The Virginia Tech Tragedy, Tim Kaine, and the Holocaust

In our world we may find many strange connections, however, I cannot think of many that are as eerie as those that exist between the Nazi Holocaust and the April 16, 2007  Virginia Tech shootings in Blacksburg, Virginia. Coincidentally, I posted an article last week on Litchatte.com about our Working Titles Book Club discussion on the Holocaust experiences of Viktor Frankl, as he described them in his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. Followers of history now have current Virginia Senator, Tim Kaine to thank for his ten years of  support for the still grieving Virginia Tech families, and for writing about the connections between the Virginia Tech shooting and the Holocaust. If not for his article, these two events would likely stay in a separate part of our memories.

In an article, Kaine wrote on 4/16/17 for the Richmond Times Dispatch, he called April 16, 2007 “the worst day of his life.” Commemorating the tragedy that left 32 students and faculty dead at the hands of a shooter with serious untreated mental health issues, the Senator noted that the incident still weighs heavily on his mind. Through constant contacts with those affected by the shootings, he knows that the tragedy has remained on the thoughts and emotions of the surviving students and their families and friends. I am sure that he never thought that his involvement in that event would also lead him to an important connection between the VT and the Holocaust tragedies. I am a proud Virginia Tech Hokie graduate and the father of a daughter of who was a freshman at Virginia Tech, as well as a resident of the Ambler-Johnston West Dormitory, where the first two murders took place.

Each year, on April 16, I remember how my wife and I panicked as we first heard reports about the shootings. On 416/2007, our daughter, Leah, was asked by the dorm authorities to lock her door and lay down on the concrete floor for several hours until security could decide that the building was safe. Even though she had a cell phone, few calls could not go in or out of Blacksburg because of the unprecedented urgent attempts of families, like us, to communicate with their loved-ones. The good news, for my wife and I, was that we found out by the afternoon that our daughter was safe. However, after that, the news got very bad, when we all found out that there had been 30 more killed, and that the carnage was only ended when the shooter took his own life. The reports showed that there were many vigils on campus with hundreds or thousands of students, staff, and family members, beginning the same evening of the tragedy, and for several days afterwards.

Our daughter was given the option by school authorities of going home for several weeks until school re-started, or for getting credit for passing all of her attempted classes. I remember how proud I felt when she informed us that she wanted to stay on campus and support her school and classmates. I felt that this was even more remarkable because she knew the dormitory assistant who was the first victim at Ambler-Johnston West Hall.

Kaine’s timely article helps us to recall that he had only been Governor of Virginia for about a year when the VT tragedy occurred. He and his wife, Anne, had just arrived in Japan for a business mission when they heard about the shootings. Though thy were “jet-lagged and grief-stricken,” they flew back to Washington immediately and accompanied then President George Bush and his wife Laura to Blacksburg, Virginia. Kaine writes, “We shed tears with families of students and faculty members who had lost their lives. We gathered with thousands of Hokies—and we were all Hokies—to mourn and to celebrate the lives of the precious people who were killed.” He later formed a task-force to investigate what could have been done to prevent the shootings, which led to changes in the school’s future policies and procedures. However, he deeply regrets that Virginia and the United States has not come up with more comprehensive gun purchase background checks or other ways of keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of mentally ill people. However, he has advocated for changes in the laws throughout the last ten years.

Kaine has had many reunions with the families of those killed in the tragedy, but “the story he keeps coming back to, is that of  Liviu Librescu, a professor of engineering, who blocked the door of his classroom so that the shooter couldn’t enter, while he urged his students to jump out the window to safety. He was shot again and again as…he chose to give up his life to protect them.” Liberace was then a 76-year-old from Romania who had previously been imprisoned, like Frankl, and had also survived a Nazi concentration camp. Like Frankl, many of his family members died during the Holocaust. In 1978, he immigrated to Haifa, Israel and became a university professor there for 22 years. In the fall of 2016, he accepted a one-year sabbatical position in the Virginia Tech engineering department. Ironically, April 16 is also World Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Librescu was keenly aware of the sacredness of that day when he blocked access to the shooter and gave up his own life to protect his students.

Kaine writes that two years later, he and his wife were invited to Israel by then Prime Minister Netanyahu to commemorate the tragedies that joined the two leaders. They met and experienced a Jewish service at Yad Vesham, the Israel Holocaust Memorial.  Ironically, 2017 is the first time that the Virginia Tech tragedy, Easter, and the Holocaust Remembrance all fell on the same day of the calendar year. Kaine, a practicing Catholic, reflects that we tend to divide those affected into victims and perpetrators. However, he considers bi-standers in many tragedies are just as significant as perpetrators in enabling them to happen. For example, many people watched in the years that Hitler persecuted the Jews and did or said nothing. Kaine concludes that ten years after what was then the largest mass shooting in the United States, millions of bi-standers still do and say nothing as events like the Virginia Tech shooting become increasingly commonplace. I thank Senator Tim Kaine for reminding us of the events that happened ten years ago at Virginia Tech; that tragedies unite humanity across nationalities and time-spans; and that we all need to take strong actions to help prevent future senseless gun violence.

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Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is the Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator for the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He teaches literature classes at the OSHER, Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond; is the organizer and coordinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club; and is co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at ellisonms2@vcu.edu, or leave a note at the bottom of the post.

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