A story that Must be told

I just got back from listening to Mr. (Abraham) Judah Samet share his story.

Judah via Holocaust Center PGH
Judah photos via Holocaust Center PGH

He is a Holocaust survivor who spoke at the Sewickley Library tonight. Usually, I wouldn’t get out alone on a weeknight but it’s my birthday so I asked for the night out to listen to and learn from this man without the distraction of the kids. Big ups to Kyle-baby for holding down the fort. And on to the notes I took while Judah spoke. Disclaimer – trying to get it all down and not edit because it will slow me down and I’d rather just get the words to “page” fast rather than risk never getting it done

6/22/2016, 7 p.m. Sewickley Public Library // Mr. Judah Samet holocaustcenterpgh.org

around 6:45 before the talk began…

I ask him where he lives and he says in North Oakland. used to live in Squirrel Hill but moved 16 years ago.

There was a plate of refreshment cookies for attendants. He said “If we had one cookie like that in the camp my mother would split it into 20 pieces so that it lasts.”

He says hello to everyone that walks in. “Hello ladies. // Oh you’re a family. That’s nice.”

He’s dressed in a light yellow button down shirt, olive/khaki colored dress pants, argyle socks, tan leather loafers and a dressy blazer is draped on the chair behind him.

It’s mostly an older crowd. A lady who is about 70 dressed in all white gets alarmed when I go up to whisper to him that his zipper is down as he sits after using the restroom. He graciously thanks me, fixes it and it’s over with me sitting back down in 30 seconds. To her friend she says (elderly hearing louder than you think style) “Did she just kiss him? He’s an Orthodox Jew! But he’s so nice. Hmmph.”

He has spoken to many schools and churches and at the Holocaust Center.

For a long time he couldn’t talk because when he looked back he saw the abuse.

He’s one of the youngest survivors.

Spieldberg took the $1 billion profit from Schindler’s List to make a Living Heritage Fund where they interviewed 53,000 survivors. Judah said it’s good those interviews will be around because there are a lot of denials.

A woman in the front row tells him her father was a survivor.

7 p.m._ Reference Librarian introduces Judah_

Judah begins sharing his story and referencing typed pages he has in about 4, 2-sheet, paper-clipped together bundles. Holding one at a time then setting them down, flipped face down.

When we were herded from our homes in Debrecen, Hungary to the train station – if you couldn’t go fast enough you got clubbed. If you got clubbed sometimes you didn’t get back up.

72 years ago his story happened. He was blessed with a very good memory. His Rabbi once asked him if he has total recall and he said no but I have a good memory. He’s from an Orthodox Jewish family with four children. He has a very subtle accent – pronounces “W” like “V.”

When an Orthodox Jew makes money they don’t go spend it at night clubs. They go to synagogue and study.

Hungary aligned with Germany to avoid what happened to Poland. The Hungary government initially wouldn’t let Germans take the Jews. The skinheads got a hold of the government. They would lure Jews to the Danube river, make them take their shoes off and shoot them in the head. The river was red with blood.

His father was attacked after work one day. He survived by running away and had a bloodied shirt. Even one of his factory workers attacked him. To have a job was an honor in those times and to have a good boss like his father was even better. When his father realized even an employee would turn on him, he knew it was so bad they had to get out of the country. In 1944 he got passports and tickets to America. It was probably through the Dutch embassy. During lunch one day, they heard marching boots approaching their Brownstone. Through megaphones, the German soldiers told them to leave everything except for their valuables and a change of undergarments and come outside. The soldiers knew all the Jewish people would be at home during the lunch hour.

It was a cold, rainy day when they marched to the station.

My mother offered to cook for the masses. She made four cups of soup every day and a little bread. The starvation began until the transportation trains came. My mother came from a long line of entrepreneurs. About a week passed until livestock cattle cars arrived. Planks of wood bordered them. In the winter wind it was like traveling in a freezer. Not a refrigerator. A freezer. My aunt with six children got on a train. My mother begged her not to go but my aunt couldn’t deal with her children crying from starvation anymore and chose to get on the train.

