Judah Samet: Dodging Bullets Again
70 years after surviving three Holocaust death trains, Judah Samet narrowly escaped the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh. An exclusive look at his fascinating life.
With the deadly anti-Semitic shooting at a San Diego synagogue occurring just prior to Holocaust Remembrance Day, perhaps nobody felt it more viscerally than Judah Samet. A survivor of three Holocaust death trains, Samet came within a whisker of machine gun bullets at the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh last October.
Judah welcomed Aish.com into his comfortable Pittsburgh home, to share his remarkable story of courage, faith and plain good luck – a life celebrated by millions at the 2019 State of the Union Address.
In 1938, Judah Samet was born in Hungary to a prominent Orthodox family. His grandfather was a chassid who went to cheder with the Belzer Rebbe. (“They were lifelong friends,” Judah says.) As a child, Judah spent summers in Israel, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Nobel Laureate Shay Agnon who enjoyed hanging out at the bookstore operated by Judah’s grandfather in Mea She’arim.
Back in Hungary, Judah’s parents were trying to build a business. “They worked at my grandfather’s grocery store,” he explains. “Poor people would come into the store and my grandfather would give away all the food. That generosity wiped out the profits and my parents had trouble earning a living.”
Along with Judah’s two older brothers, the family moved to Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city. There they prospered with two knitting factories and a retail business for high-end knitted dresses.
Before the war: The only existing photo of Judah’s father. Judah sits next to him.
Judah’s photographic memory recalls details from 1942, at age four. “One day, the daughter of a regional governor came to the knitting factory and said: ‘There was a big meeting at the palace yesterday with top German officers. They spoke about the Jewish problem and all agreed there are too many Jews in Hungary.’ (Jews constituted 8.5% of the population.) My mother looked at this woman and said, ‘Hungary’s problem is that there aren’t enough Jews.’ That was the end of their relationship.”
Judah mentions that historically, Hungary was very anti-Semitic. “Remember Attila the Hun?” he says. “Hungary had this pattern of kicking out the Jews. When the economy went down, they brought the Jews back. This went on, back and forth, for centuries.”
In March 1944, when Judah was six years old, the Nazis came to town.
“I heard the goose-steps from nearly a mile away. We knew what was coming. The SS soldiers marched into town and stopped right in front of our house – we lived directly across from the synagogue. The officer called out on the loudspeaker: ‘Be outside in 15 minutes! Take only your valuables, papers, and a change of underwear. You are going to a better place.’”
At the time, 7,300 Jews lived in Debrecen; the Nazis corralled another 6,000 from surrounding villages.
“They moved us through the main streets of Debrecen. The elderly were clubbed on the spot. Children were carried by their parents. Along the way, I noticed some employees of my parents. But we appeared to them as ghosts. Even more than the hatred, there was a horrible feeling that nobody cares you exist.”
Along with his family and thousands of other Jews, Judah was penned into a local brickyard while the accursed Nazis tried to procure a train. During that stage of the war, the Wehrmacht urged Hitler to prioritize railway lines to transport vital troops and desperately-needed supplies to the battlefront. Ignoring these warnings, Hitler instead gave orders to allocate the precious railways to deport Hungarian Jews to extermination camps. This decision was a key factor in further debilitating the German war effort, yet Hitler seemed to regard the killing of Jews as more important.
Throughout this turmoil, Judah was protected by his mother, Chana Rachel. “She reminded me of the biblical Devorah – a prophet, head of government, head of military. She was the heart and soul of our family. She always had my back.”
During those few months in the brickyard, she voluntarily bought and cooked food for masses of people – “literally saving hundreds of Jews,” he says.
In addition to speaking Hungarian, Judah’s mother spoke fluent high-end German and became the main translator between SS officers and Jewish prisoners. She believed this would significantly increase the odds of her family’s survival.
At home in Pittsburgh: Judah’s wall of cherished family photos.
In June 1944, the fatal day arrived. A train pulled into Debrecen to transport its human cargo to Auschwitz.
