Saturday, December 15, 2012

800 Words: Why Violence? (Part 1)


I.

When the Holocaust ended, my grandparents emerged from four years of hiding together in fields and barn houses eating a steady diet of raw potatoes.  My grandmother was already pregnant with my father, who would be born in the first week of 1946. When they returned to Bransk, my grandfather’s Polish hometown, they not only returned with my grandmother’s older sister, Rochel, in tow, but also with my father’s older sister, Tzipporah. For three years, they’d had to give up Tzipporah to a convent where she would either be turned in or be raised as a Catholic should they not return. Is there another Jewish family that made it out of the Holocaust intact?

There were three-thousand Jews in the town before the war, after the war there were thirty-seven – four of which were of my father’s family. At Rosh Hashana, my grandfather lead the prayers at the Bransk synagogue with his daughter sitting at his feet. By Yom Kippur, Tzipporah was dead from typhus. Not long after Yom Kippur, Rochel was caught in a crossfire between Polish nationalists and Soviet troops while food shopping, she was shot in the back and did not even live to see my father born.  

Of the thirty-five remaining, the plurality of the Bransker moved to Baltimore - their only connection to the town being that my grandmother (originally from another town) had much older sisters living here who emigrated long before the war. The Bransker all started various businesses together – working in each other’s stores, living in apartments together, lending each other money when the need came, and generally serving as one another’s extended family.

Business is a tough field, and depending on the field of business you choose, it can be a dangerous one. After surviving Hitler and Stalin, Pilsudski and Lenin, the Holocaust and the Purges, World War I and the Russian Civil War, the conscriptions of the Czarist Army and the Red Army, my grandparents lived through it all to taste freedom in the Land of Opportunity, and it blessed all the Baltimore Bransker with a prosperity in work and family that was as deserved for what they’d endured as it was unfair to the dead they left behind. And yet even here in the Land of Opportunity, two of the original Bransker were murdered in cold blood a full quarter-century into their American lives. In both cases, the murderers were probably contracted, and the men who ordered their deaths were never apprehended. One of them was murdered in front of his own wife while she was tied up in their home. At the funeral, she threw herself on his coffin. The other’s body clearly showed signs of severe torture. When he was found, his body was so severely burned that he could only be identified by his dental records.

Tragedy begets tragedy. The inquity of the father is visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation, and when misfortunes happen to some people, their newfound vulnerability makes it more likely, not less, for other misfortune to happen to them.

II.

Newtown, Connecticut is a 90 mile drive from where I went to boarding school. It was a school for kids who had ‘bad attitudes’ and fucked up their lives with drugs, or sex, or simply bad grades (take a guess…). It was April of my first year that Columbine happened. I have very vivid memories of the trouble a kid I was friendly with got into for saying that while he didn’t agree with what the Columbine murderers did, he could understand why they did it. Though I didn’t say it at the time, I absolutely agreed with him.

Perhaps Columbine was the retaliation of two nerds against bullies who made their life hell, or perhaps Columbine was simply the work of a sociopath and his naïve accomplice. But either way, there was something about Columbine that couldn’t help but speak to nerds of my generation. Within the myopia of high school social life, retaliatory murder is at least a legitimate fantasy.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold could so easily have been Hyde students. In a parallel universe, maybe they were my best friends. Perhaps they were even me. Who knows what any one of us ‘lost souls’ might have become at our lowest ebbs with easy enough access to guns, and explosive components, and improper medication, and too much weed and booze and worse drugs, and even to the experience of an excessively violent video game or movie at the wrong moment?

In the thirteen-and-a-half years since Columbine, there have now been thirty mass shootings in America that resemble Columbine in outline if not in particulars. And who knows how many others have been stopped? Columbine happened on April 20th, 1999 – doubly significant to many possessing violent ideologies because April 20th is also Hitler’s birthday. Ten days later, on the anniversary of Hitler’s suicide, schools in Arizona, North Carolina, Michigan New Jersey, and DC, had to close so they could investigate potential threats. On May 13th of the same year, four middle school children forced their principal at gunpoint to call an assembly at which they planned on mowing down their classmates prior to killing themselves – they were stopped only because a kid they tried to enlist turned them in before they could enact the plan. On May 20th, a high school student in Georgia injured six kids with a gun, he then put the gun in his mouth as though he was about to shoot himself, but didn’t pull the trigger. On June 14th, a 13-year-old girl in Florida was indicted on a scheme to kill her teachers and classmates. Three days after Columbine, she showed her friends a map of the school’s surveillance system, a hitlist of people in the school she’d drawn up, and a getaway plan.

