Cried to the Jews of Buchenwald: ‘You Are Free’
Rabbi Herschel Schacter leading the Shavuot prayer service for survivors in the Buchenwald camp in Germany in 1945. More Photos »
Published in NYT: March 26, 2013
The smoke was still rising as Rabbi Herschel Schacter rode through the gates of Buchenwald.
It was April 11, 1945, and Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army had liberated the concentration camp scarcely an hour before. Rabbi Schacter, who was attached to the Third Army’s VIII Corps, was the first Jewish chaplain to enter in its wake.
That morning, after learning that Patton’s forward tanks had arrived at the camp, Rabbi Schacter, who died in the Riverdale section of the Bronx on Thursday at 95 after a career as one of the most prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States, commandeered a jeep and driver. He left headquarters and sped toward Buchenwald.
By late afternoon, when the rabbi drove through the gates, Allied tanks had breached the camp. He remembered, he later said, the sting of smoke in his eyes, the smell of burning flesh and the hundreds of bodies strewn everywhere.
He would remain at Buchenwald for months, tending to survivors, leading religious services in a former Nazi recreation hall and eventually helping to resettle thousands of Jews.
For his work, Rabbi Schacter was singled out by name on Friday by Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, in a meeting with President Obama at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.
In Buchenwald that April day, Rabbi Schacter said afterward, it seemed as though there was no one left alive. In the camp, he encountered a young American lieutenant who knew his way around.
“Are there any Jews alive here?” the rabbi asked him.
He was led to the Kleine Lager, or Little Camp, a smaller camp within the larger one. There, in filthy barracks, men lay on raw wooden planks stacked from floor to ceiling. They stared down at the rabbi, in his unfamiliar military uniform, with unmistakable fright.
“Shalom Aleichem, Yidden,” Rabbi Schacter cried in Yiddish, “ihr zint frei!” — “Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!” He ran from barracks to barracks, repeating those words. He was joined by those Jews who could walk, until a stream of people swelled behind him.
As he passed a mound of corpses, Rabbi Schacter spied a flicker of movement. Drawing closer, he saw a small boy, Prisoner 17030, hiding in terror behind the mound.
“I was afraid of him,” the child would recall long afterward in an interview with The New York Times. “I knew all the uniforms of SS and Gestapo and Wehrmacht, and all of a sudden, a new kind of uniform. I thought, ‘A new kind of enemy.’ ”
With tears streaming down his face, Rabbi Schacter picked the boy up. “What’s your name, my child?” he asked in Yiddish.
“Lulek,” the child replied.
“How old are you?” the rabbi asked.
“What difference does it make?” Lulek, who was 7, said. “I’m older than you, anyway.”