“By then the killing machine was well-oiled,” Judah reflects. “Adolf Eichmann killed 450,000 Jews in less than two months.
“They put 80 of us into each cattle car, standing room only. They brought two small buckets – one filled with water, the other for toilet purposes. All sense of modesty had disappeared.”
Judah’s mother realized that with such a small amount of water, those crammed onto each train would never survive the 3-day journey.
“She went straight to the SS Commandant and spoke in high German,” Judah recalls. “We looked so haggard and he was so immaculately dressed, with skulls for buttons and on his cap. And though the law was that ‘a Jew does not speak unless spoken to first,’ my mother figured there was nothing to lose. If she didn’t get more water, hundreds of people would die.”
The Nazi, calmly following procedure, drew his gun and put it to her head. Yet her language and leadership skill skills saved her life; a superior officer said it was foolish to kill their most reliable interpreter.
A larger barrel of water was brought.
So began Judah’s journey to Auschwitz – cramped, thirsty, bewildered. Though the trip was supposed to take a few days, they never arrived. Railway tracks had been blown up by Czech partisans.
The train was diverted to Austria, where Judah and the others were dumped in a big lumber yard, to await their fate.
At night, Judah’s mother would go out to nearby farms – bartering custom-knitted clothes in exchange for bread, cheese and eggs. One farmer taunted the Jews by unbuttoning his shirt to reveal the swastika tattooed on his chest.
“My mother saved hundreds of people,” Judah says. “It was a very dangerous enterprise, for her and the farmers, because Hitler gave a direct order not to deal with the Jews. One night she didn’t come back and we were sure she’d been killed. We started to panic – because without her, we would not survive.”
After a few interminable months, a train finally came and transported the Jews to Bergen-Belsen. Judah was 7 years old.
“The first thing I saw was corpses piled up by the gate,” Judah reflects. “There were probably a thousand corpses, skin and bone, piled two stories high. Every day the pile would be cleared, and every day a new pile would form.”
He describes the camp conditions:
“In Auschwitz, you’d be chimney smoke within an hour of arrival. In Bergen-Belsen, the policy was ‘starvation.’ Once a day, we each received a slice of moldy, rock-hard bread and some colored water. My mother wisely broke it into small pieces and fed us six times a day.”
Judah’s youthful energy managed a few other morsels. “When the German officers finished a meal, they’d discard the bones on the ground. I’d pick up a bone, bite it, and the taste would fill my mouth.”
The prisoners spent most of their time inside the bunks, trying to stave off starvation. “The entire camp was teeming with lice,” Judah explains. “My mother told us to eat the lice, because as blood-suckers they’re a source of protein. ‘Take back what they took from you,’ she would say. At the Passover Seder, during the third plague of lice, I always think how they saved my life.”
During his 10 months in Bergen-Belsen, Judah had various brushes with death.
“One time a Nazi guard started speaking Hungarian to my friend and I. So we thought he was friendly. Then he started shooting bullets between our legs. He didn’t try to kill us, but he sadistically wanted to frighten us.”
On the brink of starvation, the prisoners’ immune systems were depleted, leading to rampant Typhoid fever throughout the camp. An estimated 50,000 Jews, including Anne Frank, perished at Bergen-Belsen.
By spring 1945 the Russians closed in on Hungary and Poland, with the Germans essentially in retreat. Each prisoner in Bergen-Belsen was offered a choice: either stay in the camp, or board a train to a destination unknown.
Judah’s mother chose the train. “She figured if we stayed in Bergen-Belsen, we’d be dead in a day or two,” Judah says. “The infrastructure had broken down and they’d stopped supplying food and water. The other option was to get on the train which circled around looking for a place to kill us – perhaps Theresienstadt Ghetto, or simply running the train off a bombed-out bridge. But we figured maybe a miracle will happen.”
Sure enough, it did.
