Posts Tagged ‘Judah Samet Holocaust survivor’

The portal opened a crack this week and I stepped through it once more.

We pulled it off, in this time of reflection, Passover and the Easter season. Liberation. Resurrection. New Life. And a reunion of sorts, 74 years in the making, to commemorate it all.

Holocaust survivor Judah Samet and WWII medic Walter Gantz, 4-17-19.

There were a lot of moving parts, but we got a chance to orchestrate another survivor-soldier reunion—this time with WWII Army medic Walter Gantz and Holocaust survivor Judah Samet, in Walter’s hometown of Scranton, PA. We had a very short window of time, as we needed also to film the encounter for our upcoming PBS documentary, and my friend Mike Edwards and his crew of film and sound techs had to be available. Since Judah is 5 hours+ away in Pittsburgh—remember, he is also a survivor of the horrible shooting mass murder at his synagogue there last October—and he was coming east to visit for the Passover holiday. His daughter had to be available to drive him a couple more hours north, and then be back home later for family obligations. Walter was preparing for Holy Week and Easter. Mike was to be soon traveling to Africa on another filming expedition, so we picked Wed, April 17th, for the meeting at a hotel in Scranton.

I drove down from the North Country of upstate New York the evening before. Settling into the hotel, management called my room to tell me that Walter was in the lobby, so I hurried down. Mike had arrived with his crew, Joe and Danny; Mike the sound guy was coming in from Brooklyn later.

Now, though I have been conversing with Walter for eight years on the telephone, I had not met him ever before. He’d met other survivors, notably Micha Tomkiewicz and Elisabeth Seaman, and had been called by others like Ariela Rojek in Toronto. But it was the first time he would be meeting me, and he arrived an hour before the dinner we had scheduled with his family and loved ones.

Walter got emotional. At ninety-four years old, the old Coach grabbed my two hands with the grip of the 20-year-old he had been as a medic at Hillersleben, the captured German Luftwaffe base and weapons proving ground 74  years before. “Matt Rozell, God bless you!” Mike snapped a picture. “It’s a good thing I am as cool as a cucumber; otherwise I would be real nervous about all this!”

I don’t have many heroes. But I met one this week. 94-year-old combat medic, Walter Gantz–and he squeezed my hands so hard…

We talked for a while. He lives only three minutes away in the hills overlooking the city, the ‘Polish Alps’ as he calls it, where his parents had raised him, most of the community having emigrated from Poland in the early part of the previous century to work in the mines. He remembered attempts at conversations with the Polish survivors at Hillersleben, how he could pick up word and phrases, and he remembered Micha’s Polish mother distinctly, an educated woman who also had medical knowledge and training. He remembers Gina Rappaport, a survivor from the Krakow Ghetto who spoke seven languages and translated for the people on the train. And he was so sorry to have missed the reunions (11 in all) in the past, but I did not even know about him until he called my classroom in October 2011, shortly after our Sept. 2011 final school reunion… It was liberator Frank Towers who had given him my number, it turns out, and it was Frank who had also contacted Judah Samet in the years before Frank’s passing at 99 in 2016; I suppose then that Frank had a hand in organizing this mini-reunion.

Walter’s three daughters and sons-in-laws arrived for the dinner, taking pictures, getting me to sign copies of my book. The next morning at breakfast, Mike explained how he hoped the day’s filming would go, but we were both of the mind to have everything unfold as naturally as possible. Walter would be waiting in a private room, and I would walk Judah down after he arrived with his daughter.

Judah was right on time at 11 AM, and I got to meet him for the first time since speaking to him at length on the telephone in November. He hugged me, and was also so appreciate of my efforts; he said that my book brought a lot of the memories back for him; I suppose that is the highest honor I could hope for, things that he had previously long buried. I walked him down the hotel corridor to the corner room where Walter waited. At the door, I motioned for him to continue on to Walter, who stood up, hugged Judah, and softly began to cry, greeting Judah with “God bless you, God bless you!”

Holocaust survivor Judah Samet and WWII medic Walter Gantz, 4-17-19. CR: 5 Stones Group.

They sat down and began to speak like they had know each other all of their lives. I sat with them and nodded quietly as the cameras rolled and asked clarifying questions when I could help out. But they had it together, as I knew they would, Walter gripping Judah’s hand. We took it outside on the street for a mini-photoshoot, and Judah’s daughter got acquainted with Walter’s daughters, coming outside to join in. The local newspaper guys arrived, and got a good story for the hometown hero (Walter just called me tonight to say that he had even fielded a congratulatory phone call from California!).

