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The Virginia Tech Professor and Holocaust Survivor Who Saved His Students’ Lives

Liviu Librescu’s heroics remain an inspiration 10 years after the massacre at Blacksburg

Armin Rosen
April 14, 2017
David Furst/AFP/Getty Images
Flowers lay over the grave of Liviu Librescu in Ra'anana, April, 20, 2007.David Furst/AFP/Getty Images
David Furst/AFP/Getty Images
Flowers lay over the grave of Liviu Librescu in Ra'anana, April, 20, 2007.David Furst/AFP/Getty Images

According to Iswhar Puri, the first thing you’d notice about Liviu Librescu was his posture. “He was ramrod straight” and had “a spine of steel,” said Puri, who is now the dean of the engineering faculty at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. At the time of his death, which occurred 10 years ago this Sunday, Librescu was a slight 76-year-old in declining physical health—but he never slouched, carrying himself with an assuredness that reflected deeper aspects of his character. Said Puri, “If you wanted an honest answer to something, if you wanted someone to say to you that you must be crazy…or if you wanted somebody to tell you in a straightforward way that you should do something or not do something, he was the man.”

On the morning of April 16, 2007, Puri was the head of the engineering science and mechanics department at Virginia Tech University, and Librescu, who had taught in Blacksburg since 1985, was one of his professors. Librescu was teaching a solid mechanics class in room 204 of the university’s Norris Hall when Sueng-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old Virginia Tech senior, began a rampage that claimed the lives of 32 people. The professor’s actions are familiar by now, but no easier to comprehend even a full decade later. According to eyewitnesses, at the sound of gunshots Librescu blocked the door of his classroom, which could not be locked from the inside. Cho eventually forced his way in and shot Librescu with a semi-automatic pistol—but by that point, 22 of his students had already climbed out a window and jumped to safety.

Liviu Librescu, date unknown. (Librescu family via Getty Images)
Liviu Librescu, date unknown. (Librescu family via Getty Images)

In a public Facebook post written last week, one of Librescu’s students recalls looking down from a second-story window ledge, and then stealing a final glimpse of Librescu standing alone, trying to secure the lecture hall door. As the post explains, that student’s future would include a master’s degree, a risky but inevitably satisfying career change, and a family of her own. At the time the post’s author last saw him, Librescu would have only a few moments to live.

Liviu Librescu was born in Ploisti, an industrial city in eastern Romania, in 1930. Like millions of other Jews across Europe, fascism and communism would shape the course of Librescu’s life, as it would for millions of other Jews across Europe. Romania’s newly formed right-wing government officially allied with the Nazis in 1940, and ordered the deportation of much the country’s Jewish population to the country’s eastern fringes the following year. The Nazis and their Romanian allies murdered an estimated 270,000 Romanian Jews during the Holocaust, out of a pre-war population of 728,000.

During the Holocaust, Librescu’s family was deported to the far eastern region of Transdniestria, then sent to the ghetto in the city of Foscani. Zvi Yaakov Zwiebel, the rabbi at Virginia Tech’s Chabad student center, which is now named in Librescu’s honor, says that the future professor’s experience in Foscani helped inspire him to become an aeronautical engineer. “He was always fascinated about how the birds flew in and out of the ghetto, and that’s what motivated him to get in the aerospace field,” said Zwiebel. “He loved this idea of freedom, whether it’s freedom of religion or freedom of intellect.”

Librescu earned an engineering Ph.D. in Romania after the war. As Puri explains, his research work delved into how the material composition of an aircraft affects its operational limits. Librescu studied how materials performed under flight stresses like heat and air friction, and his work was aimed at “making sure [those materials] don’t fail under very critical operating conditions,” Puri explained. Since Librescu was one of his country’s leading aerospace engineers, Romania’s communist regime conscripted him into several high-end military projects, including an effort to produce an indigenous fighter aircraft. Librescu warned that the plane was unflyable as designed, a fact proven during an early flight test. The program was scrapped soon after that.

