Holocaust survivor and UIC chemist Eva Rocek, 1927-2015

Eva Rocek

Eva Rocek accepting Silver Circle Award, 1994

Eva Rocek, assistant professor emerita of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, died June 28 at her home in Delaware. She was 88.

Rocek was a Holocaust survivor who also risked her life to escape communist Czechoslovakia, arriving in the U.S. in 1960.

She worked first as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, then as a research chemist in Washington, D.C. In 1969 she joined the UIC chemistry department with her husband, Jan, who later chaired the department from 1980 to 1993.

Rocek taught general chemistry and was a popular teacher, twice winning UIC’s Silver Circle Teaching Award. The award is bestowed by senior students, and Rocek was nominated 10 times.

“She mentored me, taking me under her wing when I was hired as a new faculty member, introducing me to her techniques, sharing her materials and her wisdom and much good advice,” said Sharon Gislason, who taught in UIC’s chemistry department for more than 20 years and worked as a teaching assistant with Rocek.

“What I remember most are her dinner parties,” said Michael Trenary, professor of chemistry. “Her dinner parties ranged from department affairs to small groups of friends. She was a fantastic cook, specializing in Czech cuisine,” he said.

“She was very warm, kind and always welcoming. I have a lot of great memories.”

Born in Prague, Eva was 12 when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. She spoke publicly about her Holocaust experiences for the first time in 1994 as she was retiring from UIC, saying she felt she had to respond to those who would deny the Holocaust.

As a Jew, Eva was deported with her mother and father to the concentration camp ghetto Terezin (Theresienstadt) in July 1942. There she worked as a field hand and met her future husband.

In the fall of 1944 she voluntarily joined her parents in the transport to Auschwitz, where her father was murdered. She and her mother survived, and at end of the war made their way back to Prague, where Eva was able to reconnect with Jan.

She devoted herself to her schoolwork and was able to return to high school only a year behind in her studies. After high school she married Jan, earned master’s and doctoral degrees, and worked in pharmaceutical research. In 1954 and 1956 she gave birth to their sons, Thomas and Martin.

She and her husband led the family in a daring escape from communism in 1960, jumping off an East German ship along with her mother. Eva threw the two small children overboard ahead of her, and all swam to shore.

In retirement, the Roceks traveled extensively, settling in Delaware.  She wrote a memoir entitled “Shakespeare Saved My Life,” available online at http://www.rocek.knowtheworld.org/rocek.htm.

She is survived by her husband, sons and four grandchildren.

The family suggests contributions to the International Rescue Committee, which assisted the Rocek family in coming to the U.S. and continues to help refugees.

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