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Liviu Librescu, Virginia Tech, and Yom HaShoah

Remembering a Holocaust survivor who died saving his students

Adam Chandler
April 08, 2013
Liviu Librescu.(Stetson)
Liviu Librescu.(Stetson)

Over the weekend, the Times ran a story about the efforts by police departments around the country to change the way citizens prepare and react to mass attacks like the string of heinous shootings over the last few years.

The essence of the tactic is this: Be active. One incident that helped clarify the benefit of this policy was the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, a rampage during which 32 students and teachers were killed.

“We used to sit outside and set up a perimeter and wait for the SWAT team to get there,” said Michael Dirden, an executive assistant chief of the Houston Police Department. “Now it’s a recognition that time is of the essence and those initial responders have to go in,” he said, adding that since the Virginia Tech University shooting in 2007, the department has been training first responders to move in on their own when they encounter active gunfire.

Research on mass shootings over the last decade has bolstered the idea that people at the scene of an attack have a better chance of survival if they take an active stance rather than waiting to be rescued by the police, who in many cases cannot get there fast enough to prevent the loss of life.

The article mentions Professor Liviu Librescu, a Romanian Holocaust survivor, who after hearing the gunfire told his students to flee and jump out of the second story window, rather than lie still and wait for law enforcement to intervene. As the shooter entered classroom, Librescu, who was 76 at the time, barred the door while many of the students escaped. Librescu was killed by the shooter. The date was April 16, 2007; Yom HaShoah on the Jewish calendar.

The article about adapting tactics in the face of irrational, evil violence speaks to a division among the greater lessons of the Holocaust. For some–especially in Israel and especially on the year during which we mark the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising–one of the lessons of the Holocaust is to never be passive when someone who means you harm appears. It may be cavalier to connect Librescu’s heroic act and sacrifice to his experiences in World War II or his years in Israel, I can’t help but link them.

Another lesson has to do with stubbing out hate, fighting anti-Semitism, using education to efface racism, and promoting tolerance. For whatever reason, it remains difficult to take both of these lessons together. It shouldn’t be that way.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.