The fighter plane episode, Librescu’s refusal to pledge fealty to the regime of Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and his open desire to emigrate to Israel, all cost him dearly. He was fired from his position at Romania’s Academy of Sciences some time in the early 70s. Although he was banned from publishing in Romania, he succeeded in secretly trafficking an influential academic paper to a research journal in the Netherlands at immense personal risk, and would entrust visiting western European scientists with his latest research, which was unpublishable in his own country. In the late ’70s, the Israeli government interceded on Librescu’s behalf, and prime minister Menachem Begin, who also had painful first-hand experience of both fascism and communism, personally advocated for the scientist’s right to emigrate. He arrived in Israel, the country where he is now buried, in 1978, and taught at Tel Aviv University and the Technion in Haifa before moving on to Virginia Tech in 1985. He arrived for what was supposed to be a single sabbatical year, but ended up staying for much longer. (He’s now buried in Ra’anana.)

Simply existing as a Jew in 20th-century Eastern Europe had denied Librescu the freedom he’d sought for nearly his entire life. Of all places, he found what he was looking for in Blacksburg, a somewhat isolated university town four hours southwest of Washington, D.C. As Puri describes him, Librescu was a committed Jew, and also something of a luddite. His wife, Marlena, who died four years ago, handled nearly everything email or computer-related, and gradually became a working partner, an academic collaborator of sorts. “When you talked to them you lost sense of where one identity ended and one began,” Puri recalled.

Marlena Librescu is comforted by her son Joe during the funeral of Liviu Librescu in Ra’anana, Israel, April 20, 2007. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
Marlena Librescu is comforted by her son Joe during the funeral of Liviu Librescu in Ra’anana, Israel, April 20, 2007. (David Silverman/Getty Images)

Librescu developed a reputation as an almost obsessively prolific participant in academic conferences, perhaps a result of being cut off from the scientific community for so much of his career (at the time of his death, Librescu was preparing papers for three conferences he planned on attending over the summer of 2007). He had close friendships in Blacksburg. Pier Marzocca, a former Virginia Tech professor who is now associate dean of the school of engineering at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, described Librescu as “a father figure” in an email. Marzocca wrote that he ate with Librescu nearly every Sunday night for four years. Librescu frequently shared anecdotes of his time back in Europe, something his colleagues seemed to welcome: After all, the Romanian had seen more of the world and its possibilities than any of them had seen, or probably wanted to. “Although now 10 years later those memories are somewhat blending in, some of these conversations are very vivid and his way of living is very much inspirational to me,” Marzocca said.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Librescu’s actions—for which he was posthumously awarded Romania’s highest civilian honor—were a much needed source of hope and resilience for a shattered Virginia Tech community. Rabbi Zwiebel arrived in Blacksburg two years after the shooting, a time when memories of the April 16th massacre were still raw. Zwiebel has drawn on Librescu’s example in his own work on campus over the years. “We try to teach this selfless legacy to the students, and that’s what Torah’s about,” Zwiebel said. “Sometimes things are bigger than us.”

Part of Zwiebel’s responsibilities include helping to commemorate the massacre and Librescu’s heroism. On April 24, the 28th of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar—which is both Yom HaShoah and the 10th Hebrew anniversary of Librescu’s death—the Virginia Tech Chabad house is organizing a memorial event in which a Holocaust survivor and one of Librescu’s two sons will speak. “You try to take a Jewish perspective of what we can learn out of it, and how we can grow out of it,” Zwiebel said of the 2007 shooting.

Ten years later, perhaps Librescu’s greatest legacy is that he gave nearly two-dozen people a chance to continue their lives. Even after a decade of thinking over his friend and colleague’s decision to barricade his classroom door, Puri is still in awe of Librescu’s contribution to the world—something which, as Puri notes, is almost impossible to really measure. “I don’t think that you’re saving the person momentarily. You’re saving a life. You’re saving 22 lives. Those 22 lives then go on to contribute to society. They multiply. Those 22 lives go on into other generations. I mean that’s what’s mind-blowing about what Liviu did. It’s quite possible that some of the students who were students 10 years ago have kids today. It’s because of one man, right?”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.