My mother read and spoke German. She attended a gymnasium which was equivalent to 2-3 years of college. It was a place to learn, not play. She worked as an interpreter. The gestapo were the worst of the worst. They were taken out of jail – rapists, killers. They had lightning bolts and skulls on their caps. Skulls on every button of their jacket. they were killers.

My mother observed them putting two buckets on the train cars. One for water. One for a toilet. There was no modesty anymore. That was gone. If you had to use the restroom and could make it to the bucket you would just go. Many people went in their pants.

My mother tried to tell the commandant, in her most respectful voice, that one bucket of water wouldn’t be enough. They wouldn’t want the population along the way of the train’s path to see the brutality of the civilized Germans. At the time, the Germans were leading in Nobel Peace prizes and took pride in being educated and civilized. She was almost shot for speaking without being asked to speak. Judah was about 6 years, 3 months old at this time. The commandant saved the general from shooting her by explaining they should keep their interpreter. Judah recalls the commandant’s shiny shoes and nice slicked over hair.

The Germans replaced the bucket with an oil drum of water. Who knows how many were saved because of her courage.

The trip from Hungary to Auschwitz would take several days. They were diverted to a work camp.

In Auschwitz, he explains, the people were separated immediately. They kept a few women and men to do jobs. The others were sent to the showers and were billowing out of the stacks within 40-50 minutes.

In Austria, Hitler was raised by his mother. When she died an upstairs Jewish neighbor took him in. He’d go to the local art store to buy paint. The shop owner who was Jewish offered to have him paint his store and pay him for it. If he hadn’t made the goal of eliminating Jews, he probably would have had his work all over the world in museums. He had artistic talent.

My mother would sneak away to a nearby village after long days working. She would knit clothes to barter for food. The farmers would give her milk, eggs, cheese, bread, butter. My parents had a beautiful, high end factory back in Hungary. The clothes she could make were so impressive. It was very dangerous for her to sneak away and for the farmers to help her. If she’d been caught she and the farmers would be killed.

She was like an eagle spreading her wings protecting us.

She was 4’10” but stood 10 feet tall. She was our heart and soul. She was beautiful. I wish I’d brought a picture. She was smart – out of the box.

Her father was an entrepreneur. In and out of businesses. He had the first Shell gas station in Hungary. She never raised her voice. When she raised her eyes… She was the disciplinarian. We were afraid of my mother. Not physically. but afraid of disappointing her. I compare her to the biblical woman Deborah.

Mom was caught and jailed for a few days. We were very worried. She wouldn’t say how she got out but she did. When she was 82 we buried her and we buried her secret with her. She would say there was a handsome young guard. She shared a cell with a beautiful Austrian girl. You know Hitler had women rounded up and they were told to entertain the soldiers when the men were home on break. The cell mate was a religious girl and wouldn’t do it so she was hanged.

Bergen Belsen was a full-fledged death camp. Most death camps were in Poland. Every German participated.

Starvation was the way of killing. Weakness makes you vulnerable to dysentery, typhoid.  Starvation ruins your immune system.

Germans contacted a Doctor in China who was testing bio-warfare once they knew they were losing the war. Luckily the guy was taken out around the time of the nuclear bomb dropping.

The barracks were inundated with lice. My mother’s solution was to have us eat the lice. People were dropping dead regularly. Some people were laying down to die. They didn’t have hope and without hope there is no reason to live. Some of them threw themselves on the electric fence to commit suicide.

At this point I’m 7. At the age of 7 I’ve seen more death than life. There was another boy my age in camp I paired up with. We jumped on what the officers discarded on the ground. It supplemented our once daily rock hard black bread and our warm water that had some color to it and was supposed to be soup.

