The Rabbi of Buchenwald—The Two Lifetimes of Rabbi Herschel Schacter
He survived the Holocaust, but not the survival. Or, as Ray Mungo put it, he was famous long ago. To put it a bit differently, he had a great future behind him.
Such is the risk of a drama-filled youth.
It’s like a maximum-security prison.
The Rabbi of Buchenwald wasn’t exactly a youth, but he was young enough for his experience in Buchenwald to become the prism of his lifetime.
It did not.
He wouldn’t let it.
Though, truth to tell, it is difficult to fathom how it did not, given the searing shock that left even General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in WWII, speechless, stopped in his tracks, when he liberated a Nazi concentration camp.
Searing shock and searing achievements made the Rabbi of Buchenwald a marked man.
Marked for a future that could never live up to his ten-week lifetime in Buchenwald.
But he was determined: He would have two lifetimes.
He would make it happen.
He would not be imprisoned by the incomparable drama of his youth.
His first lifetime shaped but did not foreshorten all he did afterwards.
Pioneering outreach to youth.
Pioneering mission to the Soviet Union.
Pastoral care for escaping Hungarian Jews.
Advocacy for Israel—with American presidents, Israeli prime ministers.
Advisor to rising leaders of the Jewish people.
It all began in Buchenwald.
The last person to know what an American Army chaplain would face in Buchenwald was the American Army chaplain himself.
State Department officials and rescue activists “knew” about the Holocaust.
Readers of newspapers like the Intermountain Jewish News “knew” about the Holocaust.
American Jewish leaders “knew” about the Holocaust.
What did they “know”?
Statistics. Generalizations. Words on a page. Reports.
Horrible words—but sterile words. Ink on a page. Black letters surrounded by white spaces; bloodless.
What did they “know”?
Nothing described by actual victims, directly or indirectly.
No film footage. No photographs. No testimonies. No memoirs. No television series. No artifacts. No absent butterflies from Terezin or musical scores from Auschwitz. No bread with little pieces of glass ground up in it.
What did they “know”?
No heaps and piles of bodies.
No tractors shoveling them.
No fires burning them.
No smoking crematoria.
No poison showers.
No humongous piles of shoes, of clothes, of jewelry.
No dogs eating live humans.
No string people. Stick people, bags of bones, vacant eyes, teetering; life, death—often hard to tell the difference.
What did anyone “know”?
What could they know?
The American Army chaplain was no different.
On European soil in 1945, advancing with fighting troops, wearing an American military uniform, counseling and praying with soldiers, making Sedarim for soldiers—none of this could prepare the chaplain any more than it prepared the readers of the incomprehensible words, black letters surrounded by white spaces.
Not only that.
The staggering cruelties of all Nazi killing centers notwithstanding, Buchenwald had its unique cruelties. The army chaplain could never imagine them because no human being since the creation of Adam could imagine them. Only the perpetrators themselves, and they were not human.
The Nazi camps had roll calls.
Always standing up.
Still, they were not all the same.
One of Buchenwald’s roll calls after two prisoners went missing: nineteen hours straight, five degrees above zero. Twenty-five of the men froze to death standing up.
Evening roll call in Buchenwald. Musical roll call.
This is the “Song of the Jews,” the lyrics that Jewish prisoners in Buchenwald were forced to sing on pain of death:
For hundreds of years we cheated the nation/
No swindle was too great for us/
We manipulated, lied, and cheated/
With either kronen or marks/
We are the Cohens, the Isaacs, and the Wolfensteiners/
We are known by our animal faces.
Into this, on April 11, 1945, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, twenty-seven, US Army chaplain, entered.
An American Army officer later wrote of his first moments in Buchenwald:
“On the sight of an American uniform a horde of gnomes and trolls seems to appear like magic, pouring out of doorways . . . Some hop on crutches. Some hobble on stumps of feet. Some run with angular movements. . . .”
