Category Archive: Together

The Holocaust Play That Helped the Roman Catholic Church Reject Anti-Semitism

The Deputy, a blistering attack on Pope Pius XII’s response to the Holocaust, was the first major German work to openly address the question of the country’s complicity in the Holocaust. In the play, the heroic character Father Riccardo declares, “A deputy of Christ who sees these things and nonetheless permits reasons of state to seal his lips … that pope is a criminal.” Authored by Rolf Hochhuth, an unknown 31-year-old playwright who had belonged to the Hitler Youth, the play was brought to the stage by its legendary and by then elderly director, Erwin Piscator, and Leo Kerz, a Jewish refugee and The Deputy’s costume and set designer. It premiered in 1963 at West Berlin’s Freie Voklsbühne Theater.

Curious about the play’s genesis and reception, I recently interviewed Louise Hirschfeld, Kerz’s wife. Her husband, a Jew in left-wing German theater, had fled Berlin in 1933, eventually settling in the United States. His family remained behind and perished at Sobibor. I wondered what it had been like for Kerz to be back in Germany only 18 years after the war’s end, staging a major and controversial Holocaust work.

The force behind the staging of The Deputy, Hirschfeld said, was Erwin Piscator. By the early 1960s, the famed director who had delighted and shocked Weimar Germans with his left-wing politics and technological innovations had, in Kerz’s words, come to be regarded as “The Grand Old Man who had outlived himself.” Piscator disagreed. Believing that it was the artist’s responsibility to confront the Holocaust, he decided to produce The Deputy. The moment was favorable: A year earlier, the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, reported around the world, had stirred interest in the Holocaust.

Assembling his team, Piscator wrote to Kerz, his former student, in New York. “I need you here to design a play by an author who has not written for the stage before. … You will see yourself that the subject matter has to be treated delicately.” Without hesitation, Kerz accepted.

In the winter of ’62 Hirschfeld and her husband arrived in West Berlin, a city encircled by parallel concrete and barbed-wire fences, the beginnings of the Berlin Wall. Avoiding the city’s center, they rented a refurbished chalet in the Gruenwald suburb. “There were bullet holes in every other building surrounding us,” Hirschfeld recalled. Queried as to how her husband dealt with these constant reminders of the war, she answered, “He just threw himself into his work.”

Kerz had years of experience to draw on having worked for CBS TV, Broadway, and the Metropolitan Opera. Still, The Deputy had its singular challenges. “Don’t forget the play was eight hours long,” Hirschfeld commented. “He had to read that. And as things were cut, it was reduced to five and then to three hours, he had to redo the sets.”

Using photographs, Kerz designed huge and haunting concentration-camp murals. He had eschewed abstract and modern designs, favored by Piscator, for realism. “He couldn’t do something that used contemporary art or covered something up,” remembered Hirschfeld. After all, he was the one member of the production team directly connected to the Holocaust. “When I saw them,” Hirschfeld recalled, “I knew that his emotions were on full-force.”

One morning, Kerz arrived at the theater and discovered that the stage painters had their own sense of reality. “I’ll never forget it,” Hirschfeld stated, “murals of Jewish prisoners, all with hooked noses, like the kind of terrible anti-Semitic drawings that existed during the Nazi period.” Kerz exploded; why hadn’t they followed his drawings? Confused and exasperated, they retorted “but they are Jews.” He fired back, “Well, I am Jewish and I don’t have that kind of nose.”

Consumed by the myriad production tasks, long intense work days, and occasional disagreements, The Deputy’s team failed to fully appreciate that outside the theater walls, controversy was mounting daily. “I don’t think they were really prepared,” Hirschfeld surmised. “However, when the Krupp family and the Vatican sent lawyers to try and stop it, they started to realize that this was really explosive material.”

“I don’t think it would create such a stir today,” notes Rabbi A. James Rudin, author and former director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee. “But at the time, and I was a congregational rabbi in Illinois, it was an enormous debate. Pius was the pope for 19 years, through WWII and then 13 years after the war. So for many Catholics, he was the only pope they ever knew. He was ascetic, had a prayerful mode, lean, and very formidable. So for anybody to criticize him, in any way, came as a shock. And then to criticize him for perceived inaction or worse during WWII, that came as an even greater shock.”

Just weeks before the premiere, Father Hans Muller spoke before 5,000 West Berlin Catholics, urging them to fight this defamation. But Catholics, a small percentage of Berlin’s population, were hardly the only outraged Germans. For while Pius may have failed to respond with adequate moral force to the Holocaust, it was not the pope but Nazi Germany that had initiated, planned, and executed these monstrous crimes. Germans who preferred that this past remained buried understood that The Deputy, in a loud and public fashion, would raise uncomfortable questions. The play broke “the loud silence” of the 1950s when Holocaust discussion was avoided, explained Dr. Erika Fischer-Lichte, professor of theater at the Freie Universitate Berlin. A student at the time, she attended three performances. “The Deputy,” she notes, “marks the beginning of a process that was long overdue.”

