In Israel
A Nation Honors Scientist and Teacher Whose Selflessness ‘Gave Life to Many’

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 21, 2007; Page A09

RA’ANANA, Israel, April 20 — Amid the citrus groves of Israel’s coastal plain, friends, family and former colleagues gathered Friday to bury Liviu Librescu, the Virginia Tech professor who died shielding a classroom full of engineering students from a rampaging gunman.

That act has made Librescu, 76, a hero in this country, where he arrived nearly three decades ago after surviving the Holocaust and securing the right to leave communist Romania after years of trying.

Those who assembled in a cemetery here held up his life as an example to all Israelis, who have celebrated Librescu since his murder as an ideal ambassador for this nation that worries over its image abroad and, at the moment, the quality of its leadership at home.

He was remembered as a dedicated scientist and teacher, an aeronautical engineer who won international acclaim for his research but never learned how to drive or master such modern amenities as e-mail. Also recalled was the stark terror of his final moments in a Blacksburg classroom.

Librescu was killed on a day when Israel paused to remember the victims of the Holocaust, which he endured in Romania and Russia. The coincidence added to the poignancy of the occasion for many of the more than 100 Jewish mourners.

“He did not hesitate to use his body to block the door,” said Zeev Bielski, a former mayor of this upper-middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv who now heads the Jewish Agency for Israel. “In that way, he gave life to many.”

Librescu lived in Israel for eight years, teaching engineering at Tel Aviv University. A dissident in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania, Librescu was fired from his government aerospace job when he applied to emigrate. Prime Minister Menachem Begin intervened personally in 1977 to secure Librescu’s passage to Israel the following year.

Librescu could not speak Hebrew when he arrived. But he was hired quickly by Tel Aviv University’s engineering department because of his reputation as a brilliant researcher who had published prolifically. His official résumé runs to 61 pages.

“Where did he die? In the heart of the academy, in the classroom,” said Yakov Aboudi, a Tel Aviv University emeritus professor and a friend of Librescu’s who had helped hire him. “Was there a better place for him? It’s where he wanted to be.”

As spires of cypress swayed amid the tangerine orchards in a slight breeze, mourners clustered around Librescu’s shroud-covered body. His two sons, Joe and Arie, live here, and his widow, Marlena, also a Holocaust survivor, has said she intends to return.

“God gave, and God took,” a rabbi sang in the plaintive opening prayer.

“We lived 42 years together, day by day,” Marlena said in a tearful eulogy. “I looked to your wisdom and your advice. And I thank you for the two children you gave us.

“I ask forgiveness of you,” she continued as many mourners, tears streaming down cheeks, looked toward the ground. “And feel a lot of pain thinking of the last few minutes of your life.”

Joe, 40, said, “Father, I have so many questions for you that I have not asked.”

“I’m proud of you,” he added. “I walked in the street today proud I have such a father.”

Arie, 36, reminded the crowd that his disciplined father would probably be wondering what all the fuss was about.

“I believe you are looking at us from above, at this gathering, and saying: ‘What, don’t you have anything to do? I did what I had to do,’ ” Arie said. “A hero has to have a combination of characteristics, which you had.”

A representative of the Romanian government awarded Librescu the Star of Romania, its highest civilian honor. Chabad, the outreach arm of the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher movement, announced that it would open a Chabad House on the Virginia Tech campus in his name.

After Marlena leaned over her husband’s body for a last embrace, mourners proceeded along a cypress-lined path to a freshly dug grave. They lowered him in, and one by one family members and friends threw spadefuls of earth over the body.

“We didn’t know him, but came just to show respect for someone who seemed to be a very special man,” said Reuben Katzen, a 25-year-old engineering student from Ra’anana, who stood with Yael Gross, 23, as the grave was filled.

Nearby, Zvi Ben-Dov and Jacques Gheber stood in the strengthening sun in blazers, ties and blue satin skullcaps. As boys, the men were Librescu’s schoolmates in the central Romanian town of Focsani.

Ben-Dov, 75, kept in touch with Librescu through e-mail, although the professor mostly depended on his wife to type and send his dictated replies.

Ben-Dov sent him a note before Passover earlier this month, asking whether Librescu would accompany him in May on his first visit to Focsani since he left 60 years ago. Librescu declined, saying he would be lecturing in Taiwan.

“Every year there are fewer and fewer of us of this age and from that place,” Ben-Dov said, watching over the grave. “It was a heroic life.”