How Rabbi Herschel Schacter saved the life of a Jewish boy who grew up to be Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
Excerpted from "Small Miracles from the Holocaust," by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal
Union, New Jersey, is a drab, grey, blue-collar town, not a place I would ordinarily visit. But a business meeting had been scheduled in this most unlikely place, so I left my usual stomping grounds in Manhattan and hopped a bus from Port Authority. Now the meeting – which had ended badly – was over, and I was brooding about it, deep in thought, standing at a windswept bus stop with two other commuters – a middle aged woman and a stooped elderly man.
“When’s the next bus to Manhattan due?” the woman approached the man.
Perhaps the older gentleman was hard of hearing, or perhaps he was trying to collect his thoughts. At any rate, he didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he gazed at the woman with a blank stare.
She went ballistic. “You idiot! What’s the matter with you?! Don’t you have any common courtesy? What are you, stupid?” She went on and on, hurling a volley of insults, curses and epithets at the bewildered man.
He looked at the yarmulke on my head, and motioned me to his side.
“Do you speak Yiddish?” he whispered in a thick, guttural accent.
I nodded yes.
“Ze’s an achta meshugenah.” (She’s crazy).
I smiled in commiseration.
The bus arrived, and I boarded quickly. I looked forward to my solitude and the opportunity to review the sequence of events that had led to the abysmal conclusion of the meeting. The bus was nearly empty, so I snuggled into a corner and closed my eyes.
“Ah, so good to find a landsman in Union, New Jersey!” a voice sighed into my ear.
The elderly gentleman had settled into the seat next to me, clearly seeking companionship. “Not too many Jews in Union, you know. Where do you live?”
Probably a lonely Holocaust survivor, I thought. It’s a mitzvah to give him a little attention. I would have to reassemble my thoughts some other time.
“I live on the Upper West Side,” I said with a smile.
“Ah, the Upper West Side,” he said, fumbling for a connection. “Do you know Rabbi Schacter? Do you attend his shul?”
“You mean the Jewish Center? I don’t happen to attend that particular synagogue, but certainly I know of Rabbi Schacter. He’s a renowned and highly respected Rabbi. Why do you ask?”
“I knew his father – Rabbi Herschel Schacter,” the man said with obvious pride. “He was the one who liberated me from Buchenwald. I will never forget that day for as long as I live.”
Rabbi Schacter was among the first to enter the gates, declaring: “Yidden, you are free.’
“Can you tell me about it?” I asked eagerly. Holocaust stories have a particular resonance with me.
“Buchenwald was eerily quiet. We were all in our barracks, waiting for roll call. We didn’t see or hear any of the Nazi officers milling around, but we were still too afraid to venture outside to investigate. Then we heard the roar of military vehicles as the front ranks of the American troops stormed Buchenwald.
"Rabbi Herschel Schacter, the Jewish chaplain, was among the first to enter the gates. He immediately made his way to the administrative offices where the PA system was housed, and broadcast this message in Yiddish over the camp’s loudspeakers. I will never forget what he said: “‘Yidden (my fellow Jews, my brothers), it’s over. Yidden, you are free. Yidden, we are the American troops here to liberate you. Yidden, you can come out now.’
“But few of us did. We were frightened. Most of us thought it was a trick. We couldn’t really fathom that the nightmare had truly ended. I was one of the few who came forward, and I trailed behind Rabbi Schacter in wonderment as he began inspecting the camp with the American generals at his side. An American soldier who spoke Yiddish. Amazing!
“The American officers and Rabbi Schacter were clearly devastated by the carnage they saw. They walked around with dazed expressions of disbelief. With stricken eyes, they stared alternately at the mounds of corpses piled neatly in rows and the skeletons strewn haphazardly on the ground. They reeled from the stench, from the furnaces still hot, from the ashes still smoldering in the air. Groans of horror, gasps of shock, continuously issued from their lips. Despite all the reports they had heard in advance, they had never conceived of or been prepared for such depravity, such evil, as they witnessed now.
“At one point, Rabbi Schacter stood paralyzed in front of a mound of corpses, unable to go on. Suddenly, a slight movement caught his eye. He touched the arm of the general accompanying him. ‘I think I saw one of the corpses move,’ he trembled in excitement. ‘I think one of them is still alive!’
“‘Rabbi, it’s impossible,’ the general gently remonstrated him. ‘Even if the person was still alive when he was thrown into the pit, the weight of all the other bodies on top of him would have suffocated him to death.’
