Holocaust Survivor in Crossfire at Synagogue


--By Barbara Hilty***--

Eighty-year-old Judah Samet, a long-time congregant and former cantor at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, was four minutes late arriving for services on Saturday, October 28. He says being late saved his life. The Holocaust survivor said after he drove into a handicapped parking space alongside the building, he heard shots and could see smoke from the gun being fired from inside.

As a speaker for the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, Mr. Samet had agreed months earlier to come go to Faith UMC in Delmont to tell his story as a WW II Holocaust survivor. After a gunman killed 11 and wounded six others at Tree of Life, the title at the top of the bulletin for Faith UMC's  Holocaust event on October 28, 2018, seemed awkwardly ill-chosen:  “Never Again.” 

Judah Samet as a boy
It was almost inconceivable for the 147 people at the Delmont church to think that Mr. Samet, who as a 7-year-old Jew managed to survive the inhumane treatment at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany,  found himself some 74 years later in the line of gunfire from a crazed person intent on killing Jews in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Samet told them that on Saturday in the crossfire at his synagogue, as well as during the time at Bergen-Belson, he had no worry or fear of death.  Mr. Samet explained that he believes he was delivered from that horrific time, and from several other life-threatening situations in his life, for a purpose: to tell his story.  And for the rest of the evening, the audience was absorbed by his phenomenal story of survival.

The Samet Family of the 1940’s lived in Debrecen, Hungary, across the street from the synagogue where his father, a brilliant scholar, was respected.  The family worked hard and loved one another.  It was a good life until the German Gestapo agents rounded up Hungarian Jews.  Initially bound for Auschwitz and immediate execution, the family was rerouted to Bergen-Belsen and faced the slow agonizing death of starvation.

With vintage photos and gripping discourse, Mr. Samet made it abundantly clear that, were it not for his mother, he and his three siblings would not have made it through the 10 and ½ months they were held at Bergen-Belsen. Though small in stature, his mother was a force to be reckoned with.  She leveraged her value as an interpreter to win snippets of favor for her family’s welfare.   Her calculating wit and discernment kept them alive while tens of thousands of Jews around them perished, he said. He is quick to say he credits his mother with the practical and persevering outlook he has today

One by one, Mr. Samet ticked off atrocities he endured that were numbing his emotions; his empathy was replaced with a drive for survival.  He shared a poignant story of riding the death trains.  Every few days, the Germans shoved the dead Jews out of the cattle cars because of the stench.  Judah admits when one body was removed he became extremely upset only because it had been his wind barrier in the drafty conditions and was his pillow. 

His childhood innocence had been replaced with a hardened psyche.  He told his audience of the barbarisms one human carried out against someone else simply because they were Jewish. They listened, and many thought, “Never again.”

Mr. Samet spoke of people who risked their own safety to sneak bits of food to those in the camp, not only saving lives but offering love and hope.  He related being liberated and even then being put in orphanages for “unwanted” children until, through his mother’s steadfast influence, he was able to receive an excellent education.

His is a story of a family rooted and grounded in love and faith.  The Samet children honored and respected their parents as the Torah teaches, and thus a strong family was built.  This strong unified family kept the ways of God.  Mr. Samet’s concluding remarks listed the accomplishments of many members of his extended family – not to brag, but to give credence to the blessings of a faithful God Who keeps His promises to His covenant community, he said.
Holocaust survivor Judah Samet with the Rev. Ron Raptosh, pastor of Faith UMC. At right is Raptosh's daughter Sarah, who previously heard Mr. Samet speak in a college class.

Greensburg District Superintendent Pat Nelson offered heart-felt prayers thanking God for Judah’s life, which continues to be a blessing to all who hear his horrific experiences and resolve to keep the story alive, to appreciate and honor family ties, and to always, always dispel hatred as we love one another even as God loves each one of us.   

As the program ended, those attending recited the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26), followed by Judah Samet’s Hebrew rendition of that benediction.  A blessing indeed.

For more information:  Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, 826 Hazelwood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15217 / info@hcpgh.org / 412-421-1500

*** Barbara Hilty is administrative board chair at Faith United Methodist Church in Delmont.