Robert Lieberman, the child of holocaust survivors, remembers himself as a “wild child.”
“I was always sent to the principal’s office for disturbing the class; I couldn’t sit still,” he said. “My head was buzzing with so many things that distracted and captivated me.” A keen observation for a child whose life led him to go everywhere, do everything, remaining engaged with all kinds of projects which defy categorization.
“Growing up in Kew Gardens in Queens, many of my neighbors, like my family, were refugees from Hitler’s Austria, Germany, Hungary. My father escaped from Vienna with my mother and older brother. He couldn’t get his mother, his sister and her husband out of Austria. In desperation, they had set out on foot and managed to climb the mountains and reach Croatia. There they were rounded up by the Croats and machine gunned in a square. While my father went on to create a life for himself and for us in America, he was always haunted by a deep sense of guilt.”
Years later Robert would draw upon his childhood and the stories his family told him of their lives in Vienna. It led to his film “Last Stop Kew Gardens” broadcast on PBS. He has just completed the screenplay in Paris for “The Nazis, My Father & Me,” an animated film produced by five-time Academy Award nominated producer Didier Brunner.
Age 17, Robert arrived at Cornell in 1958, and began his studies to become a veterinarian. While doing his required farm work, a local farmer observed to Robert, “You Jew boys all want to be veterinarians.” So young, so far away from Queens, Robert recoiled from the cultural chasm he would have to bridge to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a vet.
Changing course—a hasty decision he still regrets—Robert jumped into electrical engineering. Soon thereafter he was selected for a special accelerated program at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (NYU Tandon School of Engineering) where he graduated with a B.A. in 1962. He returned to graduate school at Cornell and studied Biophysics, Engineering and Neurophysiology in a special interdisciplinary program.
Over the next decade, Robert taught in schools around the globe, from Sweden to Hong Kong. In the 1960s he taught at two predominantly black colleges in the U.S. South—this during a period of racial turmoil—and was harassed by the Klu Klux Klan. After a stint teaching Physics and Math at Ithaca College, he joined the Cornell Physics faculty in 1980 and is there today.
In Ithaca, Robert created the life he dreamed of as a kid growing up in New York City. Today he lives on 120 acres of lush countryside with family and animals, teaching and being part of a lively community. He has savored his life with wife Gunilla, a Swedish ballet teacher, his children and grandchildren: “It has been a privilege to live in such a spectacular, natural setting and to be so fortunate… My work at Cornell has made it possible to be a novelist, filmmaker and gentleman farmer.”
With Cornell and family being Robert’s home base, he has trekked far from Ithaca to explore the world. “I think I’ve been everywhere on the planet except Australia and Antarctica.” His filming has taken him to Myanmar (“They Call It Myanmar”), Cambodia (“Angkor Awakens”) and most recently Mongolia. Working together with Photosynthesis Studios in Ithaca, his newest film “Echoes Of The Empire—Beyond Genghis Kahn” (www.echoesoftheempire.com) will be released internationally this Spring.