Category Archives: Science & Technology

Jews in the World of Science and Technology

Jew of the Week: Liviu Librescu

The Holocaust Survivor Who Saved a Classroom

Liviu Librescu (1930-2007) was born in Ploiesti, Romania. In November of 1940, the Romanian government allied with Nazi Germany, and Librescu’s family was deported to a labour camp. Eventually, they ended up in the Focsani Ghetto from which Librescu was liberated in 1945. He stayed in Romania and enrolled in aerospace engineering studies (inspired by his time watching birds fly in and out of the ghetto). A year after graduating he joined the Bucharest Institute of Applied Mechanics where he served as a researcher for 22 years. In 1969, Librescu earned his Ph.D in fluid dynamics, and wrote some very important papers that were unfortunately unknown in the West. He was also recruited by the government to work on top secret military projects. However, Librescu was soon fired for refusing to swear allegiance to the Romanian Communist Party and for requesting to emigrate to Israel. Thankfully, one of his groundbreaking research papers was smuggled out of Romania and brought him international attention. It reached the desk of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who personally put pressure on the Romanian government to free Librescu. In 1978, the Romanians relented and Librescu made aliyah to the Holy Land. For the next seven years, Librescu taught at Tel-Aviv University and the world-famous Technion in Haifa. In 1985, he took a sabbatical year and visited Virginia Tech in the US. He decided to stay and joined their Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics. Librescu went on to become one of Virginia Tech’s most famous and beloved professors. He is credited with publishing more papers (250) than any other Virginia Tech professor, and among his many awards are a Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research and a Frank J. Maher Award for Excellence in Engineering Education. He was also on the editorial boards of seven scientific journals, and a guest editor of five more. On April 16, 2007, Librescu was teaching his regular class when a gunman walked into the engineering building at Virginia Tech and opened fire. When the gunman tried to enter Librescu’s classroom, the professor blocked the door and told his students to escape through the windows. He was fatally shot five times. All but one of his students were able to escape. The remaining 22 were saved by Librescu’s heroic actions. In a horrible twist of irony, the Virginia Tech shooting took place on the 27th of Nisan – Holocaust Memorial Day. President Băsescu of Romania posthumously awarded Librescu the Grand Cross of the Order of the Star of Romania (the country’s highest civilian honour), and renamed the street in front of the US Embassy in Bucharest after him. Virginia Tech’s Jewish Student Center is now named after him, too, as is a professorship at Columbia Law School. He was called the “Most Inspiring Person of 2007”. President George W. Bush eulogized Librescu with the following words: “With the gunman set to enter his class, this brave professor blocked the door with his body while his students fled to safety. On the Day of Remembrance, this Holocaust survivor gave his own life so that others may live.”

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Words of the Week

Few are guilty; all are responsible.
– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Jew of the Week: André Citroën

The Man Who Made the Citroën Car and Helped Win World War I

As a child, André Citroën was inspired by the Eiffel Tower. He lived to see his name displayed on it. This early “billboard” marketing technique is still a Guinness World Record for largest advertising sign.

André-Gustave Citroën (1878-1935) was born in Paris to a Dutch-Jewish father and Polish-Jewish mother. The last name “Citroën” comes from his grandfather, who sold fruit for a living in the Netherlands and was known as Limoenman, so his son made the family last name Citroen, which means “lemon”. As a child, Citroën was inspired by the Eiffel Tower and by the works of Jules Verne and dreamed of becoming an engineer. After graduating with an engineering degree, Citroën went on a trip to Poland to see his mother’s birthplace. There, he saw a carpenter working with a gear that had a “fish bone” structure. Citroën realized that such gears could be used in automobiles to make them quieter and more efficient. He bought the patent from the carpenter, then tweaked the designs until he came up with the automotive double helical gear. The Mors auto company successfully integrated these gears to make better cars, and by 1906 Citroën was the company’s director. With the outbreak of World War I, factories were being converted to produce weapons, and Citroën soon became world-renowned for increasing factory productivity. He took charge of fellow car-maker Renault’s large plant, now having its 35,000 employees making armaments. Citroën’s work played a key role in ensuring the Allies were well-armed and helping them win the war. Following the war, Citroën founded his own Citroën automobile company in 1919. Within just a dozen years, it became the world’s fourth largest car manufacturer. The company was most famous for its executive Traction Avant model, which pioneered a number of revolutionary features including independent suspensions on all four wheels and front-wheel drive. Investing so much money into research and development ultimately drove the company to bankruptcy and it was bought out by its tire maker Michelin. Citroën died the following year from cancer. He was buried in Paris’ famous Montparnasse Cemetery, with a traditional Jewish ceremony presided by Paris’ chief rabbi. A number of streets and parks in the city are named after him, and in 1998 Citroën was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, his company retained his original vision, and continued to pioneer many new technologies (like modern disc brakes, self-leveling suspensions, and swiveling headlights), becoming one of the most iconic car brands in the world.

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Words of the Week

If someone says,“I have worked hard, and I have not been successful,” don’t believe him. If someone says,“I have not worked hard and I have been successful,” don’t believe him. If someone says,“I have worked hard and I have been successful,” believe him!
– Talmud (Megillah 6b)

The double helical gear inspired the Citroën logo.