Private Harry J. Herder:
“A ragged group of human beings started to creep out of and from between the buildings in front of us . . . timidly, slowly, deliberately showing their hands, all in a sort of uniform, or bits and pieces of a uniform. . . . They came out of the buildings and just stood there . . .” Looking around, Herder noticed “a monster of a chimney, a monster in diameter and in height. Black smoke was pouring out of it, and blowing away from us, but we could still smell it. An ugly horrible smell. A vicious smell.”
Private Hy Agus wrote:
“I walked into a barracks—here were hundreds of humans, of all ages, all eyes, eyes, nothing else just hundreds of sickly, glistening, expressionless eyes, staring at you. The rest of the body is just a skeleton, literally, except for swollen feet. . . . I couldn’t see any more for my eyes filmed; my nose revolted to the stench; I had to run from there.”
And Rabbi Schacter? Author of The Rabbi of Buchenwald, Dr. Rafael Medoff, writes:
“Stunned prisoners crowded around Rabbi Schacter, ‘touching my uniform, examining the Jewish chaplain’s insignia’ in disbelief.”
Though surrounded by prisoners “pouring out their tales of woe,” Rabbi Schacter did not run from there.
Did not let the vicious smell deter him.
Did not let the staring eyes stop him.
Did not recoil into inaction.
Was it adrenaline? Duty? Love of Jews? Instinct? It was action, immediate action: Rabbi Schacter went from barrack to barrack calling out in Yiddish, “Sholom aleichem Yidden, irh zent frei!” “Hello Jews. You are free!”
A Jewish inmate in the children’s barracks recalled seeing the Jewish chaplain’s symbol of the Ten Commandments on Rabbi Schacter’s lapel and knew he was not another uniformed SS. “. . . those who could move crowded around him and hugged and kissed him.”
But as Rabbi Schacter was going from barrack to barrack shouting “Sholom aleichem Yidden, irh zent frei” and “Yidden, you can come out now,” a survivor later recalled how he and the American soldiers with him “walked around with dazed expressions of disbelief. With stricken eyes they stared alternately at the mounds of corpses piled neatly in rows and the skeletons strewn haphazardly on the ground. They reeled from the stench, from the furnaces still hot, from the ashes still smoldering in the air. Groans of horror, gasps of shock, continuously issued from their lips . . . They had never conceived of or been prepared for such depravity, such evil, as they witnessed now.”
The other American soldiers moved on.
Rabbi Schacter did not.
He too was an American soldier and was instructed to move on, too.
He did not.
He could not.
He wrangled special permission, which he needed because his official duty was to service American soldiers, not Jewish survivors.
Sometimes he did not even ask.
He just stayed in Buchenwald.
He had tears to gather, people to counsel, stories to hear, lives to save, services to organize, survivors’ letters to send.
Families to reunite.
One child survivor later said, “He helped us day and night. I don’t think he slept an hour all week. We felt toward him like a father.”
Rabbi Schacter had desperate people needing a Jewish word.
People needed to be de-demoralized.
Buchenwald was filled with typhus and dysentery.
It did not stop Rabbi Schacter.
He had charisma.
He could not leave.
Just couldn’t. If ever there were a scene for which a rabbi is asked to be a servant, this was the scene, and he was the servant.
He could speak, could reach people, even in this condition.
He could speak to them. Years later, however, he could not always speak. “With all the lectures, the photographs, the books, the museums, there is just no word in the English language—in any human language, in any vocabulary, that can describe what met my eyes, what I saw, what others saw, what happened there.”
He had medical personnel to befriend.
He had survivors who suffered from malnutrition, neurological and psychiatric derangement and primary pulmonary tuberculosis—he was their advocate.
Their transporter to makeshift medical clinics.
Their nurse—urging them not to overeat.
Yes, he could speak to them.
The third day after liberation was a Friday.
He learned of a loudspeaker system.
