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The Holocaust survivor who saved a classroom

Student witnesses say Prof. Liviu Librescu saved their lives during Cho Seung-Hui's deadly rampage at Virginia Tech.

By Josh MitnickCorrespondent, Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer / April 20, 2007

Raanana, Israel and Jerusalem

Liviu Librescu had faced danger before. He survived the Holocaust to be persecuted under the regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu for requesting to immigrate to Israel.

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On Monday, the professor was confronted with another kind of threat.

When the sound of gunfire neared his solid mechanics lecture inside Virginia Tech's Norris Hall, there was confusion, according to reports from student witnesses. They dove under desks, darted to the windows. But, students say, Librescu headed for the door, blocking the gunman from entering. As shots rang out, he stood there.

That act of courage gave his class priceless seconds to escape, saving them from Cho Seung-Hui's deadly rampage. But not himself.

"He was able to teach his last lesson of bravery in the face of hatred," said Joe Librescu on Thursday, moments before leaving to meet his father's coffin at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. Professor Librescu will be laid to rest Friday morning in a cemetery in Raanana, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

His eldest son spoke from the family residence in Israel, where Librescu left in the 1980s to begin teaching at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Joe Librescu said his father considered students like family, offering financial support, home hospitality, and even defending those with disciplinary problems.

"In everyone he saw some light. If they had the will to pursue study, he would help them do that," he said.

'He was a private man'

Raised in the southern Romanian city of Ploiesti, Librescu saw his father, a lawyer, deported to a labor camp when the country came under the domination of Nazi Germany during World War II.

Young Liviu and his mother were forced to relocate with other Jews to the city of Foscani, where the adolescent math whiz tutored students to help support the family. The family was reunited after the end of the war.

It was an era that the Virginia Tech professor discussed with few people, and even his own children said he did not share the hardship and heroism he witnessed in wartime Romania.

As much as the professor offered assistance to students in need, he kept his own trials to himself: After being diagnosed with prostate cancer more than a year ago, he refused to tell family members, colleagues, or students.

"He didn't want to bother everyone with his own issues," said Joe Librescu. "He was a private man."

As a young man in Communist Romania, where secret police seemed ubiquitous, Librescu's privacy was a necessary tool for survival. After getting a masters degree from the Polytechnic Institute of Bucharest in 1953 and a doctorate from the Institute of Fluid Mechanics at Romania's science academy, the scientist was employed by the country's leading aerospace manufacturer.

But he worked under a cloud of suspicion because he had two strikes against him: He was Jewish and he refused to join the Communist Party. After being passed over for promotions, friends urged him to become a member, but he still resisted.

"It was a struggle, but he couldn't go against his conscience," his son said.

His application to emigrate to Israel in 1975 exposed another taboo in Communist-era Europe: Zionism. The regime responded by firing him from his job, and the family was forced to make ends meet by selling their furniture.

"The dismissal was for the purpose of starving him," said his son. "Those were times of extreme pressure and hardship. They were saying, 'Now you can leave,' and then, 'No you can't.' "

He never told his children of the request to move to Israel or his dismissal, leaving and returning to the house daily with his briefcase as if nothing had changed. Despite being unemployed and under the watch of the state, he continued to defy the authorities by writing a scholarly book in secret and mailing portions of the work out of the country so it could be published in the Netherlands, his son said.