A Jewish Hero at Virginia Tech

Amid the horror of the massacre at Virginia Tech, the story of a hero is being told. One brave professor blocked the door to his second-floor classroom, holding it closed until his students could flee out the window. In doing so, he gave his own life. [Update: President Bush mentioned Prof. Librescu in a news conference, as well as the fact that this Holocaust Survivor gave his life on Holocaust Remembrance Day. “We honor his memory,” said the President, “and take strength from his example.”]

Liviu Librescu was an Israeli, a survivor of the Holocaust. He was a Jew. And although he did not have an easy life, one that could have made him bitter, he instead devoted himself not only to teaching, but to others. The Jerusalem Post quotes his son Joe: “He saw himself as the ambassador of Israel to that part of the world, to an American university that had few Israelis but many representatives from the Arab world.”

A teenager during WWII, he survived fascist Romania and life in the shadow of the Gestapo. His father was deported to a forced labor camp during the war, while Librescu spend part of the war in relative safety in Russia, Joe Librescu said. “Afterward, he endured [communist dictator Nicolae] Ceaucescu’s Romania.”

As a scientist, his contacts with the outside world were blocked. When his desire to leave for Israel became known, he was forced to resign his position without knowing whether he would find other work. “Nevertheless, and at risk to his life, he continued to publish,” Librescu said. “So I wasn’t surprised at what he did when [facing] the shooter [Monday].”

Most professors who survived life in the former Soviet Union were not particularly religious — what they had was driven underground. In their photo montage of the casualties, CBS showed his university photo, and the JPost used that picture as well. But on their page entitled “Tales Of Heroism, Death And Survival,” the family-provided photo of Prof. Librescu shows him wearing a yarmulke. It is appropriate, because his death, widely publicized as a heroic act of martyrdom from an Israeli Holocaust survivor, was mekadesh shem shamayim [sanctified the Name of Heaven].

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3 Responses

  1. Noam says:

    thanks for the post.

  2. Phil Goode says:

    I in no way wish to diminish the heroism demonstrated by Prof. Librescu. As a person steeped in the mores of Western culture I can not help but applaud/admire this ultimate act of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.

    But, cross-currents hashkafa and honesty force the following questions: (I do not ask the questions with sarcasm or cynicism; I do not really understand the full implications of this hashkafa) :

    – did his action conform with halacha – to wit, is a Jew permitted to endanger himself to save the life of a non-Jew? Of course, I don’t know the precise circumstances of the incident, but it seems important to know before describing the incident as a kiddush Hashem (*See below a citation from JLaw which might be relevant.)

    – if an action is not done with the intent of kiddush Hashem or to fulfill a mitzvah, can it be considered a kiddush Hashem?

    – was the action appropriate? – would it have been better to recite a chapter of Tehillim, learn a daf of gemara, or pray for divine intervention? If not, when is this appropriate?

    – why all the hoopla surrounding this elderly gentleman but the hundreds and thousands of men in their prime (members of IDF, all kedoshim in this writer’s opinion) who gave their lives on behalf of the Jewish people merit nary a mention on these pages; why no calls in the yeshiva world to attend their levayos?

    Thanks for letting me post,

    *32. The Beit Yosef, C.M. 426, quotes the Talmud Yerushalmi that one is obligated to expose oneself to possible danger in order to extricate another from certain danger. This rule is not quoted by either the Shulchan Aruch or Rema. According to Sema and Pitchai Teshuva, the Talmud Bavli disputes the Yerushalmi’s premise and the halacha follows the Bavli. See also Teshuvot Radbaz, no. 627 (It is forbidden to endanger oneself to save another. One who does is a chassid shoteh – a foolish pious person). Others permit (but don’t require) self-endangerment if the person to be rescued is a superior talmid chacham etc. but prohibit such endangerment if the rescuer is greater. Pitchai Teshuvah Y.D. 252:1 in name of Teshuvot Yad Eliyahu, no. 43. L’halacha, we permit altruistic volunteering regardless of the rescuer’s status but don’t compel it. See Igrot Moshe Y.D. II, 174:4 (kidney transplant) and Aruch HaShulchan C.M. 421:4 (cautioning, however, that one should not be overly protective and cautious of one’s safety in declining to render assistance). For further discussion, see Nishmat Avraham Y.D. 156:4 and 252:1.

  3. Yaakov Menken says:


    I don’t see where the question begins. He didn’t know he would be killed or the Jewish/non-Jewish ratio of the class. He didn’t go ask halacha shaylos. It was an instinctive and heroic act.

    You are also in error with regards to IDF soldiers who lost their lives to save their comrades, such as the father of three young children who fell on a grenade in Lebanon to save the members of his unit. I recall that his heroism was honored here.

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