***

On Feb. 20, 1963, after close to 12 months of tension-filled work, Kerz and his wife arrived at the theater for the premiere. Standing outside were police in riot gear. If the cast and crew had been unsettled by the police and demonstrators, by the end of the evening they had their reward. “Piscator, Hochhuth, and Kerz, all stood on stage holding hands to thunderous ovations,” recalled Hirschfeld. There was good reason to celebrate that evening. But Kerz skipped the cast party, opting for a quiet night with his wife and Robert Lackenbach, an American photographer. “He wanted to be with Americans,” Hirschfeld stated.

During their stay in Germany, they had lived in Berlin, without ever being of the city. Once, while driving, Kerz looked out at the multitude of shiny Mercedes and Volkswagens, turned to his wife and scoffed, “Oh, sometimes I really feel like just ramming right into them.” Outside of work, Kerz had had little contact with “them”—Germans—for their social orbit had been a group of American journalists, what Hirschfeld called “their rock.”

Leo Kerz with his wife Louise Hirschfeld in an undated photo. (Photo courtesy Louise Hirschfeld)
Yet alienation and anger, while clearly present, were never strong enough to erase Kerz’s German identity. Hirschfeld is certain that her husband’s decision to join The Deputy’s crew was based in part on a desire to reconcile with his homeland. As a child and young man in Berlin he had, in her words, “lived in a large world.” A bundle of talent; Kerz had been like a firecracker that could explode in multiple directions. He played the violin at the age of 4, participated in gymnastics and boxing, thought of becoming a conductor, studied watercolor with the famed painter Paul Klee, and later design with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, one of the city’s most respected stage designers. “I think,” his wife noted, “it was difficult to separate from all that.”

Shortly after The Deputy’s premiere, Kerz and his wife returned to New York. Kerz had completed his work but the life of the play had just begun. It opened in cities across Western Europe. In Paris, Archbishop Cardinal Feltin denounced the play as “useless accusations and sterile polemics.” Unwittingly he helped to put it on the front page of the city’s daily papers and ticket sales exploded. On opening night, angry theatergoers hurled protest pamphlets from the balcony. In Basel, the theater received bomb threats, while in Vienna verbal altercations between the play’s supporters and detractors became so raucous that the police were called in to restore order.

The situation was the same in the United States. New York City Mayor Robert Wagner was flooded with letters urging him to revoke the Brooks Atkinson Theater’s license. Producer Herman Shumlin, citing the “deep antagonism” toward the play, offered his cast members an unconditional release from their contracts. They all stayed. Opening night, protesters paraded with signs, “Bigots Enjoy The Deputy” and “Shumlin is a Bigot.”

The protests were not the entire story. Dr. Albert Schweitzer, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, viewed The Deputy as “a solemn warning to our culture admonishing us to forgo our acceptance of inhumanity.” Walter Kerr, prominent New York drama critic and American Catholic, despite finding The Deputy void of artistic merit, wrote, “Without the play, we might not have looked into ourselves, and the looking—in my opinion, for what it is worth—is due, salutary and already profitable.”

A notable cleric who “looked in” was German Bishop Josef Stangl. In 1964, when the Second Vatican Council reached an impasse regarding the rejection of the deicide charge, the belief that the Jews were collectively responsible and thus damned for killing Christ, Stangl realized he could not remain silent. Speaking to his fellow clerics, he recalled the controversy and pain The Deputy had produced in his German homeland. He concluded with a challenge: Addressing the councilmen as “Deputies of the Lord,” he urged them to issue a message of “truth not tactics.”

“Stangl’s moving address broke the ice,” wrote historian Michael Phayer. “The Council Fathers moved ahead with deliberations on Nostra Aetate. A German bishop had made a significant contribution to reversing the church’s anti-Semitism.”

Leo Kerz died in 1976, after decades of notable and award-winning work in both the American and German theater. His wife notes that he had always been careful in selecting his projects, always wanting to do serious productions. In selecting The Deputy, he chose wisely.

The Holocaust Play That Helped the Roman Catholic Church Reject Anti-Semitism

The four-and-a-half-hour Nazi documentary you can’t afford to miss

NEW YORK — Marcel Ophuls demands your time. Moreover, the 89-year-old documentary film director, born in Germany and holding French and American citizenship, deserves it.

The son of German-Jewish director Max Ophuls (a giant of world cinema whose films include “The Earrings of Madame de…” and “Lola Montès”), Marcel began his career as an actor and assistant director to his father in France, where his family fled during World War II. He made some successful films, including the Jean-Paul Belmondo – Jeanne Moreau romp “Banana Peel,” but in time he turned toward documentaries, making some of the most important works about the 20th century’s darkest moments.