He announced in Yiddish: “Here is the American rabbi talking to you! I want you to know that tonight at seven o’clock, there will be an Oneg Shabbos evening service in the Kino Halle.”
At seven o’clock, he walked in.
There were at least 1,000 people, “packed to the rafters,” he remembered. “Lame or sick or dying—but they came anyway.”
Author Dr. Medoff writes:
“He stood on a small platform, donned his prayer shawl, and began singing Shalom Aleichem . . . appreciating the powerful familiarity of the song, Rabbi Schacter improvised its use for the survivors, who had no homes in which to sing it. ‘Slowly but steadily, we began singing and praying.’ No prayer books were available. ‘I had nothing other than my voice . . . I led an abbreviated Hebrew service with a traditional niggun [tune] for Lecha Dodi . . .’”
When the service was over people gathered around the chaplain.
“Do you know where is . . . ?”
“I have an uncle who lives in Chicago.”
“I have a niece somewhere in . . .”
This went on for hours.
Rabbi Schacter’s work as a re-uniter of survivors with family began.
“It is impossible to describe the excitement,” Rabbi Schacter later recalled. “For the first time since the war, they could openly, fully, and proudly identify as Jews.”
He always carried with him a small chuppah, a wedding canopy, since as a chaplain he had been called upon unexpectedly to perform a wedding. That night, in Buchenwald, he used the chuppah to spread over the platform and recite kiddush.
That chuppah gave birth.
That chuppah was remembered.
That chuppah, small though it was, was a sight, a sign, a symbol of civilization, of home, of life before the camps.
Children and grandchildren of survivors of Buchenwald were married by Rabbi Schacter under that chuppah.
That moment, that Friday night service, that singing and prayer, that kiddush, were seared into memories, the rabbi’s and the survivors’.
That chuppah is holy.
At another Friday night service in Buchenwald, Rabbi Schacter spoke of religious faith. Some survivors had lost it. He said: “Do not despair and do not be quick to leave your people. Behold, your personal fate is testimony to the fact that no person in the world can destroy our people. For thousands of years they pursued us, in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us, and, nevertheless, we are alive!”
One survivor recalled:
“Who among those thousands of physical and mental cripples would want to attend services and prayers so soon after their tragic experiences? But just as you cannot measure the physical strength of an oppressed people, you cannot gauge the spiritual wealth and power.”
Thousands came to the services.
At one, the rabbi said: “We know what you have gone through!”
A sixteen-year-old voice screamed out:
“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’! . . . . We want a din Torah with the Ribbono shel Olam [a hearing before God]: Why? Why the little children? . . . Why so many thousands of true, dedicated talmidei chachamim [Torah scholars] who were sitting and learning [Torah] yomam ve-lailah, day and night? You can take your matzahs back to America. I don’t want them.”
Dr. Medoff writes:
“Rabbi Schacter did not interrupt the man and he let him finish. He moved his fists toward his heart [in the gesture of atonement used in the Yom Kippur liturgy] and said, ‘Chotosi uvisi pushati lefonecha [I have sinned and transgressed and violated before you]. Please may I have your forgiveness?’ The man raced up to the rabbi and embraced him . . . the rest of us just stood there in silence, and our tears did the talking.”
It wasn’t just emotion and faith and sensitivity and practical aid.
It was sheer creativity.
And sheer courage.
Creativity? From out of Buchenwald, Rabbi Schacter made a kibbutz. “Kibbutz Buchenwald.”
Many Jewish teens did not want to be repatriated to their countries of origin. Who would they return to? Their families had been murdered. Who would take them in? The anti-Semites who did nothing to halt their deportation—or who actively collaborated in it?
Yet, repatriation was the rule.
Rabbi Schacter persuaded the authorities to bend the rule.
Most would go to Displaced Persons camps but those who wanted Palestine—would go to Palestine.
They would form a separate group. Kibbutz Buchenwald.
Not in Buchenwald.
But in Eggendorf [Austria].
