Dustin Hoffman Breaks Down on Finding Your Roots After Learning Painful Family History: 'They All Survived for Me to Be Here'
03/08/2016 AT 04:30 PM EST
But now, thanks to Finding Your Roots, the Oscar-winning actor at long last discovered the truth about his ancestors – and the astonishing findings had a deep impact on the 78-year-old star.
Looking at his great-grandmother "Libba"'s Ellis Island medical records, he discovered that the indomitable woman fought against almost unimaginable obstacles to enter the country in 1930 at age 62 after losing her left arm, suffering from poor vision and being described as "senile."
"This is the hero of your family tree," Henry Louis Gates Jr. told Hoffman in the clip.
"She was a hero," Hoffman replied as he dissolved into tears.
According to details shared with PEOPLE, the Tootsie star learned just how much Libba and his family endured in the season finale of Finding Your Roots, as the episode shed light on the Jewish heritage that his parents kept secret.
During the episode, Hoffman learns that Libba survived in a Russian concentration camp for five years after both her husband and son were killed by the Cheka, a secret police force run by the Soviets after civil war broke out in 1917, and both sides targeted Jews. (Hoffman's family lived in an area that is now the Ukraine.)
Many people did not survive the harsh conditions at the Russian concentration camp, but Libba, already 53 when she entered, somehow did.
She eventually escaped to Argentina, a popular alternative destination for Jews fleeing Eastern Europe, and eventually made it to America, settling with family in Chicago until she died in 1944 at age 76.
Kept in the dark about his family's history until Finding Your Roots, Hoffman was visibly moved to hear Libba's story, and those of other relatives.
"People ask me today: 'What are you?' I say, 'I'm a Jew,' " he says through tears. "They all survived for me to be here."
The season finale of Finding Your Roots, featuring Hoffman's family history as well as Mia Farrow's, airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on PBS.