His most lasting achievements can be seen as a trilogy. In 1969 he released “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a penetrating exposé into the culture of French collaboration during WWII. If you remember the “Annie Hall” joke about “a four-hour documentary on Nazis,” this is the one they are talking about. And that length is actually selling it a tad short.

In 1988 he won the Academy Award for “Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbi,” a thorough examination into the life of the Nazi war criminal, his capture and trial. It’s four hours and 27 minutes, and absolutely staggering.

In between these two highly-regarded works was a middle child: “The Memory of Justice,” released in 1976. A bold and philosophical project, Ophuls himself recently referred to it as “flopp[ing] pretty badly when it came out [but] the best work I ever did in my life, or at any rate the most personal and the most sincere of my films.”

Thanks to Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and a handful of other organizations, this four hour and 38-minute movie — the longest of the bunch — was recently retrieved from the vault, cleaned up, given new subtitles and had all the original audio reinstated, ridding it of dubs.

So, what is “The Memory of Justice”?

Much of it focuses on the Nuremberg Trials, but it is far more than a beat-by-beat explanation of that process. It uses Nuremberg as a springboard to ask unanswerable questions. What is justice in the face of an atrocity like the Holocaust? Should the victors in a war be the ones to sit in judgement? And how can those same victors charge people with the death of innocents after blasting Dresden and Hiroshima to bits?

“Whoa, whoa, whoa — that last one’s a little different,” I can hear you saying from here. And most would agree, including Ophuls. But if ever there’s a time to give the conversation a solid working-over in your mind, it’s during this film and with the people that inhabit it.

‘It takes a movie like this, with actual real life Nazis, to splash cold water on that sort of hyperbole’
Its interview subjects range from Nuremberg players such as American assistant counsel Telford Taylor, British prosecutor Hartley Shawcross, a number of tattooed witnesses and some of the surviving defendants. This was, for me anyway, the most shocking aspect. The current political rhetoric, at least online, is to flippantly call someone with bellicose or closed-minded attitudes a Nazi. It takes a movie like this, with, like, actual real-life Nazis, to splash cold water on that sort of hyperbole.

Albert Speer, done with his 20-year prison sentence, is the guilt-ridden, “noble” Nazi who, at least on paper, has all the alibis he needs to kinda-sorta wiggle out of the more heinous moral accusations. At one point he says to Ophuls that, no, he didn’t know the full scale of the Nazi crimes, but he could have known more. The implication is that he intentionally kept himself ignorant and, quite frankly, anyone who can’t recognize the lure of that position is probably lying to themselves a little bit.

More startling is Karl Dönitz, Navy Admiral and final head of the Third Reich after Hitlers’ suicide. Unrepentant in his beliefs and living well in his old age, this sickening individual is among the more repellent screen villains you’ll ever see.

This sickening individual is among the more repellent screen villains you’ll ever see
More depressing is a villager Ophuls meets while on the hunt for the concentration camp where Dr. Herta Oberheuser, who apparently had quite a successful practice later in life, performed her nefarious human experiments.

But this local, nameless chap, fishing rod in hand, is eager to talk about the glorious Nazi years, when there was no crime and everyone knew their place. He crinkles his nose when Ophuls brings up Auschwitz — it was unnecessary, he shrugs in agreement — but soon swats it away as an afterthought.

These smaller moments — the chase toward the truth, the hunt for a revelation just out of grasp — are what makes Ophuls’ films so fascinating. “The Memory of Justice” draws its name from Plato’s concepts of the perfect and forgotten ideals that man strives in vain to recapture. With this acceptance of fallibility, the movie itself becomes an expression of this, and grace notes are found in the in-between fragments: the setting up of an interview, the chatter before the questions, Ophuls’ willingness to interrupt and have a conversation that sends this into a whole other level of journalism.

This manifests itself on a visual level, too. Unlike today’s documentaries in which subjects are always shot in a studio, lit before gray or black backgrounds, Ophuls brings his camera into peoples’ homes. The Nazis put on their best suits. The British noblemen are framed by a fireplace or fine paintings. The American scholars and professors speak from their kitchens, cans of Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee visible on the counter. There’s an immediacy to each scene that is terrifyingly real.

This is a four-and-a-half hour film, so clearly I’m leaving a lot out — for example, the segments with Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, which are extraordinary. If the names sound familiar that’s because two narrative films have been made about them (one starring Farrah Fawcett). But where “The Memory of Justice” throws us a curve, and what may have been responsible for its initial financial failure, is when it jumps ahead to modern times to discuss, at length, the Vietnam War.