Rabbi Schacter secured the facility.
It took many negotiations.
He made it happen.
He “borrowed” items from the US Army without permission.
He rustled up food, tefillin, a [sefer] Torah, beds, mattresses, farming equipment.
Seventy-five teens populated Kibbutz Buchenwald.
But the Soviets were taking over the area.
Rabbi Schacter illegally lent his jeep to a teen to travel to Frankfurt to negotiate a new location for Kibbutz Buchenwald in the American zone.
On the walls of the new facility were scratched these words: “We shall return.”
The Jewish teens who scratched those words, preparing for Palestine, did not return.
In every generation they stand up against us to destroy us, and, nevertheless, we are alive.
More than Rabbi Schacter urged the diverse group to be strong in Jewish faith and practice, he urged them “not [to] allow ideology to divide them, as it had before the war, but instead become one band with a place for each individual with a declared wish to leave as a Jew among Jews.”
As soon as the seventy-five teenagers of the “kibbutz” left for Palestine, others took their place.
Rabbi Schacter would not have them return to hell.
It was a promise he would need again, in Switzerland.
The extremes in Rabbi Schacter’s ten weeks in Buchenwald did not end in Buchenwald.
They ended in Switzerland.
They ended with courage.
The Swiss let it be known that they would accept 350 Jewish survivors under the age of sixteen.
There weren’t that many.
350 child survivors in Buchenwald—not realistic.
Not to mention, severely malnourished children look older than sixteen, and no one had any documents.
Solution: Take kids over sixteen.
The Swiss representative, a nurse, said: No!
Over sixteen, you don’t come.
She alone would decide, based on subjective judgment, who was over sixteen and thus disqualified.
Enter Rabbi Schacter.
First, he would not divide families. A Holocaust orphan over sixteen with a kid sister under sixteen? I’m not going to divide them.
Second, he put together a group of under sixteen and over sixteen—and, more than 350 people.
Third, he and his teenage conspirators located a German who manufactured rubber stamps in nearby Weimar, stole a large quantity of blank cards, forged the signature of the nurse’s colleague, a doctor, so each teen, over sixteen or under sixteen, would be authorized.
Fourth, when Rabbi Schacter and the kids boarded the train, he advised the stowaways to enter through a rear door to evade the eyes of the Swiss nurse. One fourteen-year-old, who boarded the train with her seventeen-year-old sister, he advised to hide in the bathroom. Other kids jumped out the windows when nurse was about the enter their car and ran ahead to re-board the train in cars that had already been examined.
One of the [young people] was twenty, in severe despair. He had no interest in going, no interest in Switzerland. Rabbi Schacter thought he needed to go, to start over. In a ruse Rabbi Schacter got him to come to the train to say goodbye. At the last moment, the rabbi had soldiers hoist him onto the train. [The young man] later said he was moved by the rabbi’s genuine concern for his well-being, a feeling he had “not experienced in a long time.”
When the train came to Switzerland, the Swiss saw that many more than 350 kids were aboard, and ordered them back to Germany.
Rabbi Schacter: “What to do? Where do I go? I had no idea, I was really at a loss.”
But just as “Sholom aleichem Yidden, irh zent frei” suddenly issued from his lips, so did this: He told the Swiss officials that he was accompanying the children on orders from General Eisenhower himself, and if the train were not allowed to proceed, he would organize a press conference at the train station to expose the Swiss government’s intention “to turn these people back to hell.”
Thus ended the first lifetime of Rabbi Herschel Schacter.
It more than fell flat. It fell silent. The drama of Buchenwald did not accompany Rabbi Schacter into civilian life.
“Nobody talked about the Holocaust immediately [afterwards],” he later recounted. “For years, when all these memories were so vivid in my mind, I had nobody to tell it to. Nobody asked. Nobody heard. The first ten years, the survivors never talked . . . I had no platform. Nobody asked me. Nobody wanted to hear.”
So he would have to find a different platform.