“One morning, our train suddenly screeched to a halt. All the German guards fled. A soldier emerged from the forest. We didn’t know who he was, and we thought we’d all be finished off. My father had studied English and cried out with joy: 'It's the Americans!’ They’d been monitoring our train for days, to determine if it was transporting soldiers, which they’d then destroy.”
“I saw my mother laugh for the first time in 15 months, and I knew all that hunger and pain was over,” he recalls. “We started dancing and shouting with joy.”
The jubilation of achieving freedom was short-lived, however. Within a week, Judah’s father Yekutiel was dead from Typhoid.
After the war, age 7: Judah’s head appears oversized next to his emaciated body.
The Holy Land
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Judah showed signs of starvation – a big head, small body, and distended stomach. The Jewish Agency sent his family to Paris. “They put us in a fancy hotel and fed us,” he says.
The Samet family needed to decide where to go next. The government invited Judah’s mother back to Hungary to operate their knitting factories – an option she would not consider. America was not an option, due to a lack of proper identification papers.
So in 1946 they moved to Jerusalem. “At this point, my mother wanted to live with Jews,” Judah says. He was enrolled in cheder, then transferred to an orphanage in Bnei Brak run by the illustrious Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, who saved many Jewish children from Christian orphanages in Poland. “He had big blue eyes and a long white beard that glistened like diamonds in the sunshine,” Judah reminisces.
Holocaust trauma was a constant presence at the orphanage. “We were all bed-wetters,” Judah says. “I wet my bed until age 11. I remember a wonderful woman named Mrs. Munk walking the hallways in the middle of the night, waking us up so we’d use the bathroom.”
Judah was fond of attending morning prayers with the saintly Chazon Ish, the leader of Torah Jewry during the early days of Israeli statehood.
“One day my sister Henyah got very sick, fell into a coma, and was taken to the hospital where they said there’s no hope,” Judah recalls. “So I went to see the Chazon Ish. When I arrived, he was waiting for me – yet there were no telephones and no way for him to know I was coming. He asked me: ‘What is her name?’ He started to pray and said: ‘May God send her a full recovery.’ I went home and told my mother that everything will be okay. The next day, my sister opened her eyes and recovered.”
Judah stops and reflects: “I know this story is true because it happened to me!”
Life in Israel was difficult, as Judah had no father and no money. He recalls learning a powerful lesson in childhood education:
“In those days, a bar mitzvah boy would get a fountain pen as a gift from his parents,” he explains. “We didn’t have money for this, and one day I stole from a woman’s purse. I went to the store and asked for the pen. The owner knew I was from the orphanage and informed Mrs. Munk. The next day she called me into her office and tried to get me to confess. I claimed that I’d found the money, but she knew the truth.
“I’d been doing poorly in school, and one day the teacher said to the class: ‘It’s a shame that the smartest boy in the class will be held back a year.’ The teacher never looked at me, but I got the message. I buckled down and by the end of the year I had straight A’s. Mrs. Munk called me into her office and handed me a box. Inside was a fountain pen. She said: ‘The only way you get something in this world is by earning it.’”
1956 marked the second installment of the Arab-Israeli war – an effort by Israel, the UK and France to regain control of the Suez Canal. Judah was trained and served as an IDF paratrooper. (“When you jump from airplanes, 50 years later your knees stop working,” he says.)
Judah’s brother Yaakov, a machine gunner, also fought in the Sinai Campaign. One day, while searching for terrorists in southern Gaza, a Palestinian fighter knocked down a door and threw a grenade into the room where IDF soldiers were stationed. When Yaakov ran outside, a sniper shot him dead. He was 20 years old.
“My mother said: ‘At least Yaakov didn’t die in Bergen-Belsen. He died for Israel.’ That gave her comfort.”
(Judah’s other brother, Moshe, is a scholarly librarian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and is a global authority on the great 19th century Hungarian rabbi, Chatam Sofer.)
After completing his IDF service, Judah worked for the Israeli government managing towns, while continuing his religious involvement by preparing boys for bar mitzvah.