It is unclear precisely what Ophuls wants to say about Nazi crimes versus American atrocities in Vietnam, but he definitely wants you to find a line and dot it yourself. The massacre at My Lai is given special focus, and commentary from Daniel Ellsberg and John Kenneth Galbraith and others are mixed with stories from parents and widows of American soldiers who died during the conflict.

It’s all very upsetting but it’s also all very… thoughtful? Adult? Mature?

Watching this movie in 2017, it’s amazing to see these topics discussed with sincerity and intellect and, most importantly, at a speed that seems human. Television news today, at least in the United States, is about as meaningful as professional wrestling.

‘Television news today, at least in the United States, is about as meaningful as professional wrestling’
Hacks are given 11 seconds to shout sound-bytes at one another before the next commercial break. As disgusting as the sentiment may seem, to watch someone have a polite and calm conversation with a Nazi is a refreshing change of pace in the current infotainment landscape.

And that’s where there’s some good news. This new restoration is airing on HBO2 on April 24 (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and will remain streamable on HBO Go indefinitely. But that doesn’t mean you should let it linger. This movie is over 40 years old. The time has come to make some time.

All roads lead to Lviv: Family history, genocide, and the trials that changed the world

ONDON — Seven years ago British human rights lawyer and law academic Philippe Sands was asked to deliver a lecture in a university in Lviv, western Ukraine.

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Up for discussion were two topics: Sands’ specialized knowledge about the Nuremberg Trials, and his work as a barrister in helping to set up the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague in 1998.

But there was more at stake than just a professional opportunity for Sands — he had family history connecting him to the city, too: Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, was born in Lviv in 1904. And while Sands had enjoyed a close relationship with Leon — who died in Paris in 1997 — he knew little about his life in central Europe before 1945.

“I’ve come to understand that within every family there are secrets and silences,” Sands explains from his home in Hampstead, north London. “But eventually they come out.”

A hitherto unknown narrative began to unfold itself as the lawyer and author looked back through old correspondence and found subtle hints in faded black and white photographs. He traveled to Israel to interview close relatives who brought him closer to his family tree.

The skeleton that came out of the closet was that Sands’ grandfather Buchholz was most likely gay, and had a male lover called Max for many years.

Sands also learned that his grandmother Rita, while estranged from her husband and Sands’ mother, Ruth, who were back in Paris at the time, almost certainly had an affair with another man in Vienna during these years too.

Philippe Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz with Max in 1936. (Courtesy)
Philippe Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz with Max in 1936. (Courtesy)

“I’m careful not to draw strong conclusions,” Sands says rather cautiously, “because you learn litigating cases that nothing is ever as it seems.”

Family history is not the only topic unearthed in Sands’ intriguing but rather complicated book, “East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity” which he’ll be promoting in Israel on April 23 at an event at Djanogly Hall in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem.

Using Lviv as a mysterious and mythological milieu, Sands attempts to explain an especially dark epoch of European history. He does this by interlinking a number of biographical stories that run parallel to one another — all of which, rather bizarrely, connect to the history of the city, but also to the Holocaust, and the international world legal system that followed it.

Cover of ‘East West Street’ by Philippe Sands. (Courtesy)
Cover of ‘East West Street’ by Philippe Sands. (Courtesy)

Sands’ book introduces us, for instance, to the two Jewish legal masterminds Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin — both born, raised and educated in this central European city — who were key players in developing the international legal system that arose during the Nuremberg Trial of 1945 and 1946.

The former became known as the father of the human rights movement, coming up with the legal term “crimes against humanity” during the Nuremberg trial. The latter was a public prosecutor and lawyer who worked on the trial too, and coined the term “genocide.”

The phrase “crimes against humanity” was used in the final judgment of the Nuremberg Trials in October 1946 by the four Allied powers, as they passed down the death sentence to 12 Nazis by hanging.

While “genocide” was mentioned, it did not feature as an official legal term in the final judgment.

This difference of formal legal opinion that took place over the course of the Nuremberg Trials — regarding war crimes committed in the Holocaust — becomes a central theme debated in Sands’ latest book.

Lauterpacht, with his term “crimes against humanity,” opted for protecting the rights of the individual over a racial or religious group, Sands explains.

Raphael Lemkin. (Public domain)
Raphael Lemkin. (Public domain)

Lemkin, on the other hand, claimed that the stark reality was that mass murder and violence took place because individuals were members of a group, and were consequently targeted because of it.

“What both men had in common was that they were trying to use international law as a way to protect people who were under threat, irrespective of their nationality, race, or religion,” says Sands.

“The essential issue that Lemkin and Lauterpacht were struggling with is how individual human beings who form part of a minority group define themselves. And how the bigger community protects them,” Sands adds.

