‘The Rabbi of Buchenwald’

‘The Rabbi of Buchenwald’

Herschel Schacter’s biographer and his son talk about an inspiring life

Rabbi Schacter, just after liberation, in Buchenwald.
Rabbi Schacter, just after liberation, in Buchenwald.

It is certainly reasonable to say, as his biographer, the historian Dr. Rafael Medoff, argues, that his experience as one of the first Americans to enter Buchenwald after the Germans fled, shaped the rest of Rabbi Herschel Schacter’s life, and his extraordinary career.

It’s also reasonable to say, as Dr. Medoff’s book, “The Rabbi of Buchenwald,” makes clear, that Rabbi Schacter would not have been one of the concentration camp’s liberators had not his character — his sense of responsibility, dedication, and duty, both as a Jew and as an American — propelled him there.

On Sunday, July 18, Dr. Medoff and Hershel Schacter’s son, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter of Teaneck, the University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University, will talk about Hershel Schacter, both in person and on Zoom, to mark Tisha b’Av. (See box.)

Herschel Schacter, who was born in 1917, was not drafted into the United States armed forces; he was a full-time clergyman, and thus exempt. But after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Dr. Medoff writes, Rabbi Schacter felt increasingly uncomfortable as a civilian; when he learned that rabbis were being sought as chaplains, and that chaplains in general were in demand, he volunteered. There were hurdles — from the official side, he was a bit too short and slightly overweight, and on the family end, his parents greatly disapproved.

Rabbi Schacter wrote his parents a letter, in what his own son, J. J. Schacter, said is sophisticated and flawless Hebrew — there’s a translation of it in the book — explaining why he was compelled to enlist. The younger Rabbi Schacter said that he plans to talk about that letter, which lays out the demands that his father felt from his tradition, his beliefs, his American patriotism, and ultimately his God, on Sunday.

J.J. Schacter and his sister, Miriam Schacter of North Riverdale, worked closely with Dr. Medoff on his book, Rabbi Schacter said. “It is not a hagiography. It is not a book that tells how wonderful our father was. It is an honest book, which presents his life in a way that sheds light on the events he lived through and the personalities with whom he met.

“The goal is to tell the story of his life in a way that would shed light on larger events; it’s not just his biography, but it’s about 20th century Jewish life in America, and also in Europe and in the Soviet Union. Its goal is to be fair and honest and objective.” The project — reading through Herschel Schacter’s papers and interviewing dozens of the people who had known him — took the Schacter siblings and Dr. Medoff about six years.

“Both my sister and I are extraordinarily grateful to Dr. Medoff,” Rabbi Schacter said. “We expected it to be good, but he did an extraordinary job. No stone was left unturned, and he wrote beautifully. The book reads magnificently, and we are beyond thrilled by it, and by Dr. Medoff’s honesty and his fair assessment of our father’s contribution.”

Although the book looks at many of Herschel Schacter’s accomplishments — he was an active participant in the ultimately successful push to free Soviet Jewry, and he contributed greatly to the integration of Orthodox Jews into communal Jewish life and into mainstream America — J.J. Schacter and Dr. Medoff plan to concentrate on his experiences at Buchenwald. In no small part, that’s because of the emotional resonances and historic echoes between the tragedies of Jewish life that Tisha b’Av commemorates and the Holocaust.

Although he does think that the Holocaust should be marked as it is, with a separate day of remembrance and mourning, Yom HaShoah, “I also believe that Tisha b’Av is a day to remember off Jewish tragedies throughout the ages,” he said. “And my father’s narrative was shaped by his involvement with survivors of the Holocaust, and so this is an appropriate day to focus on his life and his contribution.”

The things that Rabbi Schacter saw when he entered Buchenwald are hard to read, even now. They scarred him. But he also was able to focus on the survivors and to help them, emotionally, spiritually, and also physically — even though that role, which he undertook passionately, did at times conflict with his official role as chaplain, which was to minister to American GIs. That was a tension he navigated, and from which he learned.