One time an uncle, on a visit from Canada, suggested a match for Judah’s younger sister. Judah tagged along to America and wound up meeting a Pittsburgh native, Barbara, at a cousin’s bar mitzvah. They were married a few months later and raised a daughter, Elizabeth. (Barbara passed away in 2013.)
Judah settled into life in Pittsburgh, teaching Judaism classes and serving as the synagogue’s Torah reader. He earned a nice living, taking over and expanding his father-in-law’s jewelry business in downtown Pittsburgh’s landmark Clark Building. Over the years he generously supported Israel Bonds.
Judah’s mother at age 17. Yaakov in his IDF uniform.
Tree of Life
Fast forward to the morning of October 27, 2018. A regular attendee at Tree of Life, Judah likes to arrive to services on time. This day, he was four minutes late.
It saved his life.
“As soon as I arrived, a man told me to turn back because there’s an active shooting inside the synagogue. It took me a minute to process what was going on. Then a police officer popped his head out from behind a wall and fired his pistol toward the doorway of the synagogue. Three shots.”
Judah had a clear vision of the gunfire exchange. “The murderer was standing in the doorway with a large, black submachine gun. Tatatatata – five shots each burst. I felt the bullets whizzing past my head.”
Unbelievably, 70 years after surviving some of humankind’s worst atrocities, anti-Semitism almost took Judah’s life. “As I stood there, I thought of the Holocaust and said out loud: ‘For me, it never stops.’”
Eleven of Judah’s friends were massacred that day, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. “In the synagogue, I always sit near one of the victims. Had I arrived five minutes earlier, I’d have been in the line of fire.
The FBI interviewed Judah four times, leaving him to reflect: “Jews are never completely safe. It's in the DNA. It never ends. For my family, it never ends.”
Makeshift memorial in front of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
State of the Union
Fascinated by Judah’s story of survival, the White House invited him to attend the 2019 State of the Union Address as the President’s personal guest.
They sent Secret Service and FBI to Pittsburgh to speak to people who know Judah, and on February 5, he was flown to Washington, put up at the Grand Hyatt, then whisked to the White House for a chat with First Lady Melania Trump, followed by a kosher dinner of lasagna and salmon.
“I had a nice conversation in the Oval Office with President Trump,” Judah says. “I told him the last words that Moses spoke to Joshua: Chazak v’amatz – ‘be strong and courageous.’ The president appreciated that, and gave me an extra-long handshake. He’s physically strong, with hands like steel.”
Judah visits in the White House with First Lady Melania Trump.
Upon entering the House chamber, Judah was asked to remove the large Bucharian-style kipa that he regularly wears. “One of the ushers told me that ‘nobody wears a hat in Congress,’” Judah recounts. “But I regret taking it off. I’m from a very Chasidic family and this yarmulke is a symbol of my faith. Plus it keeps my head warm.”
State of the Union address: Judah listens as the president speaks about him.
The climax of the day was the 2019 State of the Union address, when the President singled out Judah and devoted several minutes to telling the story of his surviving both the Holocaust and Tree of Life.
In a viral moment, the President mentioned it was Judah’s 81st birthday – triggering a standing ovation and an impromptu performance of “Happy Birthday” by the entire Congress (what one commentator called “a rare moment of political unity”). The President mimed a conductor’s baton, while Judah blew a kiss and shouted "thank you.” The president smiled and quipped, "They wouldn't do that for me.”
One of the president’s top aides told Judah: “You made history. That’s the first time Congress has formed a chorus.’”
The celebrity treatment continued. “On the flight home, the pilot came over, gave me a big hug and kiss, and took a picture of me. And for weeks later, wherever I went, people wished me Happy Birthday!”
Today, Judah’s life revolves around speaking to thousands of people, mostly in high schools, on discussion panels, and through the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center. He enjoys telling his story and urging people to “Never forget.”
As our time together draws to a close, I ask Judah how he managed to survive these two horrific events.
“You got to go on,” he says pensively. “Someone is looking out for me.”