He was a doer.
He did not ask to be sent to a concentration camp and he would not be stymied by what lay ahead afterwards.
His second lifetime unfolded like this:
Although nobody wanted to hear about the Holocaust, people did want to hear him. His experience [of being] in a liberated Nazi camp longer than any other American chaplain landed his name in the New York Times and Jewish and other publications. He returned from Europe a known quantity. By mid-1946 the United Jewish Appeal snapped him up and he became a national lecturer to mobilize public sympathy for the survivors and Jewish statehood. This was 1946. There was no Israel until 1948. UJA was committed to raising funds for the Jews in Palestine at a time when they made a critical difference. Rabbi Schacter was the right orator in the right place at the right time.
He lectured in cities large and small virtually every day, often to more than one city in a single day. He addressed scores of audiences and thousands of people.
This was exhausting, so he left the UJA for a position in a synagogue in the north Bronx at a time when the Bronx was heavily Jewish. It was not a leading synagogue. This had advantages. Not just the chance to build a major institution. Not just the chance to sermonize in an era when the long rabbinic sermon was king, expected to be a synagogue’s major draw. Not just a chance to counsel people with the same insight and vulnerability he had demonstrated in Buchenwald.
But also this: time.
A modest Mosholu Jewish Center allowed him time to spread his wings.
First, he opened his synagogue to meetings by local branches of the UJA, Hadassah and the Zionist Organization of American. The synagogue held annual fundraisers for the UJA and Yeshiva University; it reached beyond its confines.
Second, he reached out to youth who were not members of his Orthodox synagogue. He was not much older than they. By now he had married and he and his wife created a laid-back Friday night atmosphere, full of song and discussion led by a rabbi who dodged no question. “He had a larger than life personality,” one participant recalled. He gave extra attention to a boy who did not have a father. Penina Schacter made everything feel warm and accepting. She hosted a separate Saturday afternoon group for girls from observant homes.
Third, Rabbi Schacter played a role in national “Torah Pilgrimage” programs, which led to the founding the National Conference of Synagogue Youth in 1954.
By 1956 he was prominent enough to be selected as one of five Orthodox rabbis to lead the first rabbinic mission to the Soviet Union since WWII.
It was bizarre.
It was emotional.
It was unprecedented.
And tremendously sad.
Sad because the communists had cut off Judaism. Since the Russian Revolution they ruthlessly closed or severely limited Jewish study, observance, culture—schools, synagogues, theaters. Kosher food was unavailable; neither were prayer books, mezuzzahs, tallesim, tefillin and mikvehs. The same for Jewish books, be they religious or secular. Jewish identity itself was suppressed. Circumcision was forbidden. Communication with Jews outside the USSR was forbidden. News of Israel was suppressed. The five rabbis from America encountered a Jewish people thinned out beyond imagination.
Now, for the first time, a link, a spark, an awareness inside the USSR of a Jewish community outside the USSR came alive. Receptions held for the rabbinic delegation “were packed with emotion,” one rabbi recalled. “Men and women cried like babies, we cried, too.”
The scene repeated itself again and again.
In Kutaisi, “a crowd of 3,000 waited all night to welcome us. We were surrounded and kissed on our hands and faces.” When the rabbis went to the community’s three synagogues, “each synagogue was packed so that it was impossible to enter or leave,” and “special men were assigned to open a path for us.”
There was no prior announcement of the rabbis’ arrival in the USSR, yet their arrival spread like wildfire. At their first evening in the Moscow synagogue “worshippers burst into one great cry as they surged forward to surround the pulpit,” one rabbi recalled.
The feeling, the renewal, was powerful. One of the rabbis on the mission was the late Rabbi Samuel Adelman of Denver. I remember his electrifying sermons about his time in the USSR, his vivid recollections of tear-jerking meetings with Jews who had not seen a rabbi or, for that matter, a Jewish religious object in nearly forty years, who had been forbidden to teach their children a single Jewish thing.