What does it all mean? Well, I think of this season of freedom and new life, about how, 74 years almost exactly to the date of release from oppression (but certainly not hard times—Judah’s father and many others died after liberation as well) these two men, the 94-year-old and the 81-year-old (the former 20-year-old and 7-year-old) and their families had the chance to re-connect and embrace, to recall and to marvel at the wonders of the power of love eclipsing the barriers of time and space.

Thank you to all of the film donors who helped to bring this about; we look forward to sharing this footage with the world when the next anniversary of the liberation rolls around (though we still have to get to Germany, etc). The wires are tripping, and the cosmos are opening once again.




South Scranton WWII Medic Meets Survivor He Helped Rescue From Train…

‘THEY WERE LOOKING FOR A PLACE TO FINISH US’ Scranton Times-Tribune Publication date: 4/18/2019 By JON O’CONNELL

SCRANTON — The Army medics who helped rescue about 2,500 prisoners aboard the train from Bergen-Belsen struggled to insert intravenous feeding tubes into their skin-and-bone arms. The prisoners had departed the concentration camp six days earlier bound for [Theresienstadt in German-occupied Czechoslovakia]. They were starving and emaciated. They couldn’t eat, and their veins rolled under their skin. But Walter Gantz, a combat medic from South Scranton who was just 20 years old in the spring of 1945, had a knack for it. He was known as a “sharp shooter when it came to needles,” he said.

Judah Samet, 81, was aboard one of those train cars. On Wednesday, liberator and ex-prisoner met for the first time at the Hilton Scranton and Conference Center for a PBS documentary called “A Train Near Magdeburg.” It’s slated for release next year. Samet, who lives in Pittsburgh, gained national attention when he survived the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in October, and attended the State of the Union address in February as a special guest of President Donald Trump. Back in 1945, Samet was only 7, but he remembers using a man’s corpse as a pillow and to block the April chill leaking through the slats of the car. He remembers feeling angry when Nazi soldiers eventually threw the body off the train. He recognized their murderous intent. “They were looking for a place to finish us,” Samet said.

Gantz, now 94, was part of an advance party sweeping through Nazi Germany in the final days of World War II that stumbled upon a train — cattle cars abandoned by Nazi soldiers who learned that their hold on Europe was about to break. “They were living skeletons really. Most of them only weighed half of their normal weight,” he said, describing the prisoners’ screams when medics inserted needles. “It was heart-wrenching really.”

Historian Matthew Rozell, a retired world history teacher who began interviewing World War II veterans with his students in Hudson Falls, New York, has become an expert on the April 13, 1945, liberation. His research, and a book he wrote about the liberation, laid a foundation for the documentary. He brought Samet and Gantz together for one of the last joint interviews between prisoners and soldiers for the documentary. Since first learning about the rescue in 2001, Rozell, [liberating soldier Frank Towers, now deceased, and survivor’s daughter Varda Weisskopf] have found nearly 300 survivors. They’ve held 11 reunions on three continents, he said. “Walter never went to any of the reunions [held at my high school] because I didn’t know Walter existed,” Rozell said, explaining how Gantz eventually learned about his work and tracked him down.

The 743rd Tank Battalion, which had been attached to the 30th Infantry Division, discovered the train in Farsleben, near Hillersleben where the 30th infantry had taken over a Luftwaffe air force base and research facility where top Nazi scientists developed secret weapons, Rozell said. The medic, who gave up his “sharp shooter” nickname and now introduces himself as “the coach,” spent seven weeks in Hillersleben tending the rescued prisoners, nursing back to health those who could be saved. Still, more than 100 died after the rescue, Gantz said.

Seated next to Gantz inside the hotel on Wednesday, Samet remembers the strength he drew from his mother, Rachel, a brilliant caregiver whom he says outsmarted the Nazis and kept them alive by rationing bits of hard black bread the size of olives throughout their 10½ month ordeal.

The train rescue at Farsleben gets little mention in history books, if any, Rozell said. He believes World War II has countless other untold accounts that were never written down and are waiting to be found again. “The more you think you know, the more you realize you don’t know,” he said. “Other stories like this absolutely are still out there.”