Since publication last year, Sands’ latest book has been translated into over 14 languages — although interestingly, not yet into Hebrew.

It won the Baillie Gifford Prize, and was recently announced as joint winner of the Jewish Quarterly Wingate literary prize.

‘The issue is how individual human beings who form part of a minority group define themselves and how the bigger community protects them’
The book’s mass popularity may come from the fact that its themes are universal ones — love and betrayal in complicated family narratives; a study on the modern European conscience; a compelling analysis of how the Holocaust was first talked about in legal and moral terms in the international community. An important discussion emerges, too, about how universal human rights first emerged in the West, and indeed the wider world, after World War II.

Sands describes just how integral the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 and 1946 were for creating a binding international legal system that we still feel today.

“This was an absolutely crucial moment in human history,” he says, “because states came together at the Nuremberg Trials and said for first time [that] the power of the sovereign is limited, and it cannot treat its nationals as it wishes.”

Fundamentally, Sands believes the issue debated over the course of the trials regarding how the crimes of the Holocaust should be defined, comes down to three primal questions about human identity: who we are; how we want to be defined; and how we want the law to protect us.

Brazilian Jews to teach about Holocaust at school that flew Nazi flags

IO DE JANEIRO — A Jewish federation in Brazil will provide educational support to a private school in the country that had a third-grade classroom decorated with Nazi flags during a lesson on totalitarian regimes.

Students and history teachers from the Santa Emilia School in Recife will visit the Kahal Zur Israel temple, the first synagogue established in the Americas, in 1637, to learn about Judaism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the school and the Jewish federation announced Monday in a joint statement.

The school removed a Facebook post praising the teacher — who also wore a swastika band around his arm like a Nazi soldier — after it drew major criticism, the Diario de Pernambuco newspaper reported.

“Third grade students have experienced a super theme class, almost a super production,” the April 10 post read. “Have they liked it? Of course.”

According to Jader Tachlitsky, the Pernambuco Jewish federation’s communication coordinator, school representatives agreed that the tone of the post was inappropriate, but did not agree that the teacher’s methodology was unfortunate and there was no apology.

“The main thing is that the school is open to having the topic worked by us, which means that we can interact with the students, learn what was really learned and have the chance to educate them in a more consistent way on the subject,” Tachlitsky said.

According to Brazilian law, promoting Nazi or Nazi-related propaganda is subject to punishment by a prison sentence of two to five years, plus a fine.

Names of SS soldiers found on Dutch Holocaust monument

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — City officials from a Dutch municipality near The Hague said they would remove from its main monument for Jewish Holocaust victims the names of three SS soldiers also honored there.

The inclusion of the German soldiers’ names was discovered through research by the local Historical Association of Leidschendam-Voorburg, the Algemeen Dagblad daily reported Wednesday.

The monument, which also includes the name of a local criminal, was unveiled 10 years ago and contains approximately 400 names of Jewish Holocaust victims and some resistance fighters, the report said. Hubert Berkhout, a researcher for the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, told the daily that he has never encountered the inclusion of Nazis in recently constructed monuments.

“It occurs in monuments set up shortly after the war when there was not so much information,” he said.

Separately, a 10-foot tall monument for dozens of Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust was unveiled Thursday at a ceremony in the northern municipality of Laren. Consisting of blocks of metal arranged around a gap, the monument, which was unveiled in the presence of Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, is in memory of 48 children and four of their teachers.

In recent years, Dutch Jewish groups have protested what they described as an emerging trend in which commemorations are extended not only to the Allied forces’ casualties and Holocaust victims, but also to the German soldiers. Organizers of such events have justified them as promoting reconciliation.

In 2012, organizers of the national memorial ceremony in Amsterdam scrapped their plan amid protests to allow the 15-year-old relative of a Dutch SS soldier who died on Germany’s Eastern Front to read a poem in his memory at the event.

That year, a Dutch court issued an injunction forbidding the town of Vorden from commemorating German soldiers with Jewish Holocaust victims. And in the town of Geffen, the municipality also planned to unveil a monument listing the names of members of both groups. The plans were dropped following protests, but the names were read aloud in a church in that town.

The Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, the Jewish community’s watchdog on anti-Semitism, has warned that the practice blurs the line between victim and perpetrator.

Tillerson visits Holocaust Museum with family

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quietly visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Saturday afternoon with his wife and two other family members, The Washington Post reported.

According to The Post, Tillerson and his family spent several hours touring the permanent exhibit of the museum in the nation’s capital.

Tillerson’s visit came after a tumultuous week for the White House, in which Press Secretary Sean Spicer drew intense criticism for falsely claiming Adolf Hitler never used chemical weapons.

The president’s press spokesman also referred to concentration camps as “Holocaust centers.”