My mother broke the bread into olive sized pieces and fed them to us every 3 hours with a bite of soup. That’s how we stayed alive.

The German officers called my friend and me: “Little Jewish pig-dogs.” That’s okay. Words don’t kill.

One day I complained to my mother my head hurt. I never complained so she looked and saw my wound and took me to the doctor in our barracks. He had a little medicine kit bag. You don’t see those anymore. Doctors used to go to your house. He said I had puss and an abscess. In fact I have a gorge three inches long [touches back of head behind left hear]. The doctor had to cut out part of my skull. He asked my mother to hold me tight if the pain became unbearable so I wouldn’t move. After, he showed us a bowl the size of a cereal bowl filled with puss and apologized again for not having pain medicine.

Because of starvation, a dog could have bit off my foot and I wouldn’t have noticed. Your pain was more sedated.

Trains were getting loaded again. Mother said she thought we couldn’t survive more than one more week so she chose to get on the train. We didn’t know the destination. We traveled for many days. Maybe weeks. We had no food or water. We stopped every so often to unload the dead. There was an older man who died but his position blocked the wind for me and acted as a pillow so I was angry when they threw him out.

Towards the end of the war, we noticed the soldiers were young – maybe 12 or 13. Child soldiers because the older ones were dead or no longer loyal to Hitler – knowing they were losing.

One morning we saw the train open, left alone. we walked out into a dark wood. We heard rumbling and were terrified. It was a tank and a soldier stepped out. My father yelled “Americans.” The celebrating went on for a long time. The Americans liberated us.

British soldiers liberated Bergen Belsen. To describe the camp, a writer said “It looks like Hell itself.”

A woman ran up to a British soldier yelling “milk.” She handed him a bundle which was a dead baby.

Father contracted typhoid and died three days after liberation. My grandfather survived.

After a time, we siblings were taken to Paris – away from mom and grandmother. The French Press made a big deal of it. Later were were moved to a small hotel and reunited with our family.

The work to get us to gain weight was hard.

Next we went to Marseille. Then we embarked on a voyage which ended in Israel. My mother said no more gentiles, we’re going to Israel. When we arrived, my grandfather fell to the ground and kissed it and prayed.

The hidden children are those whose parents liquidated their savings and asked neighbors like Christian farmers to take their kids and keep them until they could return from wherever the Germans took them. Many parents died in concentration camps then the war ended and many of these wartime care-giving host families didn’t know what to do with the hidden children so they went up the Catholic chain of command and it was decided to send them to Israel. The Polish Pope – the righteous gentile.

Live in the orphanage/school was tough. With everyone speaking a different language. We fought. Bloody fighting. Mrs. Monk and Mr. Monk the head of the orphanage were a good couple and the ones that kept us from killing each other.

Those of us from the camp were bed wetters until we were 11-15. Mrs. Monk would walk around trying to get us to the bathroom on time before we could go in our sheets.

There were sabras – sabra means one who is born in Israel. And they had nice clothes and Bar Mitzvahs. A 13 year old became a man and got a gift of the fountain pen. I wanted a fountain pen. I went into the staff room and looked in purses and found one lira. I went to a nearby store and told the salesperson I want a pen. He saw my scrubby orphan clothes sent over from America and asked where I got the lira. I said don’t worry about it. He called Mrs. Monk. Mrs. Monk sat me in her office and spent 30 minutes trying to get me to admit I’d stolen it. We both knew I did but eventually she just told me to leave and study the 10 Commandments. I believe the 6th is thou shall not steal.

Her husband once carried me 15 kilometers on his back to the nearest hospital after I had a rock thrown at my head.

One teacher in class said “Udah” (nickname) is probably the smartest but I’ll have to fail him. He got through to me even when no one else could. In six weeks I aced all my tests.

Mrs. Monk called me in to her office and told me she heard I was acing my classes. She gave me a package. It was a fountain pen. She said how you get one is by earning it.

