Posts Tagged ‘Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue’

Just a year ago, eleven human beings were slaughtered in their sacred house of worship, their synagogue, in Pittsburgh, PA, USA.

I was at my six-year-old niece’s birthday party as the news unfolded. Little ones were running about the house—it was raining hard outside, the chill of a late October Saturday nor’easter—laughing, playing, joyful. Life!

But an all-too-familiar numbness crept in. How does one make sense of the senseless? How does one begin to find the words, to explain, to understand? And I began to sense the continuation of a profound shift on a national level.

And today we are approaching the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, the so-called Night of Broken Glass, when the massive state orchestrated pogrom against the Jews in Germany was unleashed.

How many Americans even know what that means? Or that it all started years before, with words?

Burning synagogue in Ober-Ramstadt, Hesse; Darmstadt, Germany, November 10, 1938. Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Trudy Isenberg


How many good, ordinary Germans looked the other way? Or straight into the camera as their neighbors’ synagogue went up in flames, the firemen dousing the nearby non-Jewish community houses to keep those flames from jumping?

How many good, ordinary Americans read those newspaper headlines on Nov. 10, 1938, and turned to the sports pages? In a just a few short years, two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish community would be slaughtered.

New York Times, November 11th 1938. Nazis smash, loot and burn Jewish shops and temples. Credit: New York Times


And I’ve been trying to figure out a lot of things these past couple years. Because I think words, like history, matter, but sometimes I think there are times when some people may wonder when I’m going to get off this ‘Holocaust affectation’. Well, probably never.  Because I guess they don’t get it. There is a reason I am here to do what I do. There is a reason I spent ten years, the last one feverishly, writing a book while teaching full time, a couple times wondering if I would survive it. If they struggle to understand how an interest became a passion that became a mission, they should pick it up sometime.

Because it’s never over.

Because I’m tired of trying to explain, to ‘understand’.


Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 54
Bernice Simon, 84
Sylvan Simon, 86
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69


Eleven gentle souls brutally taken in their sanctuary.

In the United States of America.


Because today is ‘why’.


A mutual friend in Holocaust education circles found the words on Saturday.

Today is why.

By Juanita Ray, North Carolina Council on the Holocaust

October 27, 2018


If you want to know why I study the causes, events, and horrors of the Holocaust…today is why.


If you want to know why I left my dear, beloved theatre kids to teach this dark history…today is why.


If you want to know why I spend my retirement time working with the NC Council on the Holocaust and the NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching to train teachers in Holocaust Education…today is why.


If you want to know why many of my posts are about love, acceptance, justice, and tolerance…today is why.


If you want to know why we still bother to teach this history that “was so long ago” and

“not on my end of course test”…today is why.


If you want to know why I still read and research and teach about the dangers of extremist political ideologies…today is why.


If you want to know why I taught my students to be upstanders- not bystanders…today is why.


If you want to know why when I visited a synagogue in Vienna in 2011, I had to show my passport…today is why.


If you still believe the horrors of past antisemitism could never happen here, or again…open your eyes.


Don’t become too comfortable with events like today. Guard you words, guard your hearts. Love your neighbors as yourselves. Seek to do good and repair the world– Tikkun Olam.


If you have any doubt where I stand… I stand with, for, and beside those who are hated, bullied, dehumanized, ostracized, targeted, scapegoated, threatened, harmed, and sadly, killed. But I cannot just stand by. Perhaps I have a bleeding heart, but I cannot have a hardened heart.


Esther 4:14– Perhaps you were born for such a time as this.


NO ONE, EVER, ANYWHERE should have to be afraid to enter a house of worship.

[Further Reading: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/antisemitism]


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This newest trailer for our upcoming film, showing the uniting of a World War II medic and a Holocaust survivor for the first time, was filmed just one month ago near the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the Train Near Magdeburg.

Judah Samet (also a survivor of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting last October) and his daughter traveled to Scranton, PA, to meet Walter Gantz, the medic who saved as many sick and emaciated people as he could from the train, though Judah’s father was one of the many who succumbed shortly after liberation. Walter’s daughters were present as well, and I was there as to pull things together. Mike Edwards and his film crew and I were fortunate to have been able to align all the moving parts, and here is the result. We did a group hug!

To complete the film, we have a letter of intent with the major distributor to PBS and now we need to get to Europe to finish filming at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the liberation site, and interview more people, including German eyewitnesses, before it is too late. We want to have this film ready for the spring 2020 75th anniversary of the train liberation.

Walter is 94 and one of the few remaining soldiers left who had something to do with the liberation of this train of 2500 souls, the descendants of whom probably now number in the tens of thousands because of the actions of the American soldiers like Walter. And we would love to bring him over to Germany with us! We would love to introduce him to more survivors and their families, and also to German schoolchildren, at least one of whom he is exchanging letters with at a school near the liberation site, kids who now want to make a difference themselves in being part of memorializing and remembering what happened not far from their schoolhouse door.

Watch the moving trailer below. At 2:10 mark of embrace, you will notice a white wristband Walter has worn since 2011 when I sent it to him, a memento for students from our high school soldier-survivor reunions. It reads, “Repairing the World”.

WHAT YOU DO MATTERS. Seek to do good and repair the world– Tikkun Olam.

Thanks to all who have helped us thus far, and have shared this message of healing and hope! To become a part of our efforts to “Repair the World” to finish filming, or to learn more, head to the following link.


Please share below!

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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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