All of this emotion was heightened by the bizarre circumstances of its expression. The rabbis were followed everywhere. They could not speak freely, even among themselves. “Don’t believe—it’s all lies—it’s a mask” was a typical comment whispered in their ears as they walked around the Moscow synagogue with a Torah. “He’s a traitor—a squealer—a liar” was another comment about the Chief Rabbi of Moscow’s associate, who told the rabbis how wonderful the USSR is, how everyone gets a pension, etc.
Especially bizarre was the behavior of the Chief Rabbi himself. He did everything in his power to prevent the American rabbis from visiting other synagogues in Moscow and its Jewish cemetery. Regarded by Soviet Jews as a Soviet agent, the Chief Rabbi accompanied the American rabbis literally everywhere during their entire four-week stay in the USSR. He said there was a surplus of mezuzzahs and tallesim in the USSR, but the American rabbis saw virtually none. One recalled, “The Jews cried like babies when we spoke of seeing each other again and reuniting our people”—spoke, that is, from the pulpit. The Chief Rabbi snooped on every personal meeting.
Yet, Rabbi Schacter, whose public remarks were summarized in the New York Times, was able to establish a personal link with the Chief Rabbi. He knew how to befriend people he opposed. “He appreciated my style,” Rabbi Schacter later recalled. “He confided in me. He had to report to somebody there everything that we said. But he was so sweet.”
Here was a talent that would take Rabbi Schacter to the top.
Rabbi Schacter spread his wings. This eventually propelled him to be the first Orthodox rabbi to head American Jewry’s leading organization, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
News of Kibbutz Buchenwald had gotten around, especially since it led to the founding of an actual kibbutz in Palestine. Rabbi Schacter visited Israel when it was virtually unheard of—in 1949. Rabbi Schacter joined the Israel commission of the Rabbinical Council of America; by 1954 he was its chair.
As if to conspire to advance his role, clashes in Israel and their spillover demonstrations in New York City highlighted the need for skilled leadership, both principled and diplomatic. There were many flashpoints, from drafting religious women into the army to opening a Friday night cinema in Jerusalem. Experienced with non-Jewish chaplains and non-Orthodox Jews in the military, Rabbi Schacter knew how to take a stand yet maintain a friendship. This, and his oratorical skills, made a fine impression beyond the American Jewish Orthodox community.
In 1955 the Rabbinical Council of America sent Rabbi Schacter and a colleague to address the controversies that riled the demonstrators in New York. They were received twice by no less than the Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, with whom they conferred at length, and by the president of Israel, cabinet members, mayors, both chief rabbis, Chassidic rebbes, the US ambassador to Israel and David Ben Gurion.
It was a sign of how far Rabbi Schacter had come, not in the least because some of the Israeli policies he addressed were altered. The demonstrations in America ended. His reputation and influence grew.
In 1962, he visited Germany, Austria, Greece and Turkey on behalf of the Jewish Welfare Board, which placed Jewish chaplains in American armed forces. In Germany, at a US-sponsored army retreat for Jewish GIs in Berchtesgaden, once Hitler’s vacation residence, Rabbi Schacter observed:
“. . . there is a great element of poetic—divine—justice in this situation. Here we are in the hotels which the resha’im y’mach shemam [the evil ones, may their names be erased] built—you can almost hear the ‘Heil Hitlers’ echoing from the walls and we are now here, davening and learning Torah, preparing and serving kosher food to hundreds of Jewish men and women.”
By 1960, Rabbi Schacter was playing a national role in Mizrachi, the Religious Zionist movement. By 1966 he became its president. Shortly before, the Mosholu Jewish Center had granted him life tenure. This freed up still more time for a greater role on the national stage. It would soon be tested.
A new flashpoint in Israel—autopsies against family wishes and without medical purpose—spilled over into America, which threatened renewed mass demonstrations by those who later came to be called Charedi Orthodox Jews.
