They Lived Through Holocaust and Touched Students' Lives. They're Still Giving
By Melissa Hanson
LOWELL -- UMass Lowell was there for Alexandre and Rita Blumstein during a remarkably difficult time in their lives.
The two Holocaust survivors had never planned to permanently settle in the United States. But after a job offer that was "too good to turn down" led the couple from Paris to Pennsylvania, they eventually moved up to Massachusetts to take jobs as chemistry professors at UMass Lowell, where they stayed for decades.
Now in an effort to give back, the emeriti chemistry professors are donating some of their savings to the university for a scholarship to be awarded to students studying chemistry.
"It's the kind of school where a lot of kids are first-generation students or from an immigrant background," Rita, 79, said. "It's something we can relate to."
Alexandre was born in Poland in 1930, and Rita in 1937. Unlike millions of others, the Blumsteins survived the Holocaust. Rita and her family were sent to a Soviet work camp, and Alexandre and his family hid in an earthen cellar in a village close to the front lines.
Eventually, both their families moved to France.
The two attended the Paris-Sorbonne University, and met in the courtyard outside the school of chemistry.
"It was very, very funny because we sort of met and we walked together," Alexandre, 86, said.
"The chemistry was good," he added, laughing.
They married in 1959, and on their wedding day, Alexandre received an offer for a job at an engineering firm in Pennsylvania.
They moved to the United States in 1960.
Alexandre started at UMass Lowell in 1964, and Rita in 1974. The two were among the first polymer chemists at the university. Alexandre was the first faculty member to receive a National Science Foundation grant.
Alexander found himself pursing chemistry because it was likely to earn him a better living than physics, which he was attracted to slightly more. Rita was drawn to the subject when she came across Linus Pauling's "The Nature of the Chemical Bond."
"It read like a novel. I was hooked," said Rita, who would spend time reading in Sorbonne's library because she couldn't afford to buy books.
The couple have also written books about their experience. "Like Leaves in the Wind," by Rita, chronicles her time in the Soviet Union during the Holocaust and her time in Poland after. "A Little House on Mount Carmel" is Alexandre's memoir of being a teenage boy who hid with his family to survive the Holocaust.
The Blumsteins are funding the scholarship -- dubbed the Alexandre and Rita Blumstein Endowed Scholarship Fund -- from their own savings. The university will decide who receives the scholarship, under the Blumsteins' conditions that the student be financially needy and in good academic standing. The scholarship will first be awarded in fiscal 2017, according to a university spokeswoman.
"We got the idea. We just wanted to give back something to the university," Rita said.
Alexandre added, "We always felt that the university was fair to us. ... We'd just love to see UMass Lowell prosper."
Professor James Whitten, chairman of the Chemistry Department, said the scholarship is a tribute to the Blumsteins and the university, which the couple acknowledges is a place that betters the lives of students hoping to succeed, especially in a difficult field like chemistry.
"The Department of Chemistry and University of Massachusetts Lowell were thrilled that they both appreciated the mission of the university and department and that they wanted to give something back," Whitten said. "Because they were both immigrants to the United States, they were particularly excited that the scholarship funds they would provide would be used to help our chemistry students, many of whom are first-generation Americans from modest backgrounds."
As two people who lived through a time of immense hardship, the goal is to give back to current students who may be in a similar situation.
"There's quite a number of students who were very good at Lowell, but they didn't have much money," Alexandre Blumstein said. "Lowell provided them a very good outlet."
The two retired in 1996, though Alexandre continued his research until about 2005. Around three years ago they moved to California to be with their family. And though California winters are much more appealing than those in Lowell, Rita says she misses Massachusetts.
"I hope that the scholarship will help the student with his or her studies," Alexandre said. "I don't have any wishes beyond that."