We Remember the Tree of Life Shooting and Judah Samet, the Holocaust Survivor who Watched the Attack Unfold

Thu, 10/27/2022 - 4:35pm

Today we remember the lives lost at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. The Shabbat morning attack, in which 11 worshippers were killed and six wounded—including several Holocaust survivors—was the deadliest act of antisemitic violence in United States history.

Synagogue member Judah Samet, a Hungarian-born survivor of the Holocaust, sat trapped in his car in the synagogue parking lot that Saturday morning as law enforcement agents engaged in a gun battle with the shooter.

Judah shared testimony with us in 1998 and again in 2019, for the Contemporary Antisemitism Collection in our Visual History Archive.

Reflecting on his outlook after the shooting, Judah said: “I have the right to believe the world is a rotten place, but I don’t.”

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Judah died late last month. In light of the current upsurge in high-profile antisemitism, we offer this tribute to him on the anniversary of the Tree of Life attack.

May his memory be a blessing.

Judah Samet, who died late last month at age 84, was atypically running a few minutes late when he pulled into the parking lot of the Tree of Life Synagogue four years ago today. His tardiness probably saved his life.

Judah described the ordeal in testimony he gave to USC Shoah Foundation the following year.

“There was a detective two feet from my car, behind the wall. Every minute or so, he would pop out, and he had a pistol. And he was shooting three shots—one, two, three. And [then the shooter would jump up] with a submachine [gun] and was shooting—Do, do, do, do. Do, do, do, do, do. Do, do, do, do, do, do. I counted 15 shots.”

Judah somehow survived unscathed and, while driving himself home, was possessed by a single thought.

“The only thing that came [to] my mind, and I think I said it out loud, was ‘For me, it's never over.’”

Judah’s life began in 1938 far away from Pittsburgh and Tree of Life Synagogue.

Born in Debrecen, Hungary to a prosperous Orthodox family that manufactured knitwear, Judah recalls a relatively carefree existence until his father came home one night “in sheer terror.”

“He [had just been] attacked by a bunch of Hungarians,” Judah remembers. “One of them was one of his employees. He escaped by leaving [his] coat in their hands, and he ran home. And I remember the terror on his face.”

Judah’s parents had by that time managed to secure papers and passports to leave for the United States.

“But unfortunately,” Judah recalled, in April 1944 the Gestapo descended on Judah’s family home “[before we could get] to the train.”

“They seemed to me like out of this world, maybe Hollywood types,” he recalled. “Their shiny boots [were] what caught my imagination. [But] I did not like the screaming and yelling, especially when [they started to do] the beating.”

Judah and his family were sent on a cattle car to an Austrian slave labor camp and some months later, to Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany. It was there that the young child was quickly exposed to “funeral hour,” the daily ritual where the dead were pulled from barrack buildings and thrown onto piles destined for the crematorium.

“[It became] so common, that…by the time I was six, I [had seen] more dead people than live people.”

Judah’s family was somehow able to survive the lack of food, outbreaks of illness, and chronic overcrowding that characterized camp life. Toward the very end of the war, his mother—believing her life was in danger from an angry Kapo, or camp guard—volunteered for the family to leave Bergen-Belsen on a train bound for a work camp in Hillersleben in central Germany.

The train ride lasted “a couple of weeks,” and people around Judah “were dying like flies.”

And then one morning Judah and his fellow prisoners woke to complete silence.

“The train was opened. And we didn't see the guards. They were gone,” Judah said. “And all of a sudden, we heard the rumbling of machinery. And sure enough, there was—maybe 20 [to] 30 feet [away in] the forest—a tank coming out of the woods.”

Judah’s father at first was terrified, thinking he and his family were about to be killed by a German tank.

But then “the turret opened. And I think—I'm not sure—the first [person] to come out of it was Black. So, my father said, ‘Americans’. [The] second one was a Jew from Brooklyn,” Judah said.

“The tank was filled with candy—candy bars and stuff like that.”

Judah maintained that he was in the first of group of concentration camp children to be rescued by the Americans in WWII.

Judah and his family had survived long enough to be liberated, but his father died of typhoid fever just weeks later.

After the war Judah and his remaining family members emigrated to Israel by way of France. According to a tribute written by Tree of Life, Judah was subsequently “present at the founding of the State of Israel in 1948…served in the IDF as a paratrooper and radio man, lost a brother (Yaakov) in the Sinai campaign, guarded Moshe Dayan for a time, and managed a kibbutz, where he developed a profound distaste for socialism and emigrated to the U.S.”

Judah first landed in New York City, where he worked in a coat factory run by cousins and uncles and attended the Jewish Theological Seminary for a semester. It was in New York that he met and married Barbara Lee Schiffman, his wife of 50 years. The pair later moved to Pittsburgh, where he taught at the Hebrew Institute and later went to work at, and eventually own, his father-in-law’s jewelry business.

For more than 40 years he was a member of Tree of Life Synagogue, where he served as a cantor and Torah reader, and in later life spoke about his Holocaust experiences at schools and universities.

In the testimony he shared with USC Shoah Foundation after the Tree of Life shooting, Judah underscored the critical need for Holocaust survivors to give testimony.

“This whole idea of interviewing eyewitnesses, living witnesses, is so important,” Judah said. “Unfortunately, we're running out of time. And the second generation can never tell it the [same] way [as the] first…”

As to longevity, Judah posited that his frequent brushes with death had perhaps equipped him—and other Holocaust survivors—to live longer than most.

“I see a lot of survivors live to be 100, even more than 100 years old,” he said. “I figure maybe if you had enough in you to take what was [dished] out to you, then your body became stronger somehow.”

He is survived by his daughter, Elizabeth, and son-in-law David Winitsky; his grandsons, Ezekiel and Alexander; his two sisters, Henya and Miriam; and two brothers, Moshe and Itzik.

Judah Samet: In his own words

I blocked out [the Holocaust] for 50 years. I didn't want to think about it. I didn't want to look back…It took me many, many years before I put on anything striped.

The head of the Holocaust Center in Pittsburgh, Edie Naveh, had been after me [to speak] for years. And I always told her, ‘I can't look back. I see the abyss.’ But when I saw Schindler's List and looked around and saw [the age of] the people who were involved in the Holocaust Center—they were in their 70’s and I was only in my 50’s—I wondered who was going to tell the story after they are gone. So, I started to talk.

When I talked [publicly about the Holocaust] for the first time, I didn't realize what kind of a talker I am. But the more I talked—and the way I was received and the letters I got from kids—told me that maybe this is the reason why I survived everything. I was supposed to be dead at age six-and-a-half in Auschwitz. So why did I survive everything? I believe I survived to tell the story to as many people [as I could]. That's why I always want big groups. I don't need [to speak to] five kids or 10 kids or adults. I want to talk to 500. I want to talk to 700. I went to talk to a stadium.

Judah Samet maintained that he was in the first of group of Jewish child survivors to be liberated by U.S troops in WWII and shared the below photograph.

“This is my picture, shortly after the liberation. This picture made all the newspapers in France, as we were the first children to be rescued by the Americans. If you look closely, beyond the smile, you see the size of my head. And you can also see a little bit [of my] stomach there. My stomach was [bloated]. And looking at my shoulders, you can tell, just a little bit, under the shirt, that I'm basically skin and bones with the exception of a big stomach and add a big head.”

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Witnesses recall the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018