Holocaust survivor to share story at 29th Yom HaShoah service in Greensburg
Of all the words that have been used to describe Judah Samet, survivor is probably the one that defines him the most.
Samet, 79, has turned his story as a Holocaust survivor into a continuing lesson on the meaning of suffering, the ties of family and the importance of faith.
“I have no problem talking to people,” the Pittsburgh resident said. “I must be doing a pretty good job just by the fact that people want to hear me. The story has to be told.”
Samet will speak Sunday in Greensburg as part of the 29th annual Yom HaShoah service at Congregation Emanu-El Israel. The service, held in observance of the annual day of remembrance for the Holocaust, will feature the lighting of eight candles — six in memory of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis, one for the liberators and one for 21st century victims of genocide.
Samet is one of the youngest Holocaust survivors living in Pittsburgh and, as such, has become a popular speaker at universities, schools and churches across the region. His story has been archived at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh through its Living Legacy Project.
Although, at his age, he finds the engagements tiring, Samet rarely declines a request to speak. “It became almost an obsession,” he said. “The more people who hear the story, the better.”
Samet said he didn’t like the “rock star” treatment at first. He didn’t think he gave the kind of speeches that deserved applause, but he was touched by the reception, especially by young people.
“That’s when I realized that what I do is necessary. That kind of energized me,” he said.
Samet was born in 1938 in Debrecen, the second-largest city in Hungary. The family of six lived in the Jewish section of town, across the street from the synagogue.
In 1944, German Gestapo agents started rounding up Hungarian Jews for deportation to camps across central Europe. The Samets ended up on a train bound for Auschwitz but were rerouted to Bergen-Belsen, in northern Germany, after Czech partisans blew up the railroad, Samet said.
Samet, then only 7, spent 10 1⁄2 months at Bergen-Belsen, which started out as a prisoner-of-war camp and became a concentration camp for civilians. An estimated 50,000 people, including Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, perished there, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“The whole camp was like a big toilet,” Samet said, noting that prisoners were served hard black bread and “some flavored water called soup.”
The camp’s population swelled from 7,300 in July 1944, around the time the Samet family arrived, to 60,000 at the time of its liberation by British forces in April 1945, according to the museum.
Just before the arrival of the Allies, German officers announced that they needed 2,500 prisoners to leave by train. At the insistence of his mother, Rachel, Samet and his family boarded a train with an unknown destination.
“Later, I asked her, ‘Why did you put us on the train?’ and she said it was the difference between the sure thing and the maybe thing,” Samet said. “If we had stayed at Bergen-Belsen, we would all be dead. But on the train, you didn’t know what would happen, so she chose the maybe.”
Liberators arrived at the camp soon thereafter to find 13,000 unburied corpses and 34,000 “walking dead,” Samet said.
Meanwhile, the Samets and their fellow travelers arrived in Berlin, where they were rescued by an American tank crew.
“We thought this was where we were finally going to be finished off,” he said. “When the tank came out, the gun was not aimed at us. A soldier came out, and he did not have the Nazi uniform. My father, who was studying English, yelled ‘Americans!’ ”
About a week after liberation, Samet’s father, Yekutil, died of typhoid. The rest of the family was taken to Paris and then to Marseille, where they were put on a boat bound for Israel.
Samet credits his mother with the family’s survival. A 4-foot-10-inch dynamo, she became a translator for the Germans, looked out for fellow prisoners and devised ways to provide food for her children.
“My story shouldn’t evoke any heroism, at least on my part. The hero in my story was my mother,” he said. She lived to the age of 82.
Samet resided in Israel from 1946, two years before statehood, until 1961. While there, he graduated from a seminary high school, worked as a teacher, served in the Israel Defense Forces and managed two towns for the Israeli government. His brother, Jacob, was killed in the 1956 Sinai Campaign while serving as a machine gunner in the IDF.
Samet traveled to Toronto in 1961 and worked for a time in his uncle’s coat factory in New York City. While attending a cousin’s bar mitzvah on Long Island, Samet met his future wife, Barbara, a Pittsburgh teacher.
“I was very impressed with my wife’s English. I had a very bad accent. She said, ‘I cannot hear you. Why won’t you come sit next to me?’ ” he said. “So then we decided to take a walk on the boardwalk, and within three and a half months we were married.”
Samet moved to Pittsburgh and attended Duquesne University, leaving seven credits shy of getting his degree. He instead got involved in the family business, Irving Schiffman Jewelers in downtown Pittsburgh, which he eventually owned.
“I turned the store into an engagement ring center,” he said.
In retirement, Samet stays busy with speaking engagements and with his daughter and two grandsons. His wife of 50 years died in 2013.
Samet attends Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, where he served as Torah chanter for 40 years. He finds his hopes bound up in the curiosity of the schoolchildren he speaks to.
“I read every single letter I get from kids. They’re just wonderful,” he said. “They tell me how reading books about the Holocaust does not compare with the story of a live survivor. When you hear someone talk, it kind of sinks in.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280 or [email protected].