By the time I graduated, I had lost my rage.

I learned to make money. I had no use for the money. I would give it to my brother Jacov who liked to date girls so he always needed money. In 1956 during the cyanide campaign, I carried the 42 lb radio on my back. My brother Jacov carried a machine gun. But one time he went into a house and an Arab was waiting for him with him with a machine gun. Cut him in half. He died at 20 years old.

We [other brother and Judah] became paratroopers it was like special forces. Our boot camp was six months long with 18 hour days. We learned to walk when we were asleep. We’d take turns sleeping two minutes and wake up refreshed. We’d say to the guy near us marching just keep me in line. Then we’d do it for the next guy and so on. Nothing makes you a man as fast as the military.

My mother remarried. My stepfather was half crazed. Filled with rage but with a good heart. He lost his wife and three children in the holocaust. He married above his station. He had movie star good looks. He worshiped my mother.  They had two children together. It was a revelation to see new life in those children. It was good for me after seeing so much death.

My stepfather was a cook for German officers at a camp. They would ride into town and buy groceries. He would purposely drop them by the fence so Jews could scavenge some extra food from what “fell.” He did it for weeks, maybe months.

Before being rounded up, he gathered all his money and took his kids to a neighbor who he paid to watch them until he got back. After the war he went to find his children. He asked around and no one would tell him until finally he found someone who told him the neighbor had called the Gestapo and gave the children up soon after he and his wife were taken away. The stepfather found the neighbor and killed him then moved to Israel. One day he and my mother were walking near a noisy restaurant. A person yelled “Morty Schwartz.” He ignored it and the person called his name again. My mother said don’t you want to know who knows you? So they came to find out it was someone who had received the purposefully dropped food and was thankful for the life-saving nutrition he provided.

The third person closed my story which had always been left open. I got a letter from a lieutenant in Florida who used to keep in touch with my sister’s kids. He said he lost track of her and wanted to catch up. I said how do I know who you are. He said I’m the lieutenant who sent the tank to your train. Andy Goldberg was the soldier who was sent. The lieutenant was 96 years young. He said the stench of the people from the train was so unbearable. We’d been in the same clothes from 14 months earlier. We were like babies who make in their diapers. Except we didn’t have diapers.

There is a Jewish prayer that wishes you to live to 120. A comedian came to our synagogue and said “may you live to be 119 so that your wife has one peaceful year.”

Does anyone have any questions and don’t be shy.

**

Q&A

Q: How did you come to be in Pittsburgh?

A: My mother had a tremendous way of getting people to do what she wanted. She convinced a German officer she had to care for four kids and a sick husband and couldn’t care for her parents too so she needed her brother to stay so she saved his life. Her brother married and moved to Toronto. I visited then went to work in NY. I went to further Hebrew education. My aunt wanted me to come to a Bar Mitzvah and I met my wife from Pittsburgh. She taught second grade near 279. It was white trash. Lots of  prostitutes kids. She had 58 students in her class.

I was very, very protective of my family. There was a time my brother was being disciplined and I jumped on the guy’s back and he couldn’t get me off. I was like a monkey. My mom said Judah what did you do? And she went to school and talked to them. I didn’t get in trouble. And from then on they knew don’t mess with my family. It was like a light switch for the guy.

Q: There is a cliche that “time  heals everything.” How does faith effect you and tell about your peace.

A: When my brothers and I were in the military, we were the comedians. Choof was my nickname and I used to make fun of a higher ranking officer who was dumb, which I feel bad about now, but he put me in the stockades once and when he told his boss, his boss said – get him out he’s the spirit of the company! So I never had any problems.

***

Mr. Samet is 78 years old and his birthday is February 5th.

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further reading that has been published and probably actually edited for clarity! :)

Holocaust Center Pgh site Judah’s story, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart HS recap, Butler Eagle story on Samet, Avonworth recap, Jewish Chronicle faces of perseverance article.

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