Holocaust, synagogue shooting survivor shares powerful story
Judah Samet is not a tall man. He is not physically imposing. He does not even have a big, booming voice. But when he speaks, the power of his testimony of survival holds the audience captive to his story.
On Monday Samet shared his memories in front of a full house at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center. His life is the story of a Jew who has twice faced the extremes of anti-Semitism and hatred. And twice he has lived to see another dawn.
As a child he and his family endured the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Seventy-three years later, Samet locked eyes with a gunman intent on killing Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In between those horrific times, he has created a life with love, family and service wrapped around his sharp-witted humor that had the audience laughing along with him at several points during the night.
Samet came to the Flathead to do three speaking engagements at the request of Rabbi Francine Roston of the Glacier Jewish Community/B’nai Shalom, in partnership with Flathead Valley Community College. Roston has made it part of her mission to bring survivors to Montana to give residents firsthand access to some of those who hold the living memory of the Holocaust.
“There are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors walking this earth and it is an extraordinary opportunity for all of us to be able to hear from Mr. Samet and then become eyewitnesses to history,” Roston said.
Samet began his talk simply and starkly, but with the kind of foreshadowing that makes for a well-told tale. He began with this: “They came for us at noon time.”
Because the audience knows he survived the Holocaust there is a sense of who “they” are, and the listeners can feel the ominous threat that looms over such a sentence, and are drawn into the story by wondering at the specific time of day. Samet explained that in those days lunch was the big meal of the day. When it was time to gather up the Jews and put them onto the transport trains that would take them to the concentration camps, they came at noon because they knew all the Jews would be home, and they wouldn’t have to go hunting down individuals.
Samet and his family were Hungarian Jews. He told the audience about the way Hungary attempted to survive by forming an alliance with Nazi Germany. Tried, and failed.
“With Hitler there is no alliance, you become only a puppet,” he said, telling about the Arrow Cross Party that terrorized Hungary and the execution of Jews who were shot on the banks of the Danube River.
“The river ran red with their blood,” said Samet. “If you go there today you will see shoes on the bank as a memorial.” (“Shoes on the Danube Bank” is a sculpture of 60 pairs of shoes made of iron and attached to the stone embankment along the Danube Promenade in Budapest, created by sculptor Gyula Pauer.)
“At lunch we heard the sound of goose-steps moving up the street and stopping outside our house,” Samet recalled. He told the audience how they were marched up the main street and that as they marched to the trains they passed by people who knew them, people who chose to blind themselves to what was happening. “It is a terrible feeling when they look at you and they completely ignore you,” said Samet.
So many of Samet’s statements are horrifyingly blunt. He does not mince his words.
“We were reduced to one meal a day. The starvation had begun.”
“The buttons on the uniforms of the Gestapo were skulls, they indicated what they were - they were killers.”
At some of the death camps “within 15 minutes of arrival you were coming out of the smoke stacks.”
“When you are starved almost to death modesty disappears, most desire disappeared, and we lost our sense of smell,” he said. “The only smell I still remember is burning flesh - that smell is so terrible you can’t forget it. I know I can’t. I think of it, and still smell it.”
He told them of the labor camps versus the death camps and how they operated. He recalled the lack of hygiene and the things prisoners would do for even a scrap of food. “Many people just laid down and gave up and died,” said Samet. “By the age of 7, I had seen more death than life.”
Three times he was placed on a death train and should have died, but miraculously didn’t. “They told us they were taking us ‘to a better place,’ but of course, they were taking us to kill us as soon as they could.”
Yet in all of the sorrow and horror, there is a hero to his story - his mother. Samet honors her memory in the telling of his story. “Without my mother we were doomed,” Samet said. “She was like an eagle spreading her wings and protecting us. She had three qualities: she was beautiful, she was smart, and she had guts. She was fearless!
“The only person in your life who will give up her life gladly for you is your mother,” Samet said.
Samet and his family were liberated from the camps in 1945. His father died of typhoid within days of being freed. But his mother lived. After their release they became refugees in France and then immigrated to Israel. Samet was in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948, for the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the formation of the State of Israel. He served in the Israel Defense Force as a paratrooper and eventually immigrated to Canada and then to the United States. His mother remained in Israel. She lived to be 82 years old.
For 56 years Samet was a member of the Tree of Life Synagogue; 47 of those years he served as a Torah chanter. Additionally, he taught at the Hebrew Institute in Pittsburgh.
On Oct. 27, 2018, during Shabbat morning services, Samet was running late. Being late saved his life, but it also brought him face to face with the gunman. Samet remembers locking eyes with this man who would have killed him.
When asked why these attacks on synagogues are happening (the Tree of Life shooting was followed by another shooting in Poway, California on April 27, 2019) Samet can only answer, “Who knows? All I know is in my synagogue I lost several friends.”
The evening concluded with a standing ovation for Samet and for his message. Today he’ll be giving a final talk to students and then returning home with his daughter Elizabeth. Twice he has faced death simply for being a Jew. He tells his story with boldness and power, seeking to reach minds and hearts, to turn people away from the prejudice and fear and hatred that so easily escalate to deadly consequences.
His testimony is his vocation.
Brenda Ahearn may be reached at 758-4435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.