the Belzec extermination camp in November of 1942. Because the train was full, about 100 Jews were left on the railway station platform and were taken to a school building in the city outside the ghetto. They were to be transported to the camp the next day. Birnbaum and his mother managed to escape from that school building and go into hiding outside the ghetto, where they stayed for 11 months. His father joined them after escaping from the ghetto. They were then smuggled across the Carpathian Mountains into still-unoccupied Hungary.

After World War II, Birnbaum lived in Vienna, Austria, and attended and finished secondary school. In 1952, he immigrated to New York. He chose to major in chemistry, partly because, he said, “I read books about chemists and their accomplishments.” After getting his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Columbia University, he discovered that he did not like working in an organic chemistry lab. After hearing a lecture by a crystallographer from Ottawa, Ontario, he decided to become a crystallographer himself. There was a crystallography lab in Columbia’s department of biochemistry at the Columbia Medical Center in uptown Manhattan, and Birnbaum worked on the structure of insulin from 1959 to 1964. He applied for postdoctoral fellowships at the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa and at the University of Glasgow, where there were several pioneers in crystallography. Both applications were successful; he arranged to spend a year in Ottawa, and then a year in Glasgow. “During my year in Glasgow, I received an offer of a permanent position in Ottawa, and I moved there in 1966,” Birnbaum said. He spent 30 years working at the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada in Ottawa, focusing on structural chemistry and structural biology.

Birnbaum officially retired in 1991 as a senior research officer, having published 75 crystallographic papers in chemical and biochemical journals. “After my retirement from NRC, I was involved in the study of crystallization of proteins in microgravity as a NASA researcher. This work ended in 1994 when I moved to Maryland because my wife got an offer to do research in protein crystallography at the University of Maryland,” he said.

When he moved, Birnbaum became involved in seminars at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, Maryland, as a student and a lecturer, and he is currently a member of the Continuing Education Committee. He has participated as an instructor in Leisure World and as a member of the board of directors of the Center for Lifelong Learning.

By Fred Shapiro


Fred Shapiro is currently the president of the Leisure World Center for Lifelong Learning and adjutant for the Jewish War Veterans Post 567. He served as religious chair and president of the Jewish Residents of Leisure World and recently completed service on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council.