Professor Liviu Librescu of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University led a remarkable life. According to an account in Haaretz:
When Romania joined forces with Nazi Germany in World War II, the young Librescu was interned in a labor camp, and then sent along with his family and thousands of other Jews to a central ghetto in the city of Focsani, his son said. Hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews were killed by the collaborationist regime during the war.
Librescu later found work at a government aerospace company. But his career was stymied in the 1970s because he refused to swear allegiance to the Communist regime, his son said, and he was later fired when he requested permission to move to Israel.
In 1977, according to his son, Israel's then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin personally intervened to get the family an emigration permit, and they left for Israel in 1978.
Librescu left Israel for Virginia in 1985 for a sabbatical year, but eventually made the move permanent, said Joe Librescu, who himself studied at Virginia Tech from 1989 to 1994.
The list of his honors and awards, publications, professional associations and classes taught is remarkable (HT: Anne Lieberman). It is also remarkable that, at age 76, he was still teaching undergraduates, early in the morning, as he was yesterday.
But nothing can be more remarkable than the manner in which he, at age 76, reacted to the attempted mass murder of his students. Here is how it happened, as described by Richard Mallalieu, one of the students who escaped to live as a result of what Liviu Librescu did:
In Monday morning's lecture on solid mechanics, all was quiet except for the sound of Professor Liviu Librescu's voice.
Then came the gunshots -- in the classroom next door. In an instant, Virginia Tech's Norris Hall, a building dedicated to the science of engineering, was torn apart by the worst shooting rampage in modern U.S. history.
Junior Richard Mallalieu said he and about 20 classmates instantly dropped to the floor, ducking under and behind desks for what sounded like the first 10 shots.
"It wasn't like an automatic weapon, but it was a steady 'pow,' 'pow,' 'pow,' 'pow,' " Mallalieu, 23, said in a phone interview with The Sun. "We didn't know what to do at first."
Then the sound of the gunshots shifted. Coming closer. . . .
Mallalieu said his professor held the door shut while students darted to the windows. Some climbed on desks, ledges and a radiator cover to pull down the screens and kick at the metal-framed glass, Mallalieu said. Three windows easily gave way and swung open on hinges as the gunshots got louder. . . .
Once the windows for the second-floor classroom were open, Mallalieu and most of his classmates hung out of them and dropped about 10 feet to bushes and grass below, he said. . . .
Mallalieu said he never saw Librescu escape. "I don't think my teacher got out."
Naomi Ragen’s words start to capture how remarkable this was (HT: Nurit):
“As someone who has survived a terror attack myself, I would like to say that the decision to stay put and save others when your own life is in danger goes against every human instinct; it is heroism and self-sacrifice on a scale that is unimaginable and that cannot even be fully appreciated by most human beings. For a (Holocaust) survivor to give up his life after two decades of peace and quiet in the most pastoral of settings is a tragedy for his family, and for all of us.”
Halfway around the world, the academic community in Romania also was mourning Librescu's death. At Bucharest Polytechnic University, where he received an honorary degree in 2000, they were honoring him yesterday:
"It is a great loss," said Ecaterina Andronescu, rector of the Polytechnic University in Bucharest, where Librescu graduated with a degree in mechanics and aviation construction in 1953.
"We have immense consideration for the way he reacted and defended his students with his life."
At the university, people placed flowers on a table holding his picture and a lit candle. "We remember him as a great specialist in aeronautics. He left behind hundreds of prestigious papers," said professor Nicolae Serban Tomescu.
He survived the Nazis, and the Communists, and taught young students for more than 20 years while compiling a list of academic accomplishments that is daunting. And then, in a flash, he showed a heroism we can barely understand, and can only honor.