That was just the first two months after Columbine. On February 5th, 2001, there were three kids arrested for planning a high school attack. At their homes were found bomb material and ammunition, an assault rifle, school floor plans, and White Supremacist drawings. Exactly a month later, a fifteen year old kid killed two students and injured another thirteen after telling other students he was going to go on a shooting spree in retaliation for being bullied. After police officers arrived at his home, they had to remove seven rifles. In Kansas, there were five kids arrested for plotting a copycat killing on Columbine’s seventh anniversary. On the tenth anniversary of Columbine, a copycat killing was barely stopped in England within a few days of the anniversary. When the police raided the teenagers houses, they found eighteen months worth of detailed notes on schematics of their school and local shopping mall, how to build bombs, and how to build the most efficient firearms.  In North Carolina there was a kid who was described as ‘obsessed with Columbine’ before he killed his father and fired shots at his school; in Montreal there was a killer of one and wounder of 20 who liked to play an internet video game called ‘Super Columbine Massacre’ which simulated the massacre in Littleton.

And we haven’t even gotten to Virginia Tech.

III.

There was one story in Virginia Tech, perhaps the most important story, which was completely ignored. The reasons for it are not difficult to understand – few Americans have a personal stake in a story like Liviu Librescu, but the fact that the massacre can be measured in double digits rather than triple is almost entirely due to a single old man whom nobody honored highly enough after the massacre’s occurrence.

When the Holocaust ended, Liviu Librescu was 15. As a Jew he had lived in the Foscani ghetto and was conscripted to work in a labor camp in a town called Transnistria. After surviving the Holocaust, Librescu was repatriated to Communist Romania – a country not only still beset by yet another totalitarian ideology, but historically already one of the most anti-semitic countries in Europe. Nevertheless, even in this toxic environment Librescu managed to graduate from the Bucharest Polytechnic University with a degree in applied mechanics, and eventually earned a Master’s Degree and a PhD. From 1953 to 1975, Librescu was one of the most respected scientific researchers in his country, but his career was forestalled because he refused to join the Communist party and was accused of harboring ‘Israeli sympathies.’ When he requested permission to immigrate in 1976, he was declared person non grata by the Romanian Academy of Science, fired from all positions and titles, and unable to find work. All that saved him was an academic paper on material dynamics that he managed to get smuggled into Holland, which drew such international attention that the Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, made a personal call to the Romanian dictator, Nikolai Ceausescu, to request that Librescu be allowed to emigrate to Israel. He taught for seven years at Tel-Aviv University and the Technion in Haifa before being offered a sabbatical position at Virginia Tech, whereupon the esteem proved so mutual that Librescu moved to Blacksburg, Virginia in 1986 and never left.

Liviu Librescu survived the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Georgiu-Dej, and Ceausescu. Those who knew him testified to a limitless intelligence and an equally limitless modesty. No professor in the history of Virginia Tech ever published more papers. He was on the editorial board of seven scientific journals and served as a guest editor for five more. And yet when this unlikely attack happened in the idyllic surroundings of rural Virginia, it was this legendary star professor, this Holocaust survivor who probably saw endless death before and after he was the same age as his students, who blocked the door with his own body, yelling at his students to hurry out the window of his classroom. Librescu was shot five times through his classroom door, and by the time the Virginia Tech gunman got past Librescu, only one student remained. We don’t know how long Seung-Hui Cho was distracted by Librescu’s act of heroism, or how many more lives Professor Librescu saved by distracting Seung-Hui Cho with a nearly futile task for so long. Could the death toll have gone into the hundreds?

The day on which Columbine happened was April 20th, Hitler’s Birthday. The day on which Virginia Tech happened was April 16th, Holocaust Remembrance Day. And yet the victory of this auspicious day belonged to a Holocaust survivor.  It took a person who’d seen more than his share of death to know what to do in such a situation and assume an act of undaunted, undersung heroism, that minimized the casualties that day. Liviu Librescu survived the Holocaust, the postwar reprisals, the crackdowns of two iron-fisted Romanian dictators, and the rockets from the Lebanese Civil War, only to be gunned down in America. And yet it was only his knowledge of death and tragedy that allowed us to celebrate more life. 

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