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Posts Tagged ‘State of the Union’

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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