It was in Liviu Librescu's nature to stand up to brutality.
Last April, this quiet 76-year-old college professor, a Holocaust survivor who defied Communism, threw his body between his students and a gunman blasting his way through the halls of Virginia Tech. All but one of the students escaped through the classroom windows and survived. Professor Librescu was shot and killed, one of 33 murdered that terrible day.
He is nominated as Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person of the Year for showing supreme unselfishness in the face of great personal danger.
"Liviu was a believer in Maimonides's principle that 'God is the only one we may serve and praise, there are no intermediaries between us and God," says Marilena Librescu, his widow. "His spirituality emerged from how he saw the significance of life. He always struggled to be the best one can be."
Dr. Librescu was no stranger to struggle. Born in Romania in 1930, Librescu was imprisoned in a labor camp during World War II and then sent to a ghetto with his family and thousands of other Jews. According to a 2004 Romanian government report, as many as 380,000 Jews were killed by Romania's Nazi-allied regime.
Dr. Librescu survived the war, but found himself trapped behind the Iron Curtain of Romania’s post-war Communist regime. He studied engineering and science and eventually became one of the country's foremost aerospace engineers. But in the 1970s, as he rose to prominence in his field, he refused to declare allegiance to Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator. He asked to emigrate to Israel, which cost him his job and brought years of uncertainty and persecution by the Romanian government. In 1978, with the help of Menachem Begin, Israel’s Prime Minister, he and his family were finally allowed to go to Israel.
In Israel, Dr. Librescu took a position at Tel Aviv University. In 1984, he went on sabbatical to Virginia Tech and never left. He and Marlena moved to Blacksburg, Va., to build a new life.
That life came to an abrupt end on April 16, 2007, when Cho Seung-Hui, a troubled 23-year-old English major, barricaded the doors of Norris Hall where Dr. Librescu was lecturing. When the shooting began, students said Dr. Librescu remained calm and went to the door, barricading it with his body. He told students to open the windows, remove the screens, and jump to safety. One of the last students out of the room recalled looking over his shoulder to see Dr. Librescu still braced against the door.
Friends and colleagues at Virgina Tech say Dr. Librescu's actions will outlive the terror of that day. "He was a man of great honor and tremendous integrity," says Dr. Ishwar Puri, head of the Department of Engineering, Science, and Mechanics at Virginia Tech and a colleague of Dr. Librescu. "I am left with a sense of awe. He has become an example for all of us."