Witness to the last day of Buchenwald

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Rabbi Herschel Schacter

1917 - 2013

It was April 11, 1945, and Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army had liberated the concentration camp scarcely an hour before. Rabbi Schacter, who was attached to the Third Army’s VIII Corps, was the first Jewish chaplain to enter in its wake.

That morning, after learning that Patton’s forward tanks had arrived at the camp, Rabbi Schacter, who died in the Riverdale section of the Bronx late March at 95 after a career as one of the most prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States, commandeered a jeep and driver. He left headquarters and sped toward Buchenwald.

By late afternoon, when the rabbi drove through the gates, Allied tanks had breached the camp. He remembered, he later said, the sting of smoke in his eyes, the smell of burning flesh and the hundreds of bodies strewn everywhere.

He would remain at Buchenwald for months, tending to survivors, leading religious services in a former Nazi recreation hall and eventually helping to resettle thousands of Jews.

For his work, Rabbi Schacter was singled out by name on Friday by Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, in a meeting with President Obama at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.

In Buchenwald that April day, Rabbi Schacter said afterward, it seemed as though there was no one left alive. In the camp, he encountered a young American lieutenant who knew his way around.

‘Are there any Jews alive here?’ the rabbi asked him.

He was led to the Kleine Lager, or Little Camp, a smaller camp within the larger one. There, in filthy barracks, men lay on raw wooden planks stacked from floor to ceiling. They stared down at the rabbi, in his unfamiliar military uniform, with unmistakable fright.

‘Shalom Aleichem, Yidden,’ Rabbi Schacter cried in Yiddish, ‘ihr zint frei!’ — ‘Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!’ He ran from barracks to barracks, repeating those words. He was joined by those Jews who could walk, until a stream of people swelled behind him.

As he passed a mound of corpses, Rabbi Schacter spied a flicker of movement. Drawing closer, he saw a small boy, Prisoner 17030, hiding in terror behind the mound.

‘I was afraid of him,” the child would recall long afterward in an interview with The New York Times.

‘I knew all the uniforms of SS and Gestapo and Wehrmacht, and all of a sudden, a new kind of uniform. I thought, “A new kind of enemy.” ’

With tears streaming down his face, Rabbi Schacter picked the boy up. ‘What’s your name, my child?’ he asked in Yiddish.

‘Lulek,’ the child replied.

‘How old are you?’ the rabbi asked.

‘What difference does it make?’ Lulek, who was 7, said. ‘I’m older than you, anyway.’

‘Why do you think you’re older?’ Rabbi Schacter asked, smiling.

‘Because you cry and laugh like a child,’ Lulek replied. ‘I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?’

Rabbi Schacter discovered nearly a thousand orphaned children in Buchenwald. He and a colleague, Rabbi Robert Marcus, helped arrange for their transport to France — a convoy that included Lulek and the teenage Elie Wiesel — as well as to Switzerland, a group personally conveyed by Rabbi Schacter, and to Palestine. (Lulek became Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi from 1993-2003.)

For decades afterward, Rabbi Schacter said, he remained haunted by his time in Buchenwald, and by the question survivors put to him as he raced through the camp that first day.

‘They were asking me, over and over, “Does the world know what happened to us?” ’ Rabbi Schacter told The Associated Press in 1981. ‘And I was thinking, “If my own father had not caught the boat on time, I would have been there, too.” ’

Herschel Schacter was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn on Oct. 10, 1917, the youngest of 10 children of parents who had come from Poland. His father, Pincus, was a seventh-generation shochet, or ritual slaughterer; his mother, the former Miriam Schimmelman, was a real estate manager.

Mr. Schacter earned a bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva University in New York in 1938; in 1941, he received ordination at Yeshiva from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a founder of the Modern Orthodox movement.

Full obituary in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/27/nyregion/rabbi-herschel-schacter-who-carried-word-of-freedom-to-buchenwald-dies-at-95.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0&ref=obituaries

Wikipedia on Rabbi Schacter: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hershel_Schachter

The New York Jewish Week on Rabbi Schacter: http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/news-brief/rabbi-herschel-schacter-chaplain-buchenwald-liberation-dies-95

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