While Spicer apologized for his remarks, the Anti-Defamation League offered to host an educational session on the Holocaust for Spicer and other White House staffers.

US President Donald Trump’s young administration has managed to create controversy over Holocaust-related matters more than once.

The White House’s statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in January, drew the ire of many because it made no mention of Jews or anti-Semitism.

Several of Trump’s deputies went on to defend the statement amidst outrage from Jewish groups and others.

Tillerson’s tour was on the final days of Passover, when Jews worldwide retell the story of the ancient Jews’ exodus from Egypt.

The Virginia Tech Professor and Holocaust Survivor Who Saved His Students’ Lives

According to Iswhar Puri, the first thing you’d notice about Liviu Librescu was his posture. “He was ramrod straight” and had “a spine of steel,” said Puri, who is now the dean of the engineering faculty at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. At the time of his death, which occurred 10 years ago this Sunday, Librescu was a slight 76-year-old in declining physical health—but he never slouched, carrying himself with an assuredness that reflected deeper aspects of his character. Said Puri, “If you wanted an honest answer to something, if you wanted someone to say to you that you must be crazy…or if you wanted somebody to tell you in a straightforward way that you should do something or not do something, he was the man.”

On the morning of April 16, 2007, Puri was the head of the engineering science and mechanics department at Virginia Tech University, and Librescu, who had taught in Blacksburg since 1985, was one of his professors. Librescu was teaching a solid mechanics class in room 204 of the university’s Norris Hall when Sueng-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old Virginia Tech senior, began a rampage that claimed the lives of 32 people. The professor’s actions are familiar by now, but no easier to comprehend even a full decade later. According to eyewitnesses, at the sound of gunshots Librescu blocked the door of his classroom, which could not be locked from the inside. Cho eventually forced his way in and shot Librescu with a semi-automatic pistol—but by that point, 22 of his students had already climbed out a window and jumped to safety.

Liviu Librescu, date unknown. (Librescu family via Getty Images)
In a public Facebook post written last week, one of Librescu’s students recalls looking down from a second-story window ledge, and then stealing a final glimpse of Librescu standing alone, trying to secure the lecture hall door. As the post explains, that student’s future would include a master’s degree, a risky but inevitably satisfying career change, and a family of her own. At the time the post’s author last saw him, Librescu would have only a few moments to live.

Liviu Librescu was born in Ploisti, an industrial city in eastern Romania, in 1930. Like millions of other Jews across Europe, fascism and communism would shape the course of Librescu’s life, as it would for millions of other Jews across Europe. Romania’s newly formed right-wing government officially allied with the Nazis in 1940, and ordered the deportation of much the country’s Jewish population to the country’s eastern fringes the following year. The Nazis and their Romanian allies murdered an estimated 270,000 Romanian Jews during the Holocaust, out of a pre-war population of 728,000.

During the Holocaust, Librescu’s family was deported to the far eastern region of Transdniestria, then sent to the ghetto in the city of Foscani. Zvi Yaakov Zwiebel, the rabbi at Virginia Tech’s Chabad student center, which is now named in Librescu’s honor, says that the future professor’s experience in Foscani helped inspire him to become an aeronautical engineer. “He was always fascinated about how the birds flew in and out of the ghetto, and that’s what motivated him to get in the aerospace field,” said Zwiebel. “He loved this idea of freedom, whether it’s freedom of religion or freedom of intellect.”

Librescu earned an engineering Ph.D. in Romania after the war. As Puri explains, his research work delved into how the material composition of an aircraft affects its operational limits. Librescu studied how materials performed under flight stresses like heat and air friction, and his work was aimed at “making sure [those materials] don’t fail under very critical operating conditions,” Puri explained. Since Librescu was one of his country’s leading aerospace engineers, Romania’s communist regime conscripted him into several high-end military projects, including an effort to produce an indigenous fighter aircraft. Librescu warned that the plane was unflyable as designed, a fact proven during an early flight test. The program was scrapped soon after that.

The fighter plane episode, Librescu’s refusal to pledge fealty to the regime of Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and his open desire to emigrate to Israel, all cost him dearly. He was fired from his position at Romania’s Academy of Sciences some time in the early 70s. Although he was banned from publishing in Romania, he succeeded in secretly trafficking an influential academic paper to a research journal in the Netherlands at immense personal risk, and would entrust visiting western European scientists with his latest research, which was unpublishable in his own country. In the late ’70s, the Israeli government interceded on Librescu’s behalf, and prime minister Menachem Begin, who also had painful first-hand experience of both fascism and communism, personally advocated for the scientist’s right to emigrate. He arrived in Israel, the country where he is now buried, in 1978, and taught at Tel Aviv University and the Technion in Haifa before moving on to Virginia Tech in 1985. He arrived for what was supposed to be a single sabbatical year, but ended up staying for much longer. (He’s now buried in Ra’anana.)