As president of Mizrachi, Rabbi Schacter was instrumental in fashioning a coalition, the breadth of which was unprecedented. Mizrachi collaborated not only with the Charedi Agudath Israel, but secured a supporting statement from secular and non-Orthodox groups: American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) and two Conservative Jewish groups. The joint protest statement had its effect. Israel Prime Minister Levi Eshkol instituted a moratorium on autopsies and authorized negotiations for new legislation. Planned demonstrations were called off.
Success, as John F. Kennedy observed, has many fathers, and others took credit for Eshkol’s change of policy. Either way, the controversy had an indisputable effect. Mizrachi was a constituent of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which made Rabbi Schacter, as Mizrachi’s president, eligible to lead it. His style of leadership and close friendship with Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive director of another constituent, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, paved the way for Rabbi Schacter’s chairmanship of Conference of Presidents. In late 1968, he assumed the senior most position in the organized American Jewish community. Now, he would be occupied by matters of Israeli national security and Jewish welfare worldwide.
The Six Day War in June, 1967 set off a slew of ideas for Middle East Peace. The Arab world responded with its three “no’s” in Khartoum a few months later, but the volatile nature of the region required national leaders, particularly in the US, to seek a solution. Arthur Goldberg, US ambassador to the UN, authored Security Council Resolution 242, calling for Arab-Israel mutual recognition and Israel’s withdrawal from “territories” (not the territories) it had captured in the war. With the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and his selection of William Rogers as US Secretary of State, Israel would face fierce American pressure. The primary go-between was Rabbi Herschel Schacter.
He met with President Nixon and Secretary Rogers and their key staff. The pictures of these meetings show everyone with big smiles. The sharp headlines that emerged from these meetings show deep disagreements, mainly over Rogers’ idea for a Four Power guarantee of Israel’s security without requiring an Arab-Israel peace agreement, and for the resettlement of Arab refugees in Israel. Rabbi Schacter’s statements after these meetings were couched in restraint and friendship, without disguising disagreement. Rabbi Schacter was non-combative. He spoke of “misgivings” or expressed “regret and surprise,” also appropriately polite praise; he spoke of exchanges being “frank” and “useful,” and not “angry.” The rabbi who could befriend the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, a Soviet agent, could also speak forthrightly yet warmly to a president and secretary of state. These were human skills, not diplomatic necessities. The rabbi who could speak warmly could also organize massive letter-and-cable campaigns to the White House, State Department and members of Congress to make the American Jewish opposition to the Rogers Plan clear.
He brought that skill to bear after Poland launched an anti-Semitic campaign in 1968, blaming Jews for the unrest in the country. Tens of thousands of Jews were expelled from the Polish Communist party, fired from their jobs or forced to leave the country. Rabbi Schacter met with the Polish ambassador to the US. He pointed out that Poland’s plan to dedicate a Jewish pavilion at Auschwitz was scheduled for both the Sabbath and the last day of Passover. He asked for a postponement. It was not granted. Shortly thereafter, he spoke in Times Square for the 25th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and criticized the Polish government for covering up “general ferment seething in Poland by a thinly veiled anti-Semitism, even if clumsily disguised as anti-Zionism.”
Rabbi Schacter organized a picket line outside the Polish embassy in Washington along with local Christian clergy, African American leaders and Washington-area Jews. They were emotionally denounced by embassy officials. But as a result of these pressures and internal Polish considerations, the anti-Semitic campaign was called off in June.
The perks, the travels, the prestige, and the pomp and ceremony associated with the chairmanship of the Conference of Presidents—Rabbi Schacter reveled in it all. He loved it.
