Rabbi Herschel Schacter: God’s emissary of salvation
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin, Special to The CJN
Erev Pesach, the day before Passover. Arguably, the rabbi’s busiest day of the year. Yet, it was on that very Sunday before Pesach that I took a quick trip into New York to make a shivah call to my rebbe, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, who had just lost his father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter. The younger Rabbi Schacter has done so much in mentoring me in my developing years as a pulpit rabbi, and he was kind enough to be the scholar-in-residence for my installation Shabbat this year here in Toronto, and I felt it was the least I could do.
I had travelled to console my teacher, not knowing very much about his father. But in the course of the trip, I learned that the father was a unique rabbinic hero whose impact reverberates far and wide. My colleague, Rabbi Benjamin Samuels of Newton, Mass., shared some of Reb Herschel’s legacy.
Rabbi Herschel Schacter was one of the first disciples of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, famed dean of Yeshiva University. He went on to become a pulpit rabbi in the Bronx for over 50 years. What he’s most famously known for, however, is that he was the first U.S. army chaplain to liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945.
As the New York Times recently reported, his was the voice that the inmates first heard, as he went from barrack to barrack in the hellhole, shouting, “Shalom aleichem, Yidden, ihr zint frei!” – “Jews, you are free!” He stayed on longer and aided with the resettlement of displaced persons.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel and current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, tells of Rabbi Schacter’s role in liberating him at Buchenwald. In his inspiring memoir, Out of the Depths, Rabbi Lau writes: “I remember the looks of horror on the faces of the American soldiers when they came in and stared around them. I was afraid when I saw them. I crept behind a pile of dead bodies and hid there, watching them warily… Rabbi Herschel Schacter was the Jewish chaplain of the division. I saw him get out of a jeep and stand there, staring at the corpses. He has often told this story, how he thought he saw a pair of living eyes looking out from among the dead. It made his hair stand on end, but slowly and cautiously he made his way around the pile, and then, he clearly remembers coming face-to-face with me, an eight-year-old boy, wide-eyed with terror.
“In heavily-accented American Yiddish, he asked me, ‘How old are you, mein kind?’ There were tears in his eyes. ‘What difference does it make?’ I answered, warily. ‘I’m older than you, anyway.’
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“He smiled through his tears and said, ‘Why do you think you’re older than me?’ And I answered, ‘Because you cry and laugh like a child. I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?’”
Rabbi Schacter had previously led a Pesach Sheini seder at Buchenwald on April 27, 1945. In the Torah, Pesach Sheini is the holiday of second chances, the Pesach sacrificial observance for anyone who, for reasons beyond their control, could not participate in that year’s Passover. This was probably the first Pesach Sheini seder since the time of the Temple, and this seder of second chances was now being offered to the new survivors.
Shiku Smilovic, in his autobiographical memoir, Buchenwald 56466, tells about that day: “All Jews were invited by Rabbi Schacter to attend services and to eat matzah, since it was Pesach Sheini that day. Rabbi Schacter brought matzahs and distributed them to everyone. Rabbi Schacter started to deliver his sermon, when suddenly he was interrupted by a fellow prisoner. When he heard the rabbi say, ‘We know what you have gone through,’ the man screamed and said, ‘No one, but no one, can dare say that he knows what we went through, unless he or she was there! Only they can say, “I know what you went through!”’ He continued at the top of his voice with quotes from the Torah and other scriptures. He was no plain, ordinary everyday Jew. He spoke with authority.
“‘Why did God forget about his children? And we were devastated, just because we are Jews?’ he continued. ‘Before we make a blessing and eat this matzah, we want a din Torah with the Ribono Shel Olam [to hold court with the Almighty]: Why? Why the little children? They didn’t have a chance to sin yet! Why so many thousands of true dedicated talmidei chachomim [learned men], that were sitting and learning yomam v’laila, day and night? You can take your matzahs back to America. I don’t want them. As far as I am concerned, the rest of you, you are free! You can do what your heart desires!’
“Rabbi Schacter did not interrupt the man and he let him finish. He moved his fists towards his heart and said, ‘Chotosi uvisi pushati lefonecha: Please, may I have your forgiveness?’ The man raced up to the rabbi and embraced him for a while. The rest of us just stood there in silence, and our tears did the talking. After that scene, we all decided to have some matzah anyway. We made the blessing of achilat matzah in unison. I am sure that this blessing was heard in heaven, and all the angels answered, ‘Amen.’”
Here’s one more story that I discovered at the shivah. The Thursday before Passover, U.S. President Barack Obama was in Israel visiting Yad Vashem, where he met with the president of Israel, the prime minister and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
After the president was presented with a memento of his visit, Rabbi Lau turned to him and told of how he had recently been in Seattle, where a non-Jewish World War II veteran came over to him with tears in his eyes and said, “I was part of the team that liberated you from Buchenwald. I need to ask your forgiveness, because seeing all the dead bodies, we discovered we had come too late.”
Rabbi Lau turned to the president and said, “We appreciate so much how you’ve promised to come to our aid. All we ask is that you not be too late.”
While recounting the story of his liberation, Rabbi Lau mentioned to the president how grateful he was to the United States, in that he had been liberated by the American army chaplain Rabbi Herschel Schacter. Unbeknownst to the people in that room, Rabbi Schacter had passed away the night before. The liberator’s soul had just then been liberated.
In the Haggadah we read, “It is this [covenant] which has had staying power for our ancestors and for us. For it is not just one nation that rose up against us, but rather in every generation they rise up against us. And God always saves us from their clutches.”
This has given strength and hope to our people in the face of suffering. No matter how dark the day may be, eventually “God saves us from their clutches.” Despite the carnage and death, He will not allow our people to be utterly extinguished, and will send us his holy proxies, like Rabbi Herschel Schacter, to liberate us.
May his memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Korobkin is the spiritual leader of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto congregation in Thornhill, Ont.