Paying it Forward

17 Apr

The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, brought forth their offerings on the day of the dedication of the Tabernacle.  A fire came forth and devoured them before the eyes of the many who had come to celebrate the holy occasion. 

Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.  (Leviticus, 9:3)

Moses said to Aaron, “My brother, at Mt. Sinai it was told to me [by God] that in the future I would sanctify this House, and that through a great man would I sanctify it.  I thought that meant that either through you or through me this House would be sanctified. And now, behold, your two sons are greater than me and greater than you.” (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 12:2)

Yesterday, April 16, 2007, the Jewish world marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, known in Hebrew as Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve’lagevurah, Memorial Day for the Destruction and the Heroism. Communities throughout the world mark the day with commemorations, remembering the murdered, pledging to never let it happen again, and , wherever possible, paying tribute to the survivors still living among us who bear witness to Nazi atrocities

By the end of the day, there was one less Holocaust suvivor to pay tribute to.

Another victim of a modern day attrocity – a school shooting spree – whose never again pledge is long overdue, Professor Liviu Librescu, 76, an engineering science and mathematics lecturer in at Virginia Tech for 20 years, was one of the thirty-two victims whose lives were randomly snuffed out by a deranged young man for whom human life had lost all value.

Professor Librescu is reported to have saved the lives of his students by blocking the doorway of his classroom from the approaching gunman, allowing the students to climb out the windows to safety,  before he himself was fatally shot.

As reported in Haaretz, Professor Librescu, had known tragedy since childhood. 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. Hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews were killed by the collaborationist regime during the war.

He made aliyah in 1978 from Romania, forced to leave when he would not collaborate with the communists.  In 1986, he took a sabbatical at Virginia Tech, and decided to stay.

I uncovered an interesting fact today about Professor Libresco.  I came across a 1991 correspondence from Yad VaShem, where they responded to his request to designate the Queen Mother Elena of Romania as a “righteous gentile.” She had served as Queen Mother from 1940-47.  It is reported that in 1943 and early 1944, the queen mother helped to return thousands of the surviving expelled Jews, including thousands of Jewish orphans, from Transnistria, the part of the Ukraine conquered by German and Romanian troops in the summer of 1941. Before the war this area had a Jewish population of 300,000. By the end of the war, more than half of them had been deported and killed.

I have a strong hunch that Professor Librescu or members of his family were among those who were saved through the Queen Mother’s actions.

In the letter he received that year from Yad Vashem, Professor Librescu was reminded that only people who risked their lives to save Jews could be considered for the honor of ‘righteous gentile’.

After turning to various other people, the queen mother and the patriarch appealed directly to Ion

Antonescu, who acquiesced and agreed that those Jews who had not yet been expelled from

Cern_u_i could remain there temporarily. The help sent in 1942 saved the lives of thousands of

Jews who had been expelled to Transnistria. In 1943 and early 1944, the queen mother helped to

return thousands of the surviving expelled Jews, including thousands of Jewish orphans, from

Transnistria.

After turning to various other people, the queen mother and the patriarch appealed directly to Ion

Antonescu, who acquiesced and agreed that those Jews who had not yet been expelled from

Cern_u_i could remain there temporarily. The help sent in 1942 saved the lives of thousands of

Jews who had been expelled to Transnistria. In 1943 and early 1944, the queen mother helped to

return thousands of the surviving expelled Jews, including thousands of Jewish orphans, from

Transnistria.

After turning to various other people, the queen mother and the patriarch appealed directly to Ion

Antonescu, who acquiesced and agreed that those Jews who had not yet been expelled from

Cern_u_i could remain there temporarily. The help sent in 1942 saved the lives of thousands of

Jews who had been expelled to Transnistria. In 1943 and early 1944, the queen mother helped to

return thousands of the surviving expelled Jews, including thousands of Jewish orphans, from

Transnistria.

After turning to various other people, the queen mother and the patriarch appealed directly to Ion

Antonescu, who acquiesced and agreed that those Jews who had not yet been expelled from

Cern_u_i could remain there temporarily. The help sent in 1942 saved the lives of thousands of

Jews who had been expelled to Transnistria. In 1943 and early 1944, the queen mother helped to

return thousands of the surviving expelled Jews, including thousands of Jewish orphans, from

Transnistria.

Queen Mother Elena was soon after accepted for this honor, a ‘righteous gentile,’ acknowledged to have risked her life to save the lives of thousands of Jews.

What do we then call a Jew, who risks, even gives his life to save the lives of gentiles? And what do we call a Holocaust survivor, whose life was spared, and who then, more than 60 years later, sacrificed his own life to save others? 

In the words of Moses, he “was greater than I.” He sanctified the name of God in the eyes of millions around the world.  He never forgot that his life had been spared by the bravery of another, and so, he ended his life paying it forward, putting his own life on the line to spare the lives of his students.  Just as he had been given a second chance to live, so too did he give that chance to those students who were fortunate to call him their teacher.

Nadav and Avihu, according to Moses, sanctified the house of God through their deaths. How did that work, exactly?  Why did they have to die to bring holiness to the place?There are a number of different explanations that go in a number of directions.  However, if you ask me, the truth is that Moses himself didn’t have a good answer for Aaron.  What do you say to a father whose two sons have suddenly been taken from him?  Can any explanation really suffice?  Moses, however, senses that it must have been purposeful, their lives could not have been taken in this way on this occasion for no good reason!  Clearly, suggests Moses, we must assume that in some inexplicable way, their deaths in this way mark something very holy about them, even holier than he or Aaron. Moses’ explanation is said to have comforted Aaron as he faced the micro-holocaust that lay before him.

Perhaps Professor Libresco’s tragic, yet heroic death under inexplicable circumstances can serve as a source of consolation to his family, his students, and all of us who mourn for the murdered, and for the cheapness of human life today.  His act of heroism will forever serve as a glimmer of hope that as deranged as some human beings can become, the unsung heroes among us serve as a reminder that holiness and sanctity can still brighten the darkest of moments.

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One Response to “Paying it Forward”

  1. Janis Zaremba Friday, April 20, 2007 at 12:51 am #

    Dear Morey,

    What great insight. I look forward to reading your blog every Tuesday! I would never have known about Professor Libresco.

    Janis

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