By Chloe Chappell
Over 70 years since the Holocaust, Judah Samet is still telling his story and urging students to never forget what happened to him and his family in perhaps the darkest chapter of human history.
While many see him as a hero and an inspiration, he sees his mother as the real hero.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Jewish Fraternity AEwelcomed the 79-year-old holocaust survivor to campus on Sunday, November 5th to tell his story as a survivor of the holocaust.
Samet was born on February 5, 1938 in Debrecen, Hungary. His parents were prominent Orthodox Jews who owned two knitting factories.
His evening at University of Pittsburgh was an opportunity to hear his life story — a story dripping with more pain than any human can be asked to endure.
Samet reported his earliest memory being of his parents, two brothers, sister and himself being herded out of their home across from the Jewish synagogue. “You could hear the Goose Step from a mile away away and it scared you. You knew what was coming,” Samet recalled.
They were given orders through megaphones — told to assemble outside in fifteen minutes, only bringing their valuables, papers, and changes of underwear.
Samet recalled how others kept walking past on the sidewalks — ignoring them as they were herded to the town square where Samet estimates 13,000 Jews were gathered together. Having to wait several days to weeks for the trains to arrive and transport them to the camps, Samet’s mother volunteered to cook for the prisoners. She, along with other women who volunteered to help, cooked soup of potatoes and what little beef was available for the prisoners as they waited.
Eventually, the first train arrived. Samet’s mother begged his aunt to not board the train with six of her children. His aunt was tired of hearing the children cry as a result of their hunger, so they boarded the train headed to Auschwitz.
They were never to be seen or heard from again.
When the second train arrived, they began to herd prisoners into the cattle cars with two buckets, one held drinking water and the other was to be used as a toiletry. His mother, who was fluent in German from her gymnasium education (equivalent to college in the U.S), was an interpreter for the Gestapo, the official secret police of Narzi Germany. She spoke to one of the sergeants and asked for the cattle car to be given more supplies. Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler had ordered that any Jew who addressed a German officer was to be killed immediately, but the Commandant ordered the sergeant to let her live as she was their only translator and it would be stupid to lose her.
Their car was supplied with an oil drum of water.
They were taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Unlike Auschwitz, gas chambers were not the method used to kill the prisoners. Starvation was the proscribed method of execution. Their rations were slowly decreased which led to mass-starvation. As a result of them being starved, their immune systems were depleted which led to rampant Typhoid throughout the camp.
Sanitation was non-existent. The whole camp was the bathroom and the barracks were covered with lice. Samets mother told them to eat the lice, a source of protein, and “take back what the lice had taken from them.”
One day, Samet went to his mother and complained of a headache. His mother discovered an abscess on the back of his head and took him to a former physician living in their barracks who still had his black physicians duffel with him. The physician informed Samet and his mother that he would have to clean out the abscess and the parts of the skull that it had attached to without having any pain relievers in his bag. Samets mother held him down as the physician used a scalpel to drain the pus from the abscess.
“ I wish to God there was one way for me to thank him, but then he was in his sixties and i’m sure he died many many years ago” Samet commented.
Samet credits his mother with his and his siblings’ survival, as she was willing to do whatever necessary to keep them alive. Many people ate their daily ration of what Samet described a grapefruit sized piece of bread and colored water all at once. His mother rationed it out and gave them some every couple of hours to keep them from getting sick or starving.
Samet stated that, in recent years, he had been informed that of the 270,500 people on the train, less than 700 were liberated.
He recalled, “By age seven, I had seen more death than life” and “death didn’t mean anything.”
When the war was coming to a close, the prisoners were given the option to board a train or stay at the camp. Samets mother decided that they would board the train. When Samet later asked her why, she stated, “I had to choose between a sure thing and a maybe.” If they stayed at the camp they were going to die but if they got on the train then they had a chance of something happening that would lead to their survival.
After the liberation of the concentration camps, Samets struggles were long from over. After arriving in Israel, he lived in an orphanage for six and a half years with his brother due to the fact that his mother was unable to care for them. She then convinced the government that with all that they had gone through they deserved to be able to go to one of the best schools in the country. They became ward of the government and went to the school where the food and lodging were good and the education was great.
After some time, Samet traveled with his uncle and sister to Canada on which was supposed to only be a few weeks vacation. Instead, he eventually traveled to New York where he worked with his cousins and decided to stay in the United States. He met his wife Barbara and they married three and a half months later.
The two settled in Pittsburgh and had a daughter. Samet still resides in the Pittsburgh area in his Oakland apartment.
At the conclusion of the event, Judah Samet received a roaring round of applause with several students giving him a standing ovation.
Samet once more addressed the attentive crowd and thanked the audience for being so attentive, respectful and listening to his story. He remarked on how it seemed his story made an impression on everyone in the crowd.
Many of us have read and watched what we think is a fair amount about the world wars, and the Holocaust in particular. Sometimes, we think that we have firmly grasped the horror that humanity was and is still capable of.
Yet, none of it compares to hearing Judah Samet’s story — hearing it told in person. Judah is a real, flesh-and-blood human being who has lived through these events,the blackest splotch on human dignity in contemporary history.
One could see the pain in face as he spoke of life in the camps. Samet showed us where his skull had grown in flat and not rounded from his surgery in the camp. It was all real — far more powerful than any textbook or photo.
“How did your life experiences affect your religious views and observances?” an attendee asked.
For all of the pain he experienced as a result of being a Jew, it would have been easy to assume Samet’s faith would be crushed beyond repair.
Samet responded solemnly. “When I was ten-years-old, I was very mad at God.”
Samet was so mad that he had ripped out his payos — the side curls of Jewish males.
He continued, “[But] I realized God had very little to do with it… For the freedom of choice he gave us life eternally.”
Near the the conclusion of the evening, Samet’s words came optimistically — a sense of thankfulness from a man from whom all things were once taken, and from whom no such gratitude would be expected.
“Have you ever looked at the stars? Do you think we are the only thing God has to worry about? Bringing us to this country — he’s been pretty good to us hasn’t he?”
Photo credits to Chloe Chappell