Obit of the Day: Shalom Aleichem, Yiddem! Ihr zint frei!*
April 11, 1945 was the day that General George Patton’s Third Army liberated Buchenwald. When Rabbi Herschel Schacter, a U.S. Army chaplain, heard the news he quickly found his way into the infamous concentration camp built in Goethe’s hometown.
When he arrived the sights and smells were so devastating that he asked a passing lieutenant, “Are there any Jews alive here?” There were. The Army would liberate 21,000 prisoners.
Random note: Just a few days earlier there were 28,000 prisoners in the camp. As the Allied armies approached, the Nazis attempted a mass evacuation. One-quarter to one-third of the prisoners died of exhaustion.
Among the survivors Rabbi Schachter discovered one thousand orphans (including a teenager named Elie Wiesel, noted author and Nobel Peace Prize winner). Rabbi Shachter would eventually help evacuate the children to France, Switzerland, and Palestine.
Rabbi Schachter would spend weeks in the camp overseeing religious services and counseling victims. He would always remember those early days especially the victims desperately asking, “Does the world know what happened to us?”
Between its opening in 1937 and it’s liberation in 1945 it is estimated that 250,000 prisoners walked through the gates of Buchenwald. It is believed that 56,000 men were murdered over that eight year period. (The camp did house women but not until 1943 and I could find no information on their mortality rate in the camp.)
Rabbi Schachter was discharged from the military as a captain and returned to New York where he led Mosholu Jewish Center in The Bronx for fifty-two years, until it closed in 1999. He would take an interest in the plight of Soviet Jews, visiting the U.S.S.R. in 1956. Later he served as an advisor to President Richard Nixon.
On March 22 President Barack Obama and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau met while the president visited Israel. During that time Rabbi Meir Lau spoke of Rabbi Schachter who he had met when he was only seven years old - one of the orphans that Rabbi Schachter had saved. Neither the president nor Rabbi Meir Lau knew that Rabbi Schachter had passed away a day earlier at the age of 95.
(Image of Rabbi Schachter, far left, leading a prayer service with survivors of Buchenwald, 1945, courtesy of Vad Yashem, via the NY Times)
* The title of the post translates as “Peace be upon you Jews! You are free!” which Rabbi Schachter exclaimed as he went from barracks to barracks in Buchenwald.
Check out Obit of the Day’s new World War II page for more amazing members of the “Greatest Generation”