the man who carried the word of freedom to buchenwald

Rabbi Herschel Schacter

Rabbi Herschel Schacter leading the Shavuot prayer service for survivors in the Buchenwald camp in Germany in 1945.

i’ve always been weirdly, slightly obsessively into the holocaust. it sounds crazy, i know, but hear me out. my parents were raised by jews who had relocated to brooklyn from poland and russia a good ten years before the nazi party rose to prominence, so i’ve never had any personal connection to holocaust survivors. my mother used to tell me the story of her grandpa nathan, who came to america on a big boat at the small age of seven, clutching to the railings of an enormous ship as the ocean waters churned beneath him. nathan was sent to america by his parents, who fled russia during the pogroms of the early 1900s. my entire extended family, as far back as i can remember, was out of europe before world war I, and long before world war II. but they left behind friends, and neighbors, and lives – lives that would be shattered by the nazi regime just a decades later. my grandfather fought as an american soldier in world war II, and liberated a few of the smaller camps. as the head of his unit, it was his job to write letters home to the families of all the soldiers who lost their lives during battle. in addition to having to answer to the deaths of his troops, he also had to answer to the deaths of his people – to walk into those camps and see body after body, life after life, taken away.

i knew my grandfather as a stern, rather angry man with a violent streak. one night, at dinner, i put my elbows on the table. he reached across and rapped my knuckles with his butter knife, hard. “we don’t eat like that here!” he said. my mother pushed her chair back so fast it flew into the buffet behind her, and told her father if he ever laid a hand on me again, he could kiss his relationship with us goodbye. he nodded, but didn’t apologize. my memories of him are few and far in between. in photos, he can be seen smiling, but my recollection is that he did very little of that. he was plagued by the demons of the war; on D Day each year, he sat in his armchair and smoked his pipe all day long, speaking to no one. according to my grandmother, when they first met, he was a different man. indeed, his letters to her from abroad are long, romantic accounts of the rolling hills of germany and the long overnight train rides. they’re written in perfect slanting script, and contain no mention of the german mistress he took up while he was there. my grandmother’s favorite set of china was one that was reportedly given to my grandfather by this mistress; i don’t know if my grandma ever knew of its origin.

all of this is to say that while no one in my immediate family was a holocaust survivor, they were all deeply affected by it in their own ways. one has to wonder what it was like to be a nineteen thirties housewife deep in the heart of brooklyn waiting for your american husband to come home, knowing that he’s fighting a war against a behemoth that wants nothing more than to rid the earth of everyone like him. i never asked my grandfather what he saw at the camps, mostly because i got the sense that he wasn’t quite able to talk about it.

perhaps its because of my lack of connection to any survivors that i’ve always devoured any holocaust literature and material i can get my hands on. as a teenager, i read every work of historical fiction i could find on the topic; when i decided one day i’d be a writer, i told myself that i’d write the stories of survivors, to ensure that when they passed, their stories would live on. a rather lofty goal, looking back on it. when survivors spoke at my temple, i sat with bated breath, with hot, salty tears dripping down my cheeks and dotting my dress.

i continue to read every bit of holocaust literature i can find, and admittedly finished jodi piccoult’s newest book, the storyteller, on a crowded metro north train that probably wondered why i was sniffling loudly while i turned the pages. (sidenote: if you’re a jodi fan, you need to read this book). so, you can imagine that i was beyond taken by this new york times obituary of rabbi herschel schacter, the man who brought word of freedom to the jews of buchenwald. i beseech you to read the entire thing for yourself, and i dare you not to cry while you do so. but i was particularly moved by the passage below, which tells a story so symbolic of the holocaust and the damage it did to all those who lived through it. i could read this passage again and again – but then i’d be sitting at my computer in an open workspace crying to myself, and let’s face it, i don’t think my office would be too happy about that.

but seriously, please, read the whole thing. it’s important to remember the past, and i think the power of the written word is a pretty good tool to help us do so.

from rabbi herschel’s obituary:

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?”

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