“’No, no no,” Rabbi Schacter insisted. ‘Don’t you see some movement? I see it, I see it even now!’
“’Rabbi,’ the general repeated patiently, ‘I know how much it would mean to you to be able to save even one life, but it’s your imagination, sir. All those people in the pit are dead.’
He stumbled upon a small child, wide-eyed with fear, hiding behind a pile of bodies.
“But Rabbi Schacter was not easily persuaded. He drew closer to the mound of corpses, and began circling it slowly. It was then that he stumbled upon a small child, wide-eyed with fear, who had been hiding behind the pile of bodies, and whose slight motion Rabbi Schacter’s eagle eye had detected.
“‘I found a child! I found a child!’ he yelled to the officers. ‘A child in Buchewald, alive! It’s a miracle!’ He whooped joyously. Rabbi Schacter knelt down before the child, and embraced him gently. ‘What is your name, sweet child?’ he asked in Yiddish.
“’Lulek,’ the child answered, eyes averted.
‘And how old are you, Lulek?’ Rabbi Schacter asked tenderly.
“’What’s the difference?’ the boy said sadly. ‘What are numbers? Believe me, with what I have seen, and what I have experienced, I am older than you. You can laugh and you can cry, but I can no longer do either.’
“Rabbi Schacter later discovered that the boy – perhaps the youngest known survivor of the concentration camps – was only eight years old. One and a half million innocent children had already been brutally murdered by the Nazis and against all odds, this one child had clung on to life. The Nazis routinely killed all children who entered the camps, and the discovery of this lone child was both a shock and a triumph. A combination of miraculous circumstances and his own steely resolve had kept young Lulek alive.
“Rabbi Schacter insisted that Lulek stay at his side; he didn’t want to let him go. He asked Lulek to accompany him to the prisoners barracks, where the inmates were still hiding, so that he could personally reassure them that it was true: they were liberated, they were free, it was over. He held Lulek’s hand tightly as they walked from one barracks to another, announcing the same message over and over again: ‘Yidden, you are free. Yidden, it is over. Yidden, you are free.
“And do you know who this little child Lulek turned out to be?” the elderly gentleman asked me with a triumphant smile, as our bus rolled into Port Authority.
“Yisrael Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Israel!”
A few weeks later, I was rushing down the streets of the Upper West Side, trying to get to my shul for the afternoon prayer service of Mincha. When I realized I wouldn’t make it in time, I decided to duck into the nearest functioning synagogue. By chance, it happened to be The Jewish Center, presided over by Rabbi Jacob Schacter, Rabbi Hershel Schacter’s son.
After mincha, we crossed paths, and I told Rabbi Schacter of my encounter on the bus with the Buchenwald survivor. As I recounted the survivor’s tale, Rabbi Schacter began weeping, and he pumped my hand in gratitude. “You know, my father told me this story 30 years ago,” he said, “and of course, I believed him. But it means so much to me to have it corroborated by a witness, and to hear the events that occurred depicted from this man’s perspective. You don’t know what this means to me. You have given me a gift.”
Just a short time after this conversation took place, I traveled to the Catskills for the weekend and stayed at a summer resort called Vacation Village. Every Sabbath, Vacation Village hosts a different distinguished guest, and unbeknownst to myself, the scholar in residence on that particular weekend just happened to be Rabbi Herschel Schacter, liberator of Buchenwald.
After his speech ended, I raised my hand and asked if I might recount a story that I had recently heard about his experiences in Buchenwald. He graciously gave his assent, and I proceeded with my tale. I felt privileged to be able to tell the 400 people in the audience how Rabbi Schacter was responsible for the rescue and well-being of the current Chief Rabbi of Israel.
There was only a short interval that lapsed between this and my final experience with the story. Not many days had passed when I was summoned to a fund-raising dinner I was reluctant to attend. My tentativeness, however, immediately vanished, when I entered the ballroom and saw on the dais none other than Lulek – Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Sitting next to him was... Rabbi Herschel Schacter.
Rabbi Lau was called to the podium to deliver a speech, but before he launched into his opening remarks, he introduced Rabbi Schacter to the audience. “You see this man over here?” he pointed to the Buchenwald liberator. “He saved my life.”
Rabbi Herschel Schacter recently passed away at the age of 95.
Excerpted from "Small Miracles from the Holocaust," by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal