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 , Correspondent , Staff writer

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.

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.

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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.

His expertise was noticed by scientists at Israel's Technion Institute and Israel Aircraft Industries, who pressed then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to appeal to Ceausescu to approve the family's exit, which was ultimately granted in 1978.

In Israel, he joined the faculty of Tel Aviv University, but it was on a sabbatical in Virginia where he and his wife discovered the community where he would thrive academically.

At Virginia Tech, there was plentiful funding from government and companies to pursue his aeroscience research –and he was exposed to students from all over the world who he took under his wing.

Colleagues' shock

When Yaakov Aboudi heard about the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, he immediately thought of his old friend and colleague, Professor Librescu. The men had known each other for more than 25 years, and Mr. Aboudi had once taught, while on sabbatical, in the very same Virginia Tech classroom as his friend.

But he knew what hours Librescu liked to teach class, so he decided he shouldn't worry too much.

"I immediate sent him an e-mail and said, 'I know you usually come in at noon, so I assume everything is okay with you.' "

He never received an answer.

"I know that classroom, and I know he could have jumped from the window to the grass. But I guess it's just an instinct: He decided to protect his students, which is what a professor should do," says Aboudi, an engineering professor.

Doron Shalev remembers him as a dedicated academic who would regularly burn the midnight oil. Dr. Shalev is an Israeli scientist who did his PhD at Virginia Tech under Librescu, and authored several papers with him.

"We used to work until 2 or 3 a.m., and then we would put things aside and talk," says Shalev, who heads an engineering firm in the Tel Aviv area. "He would tell me about how he got through life in Romania and what he had to go through there once he declared to the authorities that he wanted to go to Israel."

While Librescu never talked about his experiences in the Holocaust, Shalev says, he did talk about his life in Romania, surrounded by constant fear and a lack of basic freedoms.

"Living in a communist regime for so long had a great impact on his mentality," Shalev says. "When he wanted to discuss important matters with his wife, he used to go outside the house and have a quiet talk in the garden. Never in the house, because it might be bugged. It's a habit he grew up with and then kept."

Both men loved living in Blacksburg, Shalev recalls. When a tree fell on his house during a hurricane, he joked about how he'd suffered so many difficulties in his younger life only to have a tree collapse on his home.

At the Virginia Tech campus, says aeronautics professor Demetri Telionis, Lebrescu walked at the pace of a much younger man, stood straight, and spoke his mind.

"But he was reasonable and his students loved him very much," says Professor Telionis, who called Lebrescu the department's greatest scholar by virtue of dozens and dozens of articles and books he wrote on topics ranging from aerolastic response to space vehicle control.

The two men – a Greek and Romanian – often talked of their homelands. Lebrescu recounted the dark, oppressed days of "the most miserable years of Communist rule" under the cruel Romanian regime, he says.

If those harrowing life experiences played into Lebrescu's actions Monday morning, Telionis is not sure. But because of Lebrescue's courageous – and fatal – doorway stand against the gunman, the engineering department did not lose a single student.

Staff Writer Patrick Jonsson contributed to this report from Blacksburg, Va.

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