Tag Archives: Holocaust Survivors

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.”

Are Pig Gelatin and Synthetic Pork Kosher?

Words of the Week

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

Jew of the Week: Henry Orenstein

Henry Orenstein with some of his toy inventions (Credit: Shaminder Dulai)

Henryk Orenstein (b. 1923) was born and raised in Poland. He survived five concentration camps during the Holocaust (losing both parents and two of four siblings), and settled in the US afterwards. Orenstein’s first job paid him 85 cents an hour. One day, he saw a doll being sold for a whopping $29.95, and knew he could make a better and cheaper doll. Orenstein pitched his new design – with a $9.99 price tag – mainly to grocery stores instead of department stores. The dolls quickly became a huge hit, and made him $2 million. Orenstein started his own toy company, Deluxe Reading (or Topper Toys, as it was more commonly known). The company went on to produce the famous Suzy Cute and Dawn Doll lines, as well as the hugely successful Johnny Lightning model cars, and many Sesame Street toys. Orenstein’s New Jersey factory soon employed 5000 people, all of whom admired their boss, and once talked of him running for president! By 1972, the company went out of business, but Orenstein was still inventing toys, filing patents, and pitching new ideas to larger toy companies. In the early 80s, Orenstein discovered a new, little-known Japanese toy, a transforming car, and saw the huge potential behind it. He managed to convince American toy giant Hasbro to bring these “Transformers” to the US, and the rest is history. Transformers became a worldwide phenomenon, with comic books, video games, 40 toy collections, multiple TV shows, and a series of blockbuster films (the fifth installment – The Last Knight – hits theatres this week). Year after year, Transformers are Hasbro’s best-selling toy line, and have been credited with keeping the company afloat. Meanwhile, Orenstein fell in love with the game of poker. He once sat down to watch the World Series on TV and was totally bored by it. This led him to his most famous invention: the hole-card camera. Orenstein patented a table which had cameras built in under glass panels to allow TV viewers to see the poker players’ cards. Poker officials rejected his idea, and it would take another seven years until Orenstein successfully convinced one executive to use the hole-card camera. Debuting in 2002, Orenstein’s table revolutionized the game, and much like Transformers, made poker a worldwide phenomenon. One NBC exec admitted that Orenstein is “single-handedly responsible for the success of poker today.” Orenstein has himself won over $200,000 in poker tournaments. He also produced the Poker Superstars Invitational Tournament, and the High Stakes Poker TV show. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2008. All in all, Orenstein holds over 100 patents, has published two books, and is a noted philanthropist. He has donated millions of dollars to various causes, and has built subsidized housing for the poor in New York and in Israel. He has been known to personally pay rent and medical bills for thousands of people in need, including many Holocaust survivors. Now in his 90s, Orenstein still plays poker three times a week with his friends.

Words of the Week

Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow himself.
Golda Meir

Henry Orenstein (with Optimus Prime) on the cover of Newsweek