Students await the sound of a rolling briefcase to hear if English Lecturer Sylviane Baumflek is on her way. Her short salt and mostly peppered hair paired with silver-rimmed glasses that have a pop of pink on the temples add to her bubbly personality.
For someone who is so happy and ironically had the maiden Polish name ‘Zonenszajn,’ later Americanized to ‘Sunshine,’ Baumflek comes from a background that is contradictory to her persona. The events that haunted her Polish parents remained secret until Baumflek asked her mother at the age of 12 if she and her father were victims of the Holocaust.
“I was curious. I wanted to know why one person had a number [tattooed on their forearm] and another didn’t; I was told ‘well, that was done when we were young’,” said Baumflek.
Her parents fled Poland in hopes to escape Nazism but were captured on their way to Russia where they were separated into Siberian work camps.
Sometime during the separation her father may have joined the Russian or Polish army though Baumflek isn’t quite sure which he served.
She was aware that he was shot.
Her mother gave birth to Baumflek’s brother in the Siberian camp. The couple miraculously reunited at a displaced persons camp in Germany and decided to make their way towards the U.S., but not before they settled in Paris, France where Baumflek was born in 1950.
Baumflek’s family relocated to Montreal, Canada where they remained for ten years until the harsh winters worsened her mother’s lung condition, which had been brought on as a result of the war and had to relocate yet again to tolerable weather conditions. Her family finally settled in Brooklyn, New York, where Baumflek still resides.
“It [America] was a totally different culture,” said Baumflek. “But now I’m here and I’m staying here for a while.”
Although Baumflek is an English teacher, she wasn’t always interested in teaching.
She had dreams of becoming a doctor and volunteered as a candy striper after school at Kings County Hospital. Her parents never supported Baumflek’s dreams and felt she should marry a decent man and have children instead of focusing on education. The rebellion grew deep inside her and of course, Baumflek went on to Brooklyn College despite her father’s wishes.
“The idea of sending me to medical school and having to finance it was beyond them,” said Baumflek as she smirked and looked through the window as the memories flooded her mind. “So they tried to steer me towards becoming a teacher—which was acceptable, or becoming a nurse was acceptable—getting married was acceptable. My father’s point was very European in that he felt I didn’t need an education because I had finished high school—I could just find a nice guy and get married—that was the norm.”
After a semester of rigorous courses at Brooklyn College, Baumflek was overwhelmed by calculus and felt she couldn’t continue— so she forfeited to her father and switched her major to English with a minor in education.
“I was listening to my parents who told me to become a teacher,” said Baumflek.
Four years and countless literature classes later, Baumflek was accepted to Columbia University to pursue her master’s degree. Still unwed, Baumflek’s father continued to disapprove of her pursuit of higher education. She satisfied her ambition by financing graduate school herself and remained at home with her parents in Bensonhurst.
“At that point, once I was accepted, there was no way I wasn’t going,” said Baumflek as her teeth sparkled from ear to ear. “And I financed it myself—my father knew that he couldn’t stand in my way. My father, may he rest in peace, would stand and wait for me at the subway station at night, so that I wouldn’t walk home by myself.”
Her father’s hopes for Baumflek came true when she married Henry Baumflek and had a daughter, Michelle Baumflek.
“I was pursuing my Ph.D. in NYU—I stopped before I began my dissertation because at that point I was married, had one child and another on the way. I needed to conserve my energy,” said Baumflek
Baumlek’s former student Chaim Levin was thrown out of his Jewish orthodox community in Crown Heights for being gay and felt he had nowhere else to turn but to seek a degree at Kingsborough. He took Baumflek’s English prerequisite class, barely knowing about secular education, or how to write and read English.
Levin, abused by an unlicensed “life-coach” in a conversion therapy group, felt Baumflek understood his situation and helped him learn to write.
Because of Baumflek, Levin utilized what he learned to publically write about his experience within the orthodox community and helped win a lawsuit against the conversion therapy group.
Baumflek told Levin about how her father disapproved her continuing education, which resonated with Levin.
“She was very much like a mother figure that taught me things in a sensitive, positive way with an emphasis on how it was going to affect our lives and it certainly affected my life,” said Levin.
Aside from students admiring her, Baumflek has colleagues that are inspired by her generosity and personable character. She served as a mentor to many new faculty members and has helped her colleagues during difficult times.
Assistant Professor Frank Percaccio of the English Department has known Baumflek since he first started working at KCC in 1994. Baumflek has helped Percaccio overcome grief when his father passed away and has helped him mature as a person, father and professor.
“There were periods of time when I had tremendous grief, like when my father passed away, Sylviane (Baumflek) always gave me excellent counsel and sometimes to bolster me up and a shoulder to lean on and that has tremendous value to me,” Percaccio said as he interlocked his fingers. “She doesn’t have to do that—that’s not part of her job description—but that’s the kind of person she is.”
Percaccio knew about Baumflek’s parents’ story when she volunteered to help him get a grant to create a film about Holocaust survivors, but never consciously saw sadness or pain behind her eyes. Though the grant fell through, the two became friendlier and learned a lot about each other through that process.
Her personality truly masks the horror story that her parents went through.
“She [Baumflek] remains a forthright, upstanding person. In this era, we look at certain people and say ‘that person’s strong,’ or ‘that person’s tough,’ but the people who are really strong and tough are those people where everything good in life wasn’t just handed to them but remain to be good people with integrity,” said Percaccio.
Another colleague who has received tremendous support from Baumflek is Lecturer Steve Janowsky, who’s also a child of Polish Holocaust survivors. Janowsky’s father was strict just like Baumflek’s but differed in that Janowsky’s father wanted him to be the best in class and maintain high grades.
Janowsky’s sister recently passed away and Baumflek was sure to comfort him by planting a tree in his sister’s honor in Israel.
“When my sis was sick she would ask about her. Even when my sister passed away this past summer she organized a tree planted in her name in Israel so that touched me too,” said Janowsky with his arms and legs crossed.
The 5’1 shorthaired lecturer has inspired and supported many of her colleagues and students throughout her time at KCC and is prepared to do so until she no longer can.
She is Kingsborough’s sunshine on a rainy day.