4 minutes separated Holocaust survivor from Squirrel Hill synagogue massacre
Four minutes meant the difference between life and death for Judah Samet.
The 80-year-old Hungarian-born survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was getting ready to walk out the door of his Oakland apartment Saturday to drive to services on the Sabbath at Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill.
But his housekeeper, who comes on Saturdays, showed up early because she had a few questions for him. So, instead of arriving on time as always at 9:45 a.m., Samet showed up four minutes late at 9:49. After pulling into a handicapped parking space, he says a man approached his car and knocked on the window.
“He said ‘You gotta leave, there is a shooting in your synagogue,’ ” said Samet. “And all of a sudden I see a guy next to my car with a pistol and I could tell he was a detective and he was shooting. And then I heard a salvo of bullets coming out.”
He described the sound Tuesday in an interview with the Tribune-Review: “dat, dat, dat, dat, da…dat, dat, dat, dat, da…dat, dat, dat, dat da.”
Samet stayed in his car as the bullets whizzed by. He moved to the passenger seat to get a better look at what was going on. He said he saw the gunman engage in a shootout with police outside of the building.
Robert Bowers, 46, was later arrested and charged in connection with the killings of 11 people inside the synagogue.
Samet had barely avoided being among the victims.
“Had I been sitting in my seat, I would be directly in the firing line that killed Rose Mallinger,” he said. Mallinger, at 97, was the oldest of the victims and according to Samet was one of those who “always come to the synagogue like me. Always.”
For Samet, Saturday’s tragic events and his own miracle of fate are yet another survival chapter in a life that has been filled with them. A former Israeli Army paratrooper, Samet was 7-years-old when he and his family were forced from their home in Hungary and were being ordered onto a train headed to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
His mother made the nearly fatal mistake of speaking to the commandant without being spoken to, causing a Nazi soldier to put a gun to her head. The commandant ordered the soldier not to shoot her because she spoke German and he felt they could use her.
The train that was to take them to Auschwitz ended up being rerouted after Czech partisans blew up a section of the tracks. “Had we been in Auschwitz, within five hours 90 percent would be dead,” he said. Instead they ended up in Bergen-Belsen, a place where an estimated 50,000 Jews died according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
“In Bergen-Belsen they killed you by the method of starvation,” said Samet. But his mother’s resourcefulness at finding food helped her family survive. They were liberated in 1945.
Samet came to the United States in his 20s and eventually made it to Pittsburgh where he married his late wife Barbara with whom he had a daughter named Elizabeth. After settling here, he became a teacher and also worked in the jewelry business.
He went decades without speaking of his experiences in the Holocaust.
“I never told my story until maybe five or six years ago,” Samet said. “Years ago they came and asked me to talk and I didn’t want to talk. But then I noticed that all the survivors are old and pretty soon there won’t be anybody to tell the story. And I was wondering ‘why am I alive?’ and I started to talk and I realized that this is probably my mission because I want people to know what happened.”
These days Samet speaks to students at schools and at events sponsored by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh among other organizations. He says Saturday’s tragic events at Tree of Life and his narrowly missing being a part of the carnage have only reinforced for him the idea that he has been spared so that he can continue to tell his story. And that while mad men continue to target Jews, he has no fear.
“I’m going to keep telling my story,” says Samet. “I gotta do it. It’s like an addiction almost.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.