Simply existing as a Jew in 20th-century Eastern Europe had denied Librescu the freedom he’d sought for nearly his entire life. Of all places, he found what he was looking for in Blacksburg, a somewhat isolated university town four hours southwest of Washington, D.C. As Puri describes him, Librescu was a committed Jew, and also something of a luddite. His wife, Marlena, who died four years ago, handled nearly everything email or computer-related, and gradually became a working partner, an academic collaborator of sorts. “When you talked to them you lost sense of where one identity ended and one began,” Puri recalled.

Marlena Librescu is comforted by her son Joe during the funeral of Liviu Librescu in Ra’anana, Israel, April 20, 2007. (David Silverman/Getty Images)

Librescu developed a reputation as an almost obsessively prolific participant in academic conferences, perhaps a result of being cut off from the scientific community for so much of his career (at the time of his death, Librescu was preparing papers for three conferences he planned on attending over the summer of 2007). He had close friendships in Blacksburg. Pier Marzocca, a former Virginia Tech professor who is now associate dean of the school of engineering at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, described Librescu as “a father figure” in an email. Marzocca wrote that he ate with Librescu nearly every Sunday night for four years. Librescu frequently shared anecdotes of his time back in Europe, something his colleagues seemed to welcome: After all, the Romanian had seen more of the world and its possibilities than any of them had seen, or probably wanted to. “Although now 10 years later those memories are somewhat blending in, some of these conversations are very vivid and his way of living is very much inspirational to me,” Marzocca said.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Librescu’s actions—for which he was posthumously awarded Romania’s highest civilian honor—were a much needed source of hope and resilience for a shattered Virginia Tech community. Rabbi Zwiebel arrived in Blacksburg two years after the shooting, a time when memories of the April 16th massacre were still raw. Zwiebel has drawn on Librescu’s example in his own work on campus over the years. “We try to teach this selfless legacy to the students, and that’s what Torah’s about,” Zwiebel said. “Sometimes things are bigger than us.”

Part of Zwiebel’s responsibilities include helping to commemorate the massacre and Librescu’s heroism. On April 24, the 28th of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar—which is both Yom HaShoah and the 10th Hebrew anniversary of Librescu’s death—the Virginia Tech Chabad house is organizing a memorial event in which a Holocaust survivor and one of Librescu’s two sons will speak. “You try to take a Jewish perspective of what we can learn out of it, and how we can grow out of it,” Zwiebel said of the 2007 shooting.

Ten years later, perhaps Librescu’s greatest legacy is that he gave nearly two-dozen people a chance to continue their lives. Even after a decade of thinking over his friend and colleague’s decision to barricade his classroom door, Puri is still in awe of Librescu’s contribution to the world—something which, as Puri notes, is almost impossible to really measure. “I don’t think that you’re saving the person momentarily. You’re saving a life. You’re saving 22 lives. Those 22 lives then go on to contribute to society. They multiply. Those 22 lives go on into other generations. I mean that’s what’s mind-blowing about what Liviu did. It’s quite possible that some of the students who were students 10 years ago have kids today. It’s because of one man, right?”

Science helps verify an unbelievable Holocaust escape account

OS ANGELES (JTA) – A one-hour TV program airing next week on PBS links brings advanced scientific techniques to bear on an incredible Holocaust escape story.

“Holocaust Escape Tunnel,” a “Nova” production to be shown April 19, sheds new light on the attempt by 80 imprisoned men and women — mostly Lithuanian Jews — to make a break for freedom in the face of Nazi bullets. The show documents the application of scientific methods to verify what would otherwise be a nearly unbelievable story.

The documentary is set in and around Vilna, the Yiddish and Hebrew designation for Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. At its peak, before World War II and the Holocaust, the city boasted a Jewish population of some 77,000, had 105 synagogues, the largest Jewish library in the world and six daily Jewish newspapers.

The vigorous Jewish life in Vilna started to decline in 1940, when the Soviet Union absorbed Lithuania. It was almost completely destroyed after German armies attacked Russia in 1941, quickly conquering Lithuania.

Within a year Nazis shot and killed – in the days before Auschwitz-type gas chambers – most of the Jews and tossed their corpses into huge pits in the nearby Ponar Forest, initially dug by the Soviets to store fuel and ammunition. One pit alone held 20,000 to 25,000 corpses.

In late 1943, with Russian armies advancing from the east and partisans attacking German supply lines in surrounding forests, Hitler’s headquarters in Berlin decided to cover up the monumental massacre by ordering that all the bodies be cremated.

