Surviving the Shoah and Pittsburgh

“God saved me so I could tell me story.”  That is what Judah Samet, survivor of the Holocaust, who narrowly escaped the Pittsburgh tragedy told me this week.

Ahead of what will be a very difficult Shabbat, the Claims Conference extends its thoughts and prayers to those who lost loved ones, those injured, and the entire congregation at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The hateful, senseless act of violence last Saturday, that saw the violent and abrupt end to 11 lives and damage to so many more, will be imprinted in our hearts and minds forever. It reminds us that we must work together to stem the rising tide of anti-Semitism.

Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh (JFCS), one of our partner agencies working day-to-day with Holocaust survivors, found itself on the frontline this week, checking in with survivors after the atrocities of last weekend and offering counseling to those who needed it.

One of those survivors was 80-year-old Judah Samet. Many may have heard the tale of Judah’s survival, a Holocaust survivor who narrowly escaped the synagogue shooting when he arrived four minutes late to Shabbat services Saturday morning.  Hearing the bullets, he stayed in his car and tried to peek out the window when he saw the shooter emerge from the synagogue.  Only a few feet away from the line of fire, he narrowly escaped as bullets flew by.  After witnessing the exchange of gunfire between the perpetrator and the police, he saw the gunman go back into the synagogue to finish the job he went there to do – kill Jews.

Sadly, Judah is no stranger to anti-Semitism and the killing of those in his community. Born in Hungary, Judah was only six-years-old when he was deported to Bergen-Belsen.  After 10 months, he and his family were sent on a train, but, thankfully, were liberated by American troops. Judah went on to serve as a paratrooper in the Israeli army.  This past weekend was yet another moment of survival for Judah – a man who has lived through so much hate and too much killing.

Hearing about his narrow escape, I reached out to see how he was doing ahead of Shabbat, offer our support, and see if there was anything additional we could do to aid him during this time.

Sharing some of his personal stories with me, he explained his close connection to the synagogue in Pittsburgh.  For decades he was the ba’al kri’ah, the man who chanted the Torah portion each week.  He also shared stories from his childhood and experiences in the Shoah saying, “My mother was a translator in the camps. She spoke German and although she was only 4’10” she stood ten feet tall.  She was a gutsy, brilliant and beautiful woman who spoke to the Nazis…you weren’t allowed to speak to them, but she spoke low and never raised her voice.  This allowed her to save hundreds, if not more.”

He added, “God saved me from the Holocaust so I could tell my story.  I was cursed with terrible memories… so I remember everything in the camps.  He saved me again last Shabbos, so I could tell my story.  The shootings brought it all back for me, but I am one of the only survivors I know of in Pittsburgh who is still alive who survived a death camp, so I must keep speaking.”

Since Saturday, we have received calls from Holocaust survivors who feel tormented by recent events.  One such survivor said, “Crying doesn’t help; every victim’s life history is a reminder for all of us.”

We also feel tormented and offer our deepest sympathy to those who feel the impact of this unspeakable tragedy and know that the continuing acts of anti-Semitism are serving as an unimaginable trigger for so many.

As we head into the first Shabbat since the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on U.S. soil, the Claims Conference stands with the Pittsburgh community, with Judah Samet, and with Holocaust survivors everywhere.