Some of the relationships Rabbi Schacter made in Buchenwald lasted for the rest of his life. His son tells the story of one of those. “There was a young man, a survivor, Yoav Kimmelman, who was about 16 years old when my father met him,” he said. “He spoke Yiddish; he came from a traditional family. He lost every single member of that family — somewhere between 50 and 60 people — parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Everybody.

Rabbi Schacter sits with then Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in the 1970s; Hadassah’s President Bernice Tannenbaum stands behind them. The man at the right is an Israeli security guard.

“So although Yoav grew up in a very traditional chasidic home, he was done with God. He was finished. Done with God, done with Jewish life, done with Jewish destiny, done with the Jewish people.”

But Rabbi Schacter was far from done with Yoav.

“My father always told me never ever to judge anyone for what they felt about their relationship with God after the Holocaust, and I say that I don’t know what I would have done or felt had I had those horrific experiences in the camp,” J.J. Schacter said. And then he continued the story.

“My father had gotten permission from the Swiss government to bring 200 children there,” he said. “It’s a long story.” It involved another survivor, whom he came to know and love — “my sister and I called him uncle — who had been a printer, and forged many certificates.” Those certificates got children out of the camps after the war; as a result, more children were on the train, headed for a DP camp, than the Swiss wanted to let in. That’s a story for another day; the relevant part here is that Yoav didn’t want to go to Switzerland. Herschel Schacter planned to accompany the children on their journey.

“The night before, my father said to Yoav, ‘I am leaving tomorrow. I’m going on the train. Are you sure you don’t want to come?’ And Yoav said, ‘Yes, I’m sure. I’m done.’

“My father said ‘Okay, but please come to the train station to say goodbye. I don’t think we’ll ever see each other again.’”

Yoav agreed, and went to the station. “There were people milling around on the platform, the whistles were blowing, the doors were about to close — and my father reaches down, grabs Yoav, and pulls him into the train.

“And then the doors close.

“Yoav is distraught. He is livid. He is now stuck.

“This was very hard for my father too,” Rabbi Schacter continued. “It took physical force to pull this kid up, and emotional fortitude to go against his wishes.”

That first Shabbat, at the camp, it was hard to put together a minyan. “Most of the people there either were not observant or had lost any interest in being observant,” Rabbi Schacter said. “On Shabbat afternoon, they had only nine men. So my father walks outside, and he sees Yoav, and he says to Yoav, ‘We need a tenth for a minyan,’ and Yoav says, ‘I don’t need a minyan, you do.’ And my father says, ‘You’re right. But just come in. You can stand in the back. If you don’t want to daven, don’t daven.’

“So Yoav goes and stands in the back of the room.

“And then it’s time to read the Torah, and no one there knows how, except Yoav. My father says, ‘Yoav, we need you to read the Torah.’ Yoav says, ‘I don’t need to read the Torah. You need someone to read the Torah.’ And my father says, ‘Please, just read the Torah.’

Rabbi Schacter met many U.S. presidents. Here, in 1968, he’s with
Richard Nixon.

“And Yoav told me that ‘I started to read, and when I did, the words of the Torah jumped out and grabbed hold of me, and they have never let go since.’”

Yoav Kimmelman remained observant. He eventually moved to Melbourne, Australia, where he “had a wonderful family. There now are four generations of his family, all observant, all committed to Judaism and a Jewish life.” Herschel Schacter had a small chuppah that he took with him throughout his chaplaincy — “you never know when some GI is going to want to get married,” his son said — “and all of Yoav’s children were married under it,” as were some of his grandchildren.

Mr. Kimmelman since has died, but there are now almost 80 people in his family, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and in-laws. “That’s all because my father had the guts to pull him onto that train when it left the station,” Rabbi Schacter said.

He and his sister grew close to Mr. Kimmelman, and to other survivors their father — and their mother, Penina Gewirtz Schacter — had nurtured and loved. A group of them moved to Melbourne, where they did well in business. Rabbi Schacter and his wife, Yocheved, visited some of the “Buchenwald Boys,” as they called themselves, two years ago. At a small, elegant dinner at the Melbourne home of Nechama Werdyger, whose late husband, Natan, was another of those Buchenwald Boys, “their daughter got up and spoke about the incredible impact of my father, and that they would not be there were it not for my father. My wife and I were crying. We were overwhelmed with emotion.