The Germans ordered the region’s surviving Jews, along with some Russian prisoners of war, to first chop down large trees in the forests, cut them into planks, form huge layers of wood, spread the bodies between the layers and then set them aflame. Methodically, the Germans formed 10 “burning brigades,” each consisting of 80 prisoners, mainly Jewish.

After a day’s work, the “burners” were held in pits and their feet shackled. One such unit, consisting of 76 men and four women, decided it was duty bound to pass on the truth to the world and future generations.

The prisoners freed their legs by cutting the shackles with a smuggled-in file and, for the next 76 days, using only spoons and their hands, carved out a 2-by-2-foot-wide tunnel extending 130 feet.

April 15, 1944, the last day of Passover, was set for the escape. As the first prisoners left the tunnel, guards opened fire and killed almost the entire group. But 12 made it out and cut through the wire fence. They joined a detachment of partisans commanded by the legendary Abba Kovner.

At the end of the war, all but one of the escapees were still alive and eventually settled elsewhere, mainly in pre-state Israel and the United States.

Among the thousands, if not millions, of post-Holocaust remembrances, the story of the Vilna escapees was met with widespread skepticism even by the future wives and children of the 11 survivors, said historian Richard Freund, who is prominently featured in the documentary.

The skepticism was fueled by the absence of any physical evidence of the alleged tunnel. Lithuania — already beleaguered by charges of its wartime collaboration with the Germans — showed little enthusiasm for further investigations.

In recent years, however, with a change of attitude by a new generation of Lithuanians, their government was ready to seek the truth about the Holocaust and invite outside experts to participate in the endeavor.

An initial contact was Jon Seligman, a leading researcher with the Israel Antiquities Authority. Freund, of the University of Hartford, also was interested — he had directed archaeological projects at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland, as well as at six ancient sites in Israel. In 2014, the two scholars decided to cooperate on the project, spurred by their similar ancestral descent from Vilna Jews. A third member of the documentary team with Jewish roots in Eastern Europe was Paula Apsell, the senior producer for “Nova.”

Seligman and Freund had initially set their sights on exploring the fate of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, once the center of Jewish worship and scholarship, which had been destroyed by the Germans. The Soviets later razed the remains and built a school there.

The two scholars — backed by other experts and teams of young volunteers — made some dramatic discoveries at the Great Synagogue site, but also were intrigued by reports on the escape tunnel.

In approaching the latter, the project leaders ruled out using the traditional method of digging into an archaeological site with spades and machines.

“Traditional archaeology uses a highly destructive method,” Freund told JTA. “You only have one chance to get it right and you can’t repeat an experiment. Additionally, in our case, we were determined not to desecrate the site and victimize the dead a second time.”

Instead, the teams used two noninvasive techniques that are widely employed in gas and oil explorations. One approach was through Ground Penetrating Radar, or GPR, which uses radar pulses to return images of objects found beneath the earth’s surface. The results were analyzed in Los Angeles by geophysicist Dean Goodman, who developed the GPR software.

In the second approach, called Electrical Resistivity Tomography, or ETR, scientists investigate sub-surface materials through their electrical properties. The same technique is widely used in medical imaging of the human body.

Thanks to these techniques, in 2016 the investigators were able to scientifically confirm the existence and dimensions of a wartime escape tunnel, as JTA reported at the time. The New York Times listed the feat as one of the top science stories of the year.

One of the successful tunnel escapees was Shlomo Gol, whose son Abraham (Abe) was born in a displaced persons camp in Munich, Germany. The elder Gol died in 1986 at the age of 77, and his son will be 68 in July. The family initially immigrated to Israel, then moved to the United States.

Abe Gol, who lives in Pembroke Pines, Florida, told JTA that friends recalled his father as a young man full of life and as a natural leader. However, the father young Abe knew “withdrew within himself” and did not speak of his experiences.

The little he learned of his father’s past came in two ways: One was the annual reunion, on the last day of Passover, held by escapees who had settled in Israel. At dinner, when shots of vodka loosened tongues, the men talked of the past, paying no attention to the boy listening in.

In later years, Gol discovered that his father had kept a written record of his past, which the son translated into English. One small recollection from the diary: the persistent stink from the combination of kerosene and tar the prisoners had to pour on the wood pyres to fan the flames.

At the time of the tunnel’s discovery, Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority wrote, “As an Israeli whose family originated in Lithuania, I was reduced to tears on the discovery of the escape tunnel at Ponar. This discovery is a heartwarming witness to the victory of hope over desperation. The exposure of this tunnel enables us to present not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the yearning for life.”

With the deaths of the last eyewitnesses of the Holocaust, Freund said, historians will have to rely increasingly on yet unknown scientific and technological advances to preserve and enlarge our knowledge of the great tragedy of the 20th century.

“Holocaust Escape Tunnel” will air April 19 at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times; 8 p.m. Central time. Check your local PBS station for details.