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I saw a friend on TV the other night. About 50 million other Americans did too; maybe you were one. Well, here is a backstory to all that.

After the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October, a couple of people familiar with the Train Near Magdeburg story reached out to me to ask if Judah Samet, a member of that community who had arrived four minutes late for his usual Saturday morning gathering the day of the assault, was liberated on the train in 1945. It turns out, he certainly was. I did some detective work and tracked down his daughter, who told me that liberator Frank Towers was one of his heroes. So I called Judah, and we spoke a few times on the phone at length. His story is amazing, which comes as no surprise—all of my survivor friends have them, and though they are all different, they all converge at the moment of liberation at the hands of the U.S. Army.

Judah and his family were Hungarians, part of the massive deportations that followed the German invasion of that country in 1944.  By a miracle that I have also heard about from some of my other survivors, the transport they were on which was headed for Auschwitz was diverted instead to Austria, and then to Bergen-Belsen. He turned seven there, and remembers always looking for food, but staying always curious and resourceful. In early April 1945, with mountains of corpses everywhere, his mother and father and he and his brothers boarded the transport that was destined to be liberated by the Americans on 13 April 1945 at Farsleben. His father died a short time later at Hillersleben, the captured German base where survivors were hospitalized. He and his mother made it to Paris, and then to Palestine, which of course became Israel. He became an Israeli paratrooper and was at the Eichmann trial (Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust in Hungary, captured by Israeli agents in 1960), he told me. He lost a brother in the 1956 Suez War.

After emigrating, he met his wife and they settled into her hometown of Pittsburgh. She passed a couple years ago, but before that, he decided that he would have to talk about his Holocaust experiences, long buried— not because he necessarily wanted to, but because older survivors were passing away, and he was troubled by the lack of knowledge and memory, and of course the ever-present deniers and haters. He also gave me extensive telephonic lessons on the history of the Jews in Hungary—’We came in with Attila the Hun’— antisemitism through the ages, with a long detour into the Middle Ages and the Crusades, all of which I am proud to say that I could follow, given my advanced training as a Holocaust educator. ‘In Debrecen (Hungary), we were 73,000.’ Almost all were murdered in the late spring and early summer of 1944. Just five hundred, he said, live there today (he went back with his family last May), almost all of them ‘transplants’. [By the time young men stormed the beaches of Normandy, most of Europe’s Jews were already dead, and it was far too late for the Jews of Hungary. And as I have stated many times here at this blog and in my book, the world stood back and let it happen.]

I sent him my book after our first conversation, and he called me up again after that, to say that it was well written and documented, and that much of what I wrote brought back memories he had suppressed. Some things he could recall; others, not so much. But he said he appreciated the fact that I used actual personal narratives which offered many points of view, not just the ‘Anne Frank’ version. ‘It speaks to my heart’, he told me. My friend Mike Edwards and his team went to interview him at home in December, and we hope to use some of that interview in our finished film.

The morning of the attack, he was pulling into the handicap parking spot at the synagogue when an officer in a black coat and windbreaker rapped on his window and told him to leave, but it was impossible, as the shooter was emerging from the building and firing rounds. ‘The guy was firing five rounds at a time. This I was sure of—as a paratrooper, we were trained to count rounds, to not waste ammunition.’ And ‘the old soldier in me wanted to take in everything, wanted to see the enemy’—’the killer was focused, the smoke was coming out of his muzzle’—but Judah said he was not frightened. He gave his witness statement, and soon enough, the news media was interviewing him. ‘I knew every one of the victims’, he said, but he also told me that he was not traumatized. As a former soldier, he remains vigilant, because, ‘it never ends’.

He is a passionate supporter of the President and the State of Israel. But in spite of the terrible divisiveness and the political differences in this country at this time, it was truly something to see the representatives of the United States of America get behind Judah, to sing to him in the moment, and I hope we can agree that the deeds of our young American soldiers so many years ago truly represented a moment in time that we can all be bursting with pride about. That is the main takeaway of the night which I will choose to keep close. Watch for yourself below at about 1:30:25. ‘If anything good came out of the Holocaust’,  a survivor I once met said, ‘it was my liberators’.

And I’d like to think that we could come together on that.

Judah Samet, member of the Tree of Life Synagogue and Holocaust survivor. White House photo.

[Thanks to my friend Stacey Petito Nowack for inspiring the title of this post!]

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