“You look around and see these 10 people” — the Werdygers’ five children and their spouses — “and you know they’re there because my father saved his life.”

Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of the Washington, D.C.-based David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. The conversation between Rabbi Schacter and Dr. Medoff is co-sponsored by Congregation Keter Torah and the Northern New Jersey Holocaust Memorial & Education Center. “It’s particularly fitting that the center is sponsoring the program because Rabbi Schacter was one of the most important voices in the American Jewish community promoting the idea of Holocaust commemoration and education,” Dr. Medoff said. Although Rabbi Schacter spoke a great deal about what he’d seen in Buchenwald the year after he returned, after that the subject remained buried for 20 or so years. There was no interest in talking about its horrors. “But after the Six-Day War, in the early 1970s, the Jewish community at large started making the issue of Holocaust commemoration a big part of the communal agenda, and started seeking the voices of the survivors, and also of the liberators,” he continued. “Rabbi Schacter was one of the spearheads of public Holocaust education in America during this period.

“Public schools were just beginning to teach it, and Rabbi Schacter spent an enormous amount of his time lecturing about what he had experienced, and about the importance of Holocaust education for both the general public and the Jewish community.

“Herschel Schacter took one very clear, overriding message from the Holocaust, and I think that it was his devotion to that lesson that enabled him to get past the immediate shock and trauma of what he had seen and to emerge as a major public figure in the Jewish community.

“The lesson for him was to rebuild what Hitler destroyed. He played a very important role within the Orthodox community, helping to build it up at a time when most people thought it was doomed, that it had no future in America, that it could not withstand the pressures of American life.

“He fought that uphill battle, along with others, like Norman Lamm and Gilbert Klaperman and other young Orthodox rabbis who took upon themselves the mantle of leadership in the Orthodox community. But he also went far beyond the confines of the Orthodox world as he began to distinguish himself as the leader of the Jewish community at large.” That part of his career culminated with his presidency of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations in 1968. “He was the first Orthodox rabbi to reach that level of leadership,” Dr. Medoff said. “Until then, others saw Orthodox leaders as fit to be heads of Orthodox groups, but not larger ones. Rabbi Schacter broke that mold. He was sufficiently savvy and sophisticated to represent the entire community, not just the Orthodox minority.”

Rabbi Schacter also was part of the first rabbinical delegation to go to the Soviet Union since 1917. “That was a precursor of the Soviet Jewry movement,” Dr. Medoff said. It was in 1956; that led “to the State Department asking him to go to Hungary to escort out Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Hungarian revolution.

“Each one of those steps made him a more visible figure in the American Jewish community, and made it more clear that he was an exceptional leader.”

Dr. Medoff will talk about Rabbi Schacter’s career. “Because Tisha b’Av is linked to themes of Jewish unity and disunity, I will frame my remarks to some extent in that context,” he said. “Herschel Schacter stepped into an American Jewish community that was racked by disunity, and in remarkable ways, through a number of unexpected avenues, he promoted unity and cooperation.”

Just as the arc of Tisha b’Av is through horror and despair through despondency into hope, so too is “the arc of Rabbi Schacter’s life. His career begins with Buchenwald and goes through to the massive liberation of Jews from the Soviet Union.”

When the Soviet Jewry movement began, “it seemed hopeless. And he lived to see the crumbing of the Iron Curtain.” Rabbi Schacter died in 2013. “The liberation of Soviet Jews was an great and unexpected blessing.”

Who: Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter and Dr. Rafael Medoff

What: Will talk about Dr. Medoff’s book about Rabbi Schacter’s father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter

When: On Sunday, July 18, at 3:15 p.m.

Where: At Congregation Keter Torah, 600 Roemer Ave., Teaneck, and on Zoom

Sponsored by: Keter Torah and the Northern New Jersey Holocaust Memorial and Education Center

How much: Suggested donation begins at $36

To benefit: The Holocaust Memorial and Education Center

To register and for link: www.nnjholocaustmemorial.org

For information: info@nnjholocaustmemorial.org or Steve at (201) 692-8600

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