“So many places I went,” he later told an interviewer. “So many leaders. So many kings and presidents and foreign ministers. It was incredible. [For example,] I went to Greece. Here, I have a letter from the prime minister of Greece. The purpose was to get the leadership of the Greek government to strengthen their ties with Israel. Their desire was—they thought that if I’m chairman of the Conference of Presidents in the United States, and I’m a leading power in America, so they wanted to establish a warmer association with the American government. They wined and dined me, I’m telling you, that I should create a better relationship with them. From Athens, I flew straight to Israel, and when I got off the plane in Israel one of the key people in the foreign ministry was at the airport, and he picked me up with a car and drove me straight to Jerusalem, straight to the headquarters of the foreign ministry, and they asked me things, and I told them. . . . On the flight to Greece, there was a couple from the shul on my flight. They were so impressed that I was on that mission. They were just sightseers, but I was greeted by a government official who took me in a limousine to a big, beautiful hotel. I invited them to a government event. They almost collapsed. They grew up in the Bronx, you know, and yet here they were.”
It was not all peaches and cream. From the leadership of the Conference of Presidents, Rabbi Schacter moved to the leadership of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry. The obdurate position of the Soviet Union on freedom for its Jewish citizens made conflict among those who sought their freedom inevitable. It was impossible to know which tactics worked.
By 1970, the suffering of Soviet Jewry had not changed, but the silence had changed. It was no more, both in and out of the USSR. The emerging American Jewish public concern for freedom for Soviet Jews created fissures in American Jewry that Rabbi Schacter did not anticipate or fully appreciate. In his activism for Soviet Jewry, his style worked, and it didn’t work.
It worked, for example, when he led a large protest rally at Hunter College and was mercilessly heckled by members of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. He surprised them by inviting them up to the stage. They denounced him and the entire Jewish establishment. Before one left the stage, Rabbi Schacter said, “Don’t go yet, Joshua, I knew you when you were a little boy” (Rabbi Schacter had been a guest in his home). The human touch made an impact, especially when Rabbi Schacter, rather than rebutting or arguing, simply said to Joshua, “Words like ‘criminal negligence’ should not come so easily to young lips.” Later he engaged with the young activists in a literary exchange, trying to bridge the generations.
It worked when he met with President Nixon to seek his intervention with the Soviets to commute the death sentence imposed on two early Jewish activists in the Soviet Union. “I presented the issue. I became a little dramatic and emotional. I told him that I had served as a chaplain with front-line combat troops in the American Army in World War Two, that I had been in Germany, that I was the first Jewish chaplain to enter the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp, that the scenes are before my mind’s eye; how our whole generation, this generation is under the impact of that Holocaust and how the thought of more Jewish lives being done to death innocently is something that the world Jewish community simply cannot tolerate, they’re exploding. I became, you know, a little rabbinic, emotional, and I think I reached him, he responded in kind.”
It worked—and did not work—when he convened the first International Conference on Soviet Jewry in Brussels. He became both the cause and the object of conflict. While he convened a broad-based effort for Soviet Jewry for the first time, he was bitterly denounced by the activists in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry as a symbol of the Jewish establishment’s inaction. Rabbi Schacter himself admitted that the high sounding “American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry” was a paper organization, unfunded. More militant than SSSJ and sometimes violent were Meir Kahane and his Jewish Defense League. The conference barred Kahane from speaking, whereupon he was arrested by Belgian police. This led to charges that Rabbi Schacter opposed free speech and mimicked the tactics of the Soviets in their suppression of Jewish activism in the USSR. Rabbi Schacter’s critics ranged from the leaders of the American Reform movement to Menachem Begin, head of the right wing Herut party in Israel.
Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union rose dramatically on Rabbi Schacter’s watch, from 2,000 to 13,000. The Kremlin was so opaque that the influence or lack thereof of any particular public or private act on behalf of Soviet Jewry, whether by Rabbi Schacter and his colleagues or by activists in and out of the USSR, was virtually impossible to calibrate. Meanwhile, Rabbi Schacter bore the scars of his national Soviet Jewry activism for years.
After the Holocaust—silence. By survivors. By Rabbi Schacter in his sermons. A turning point came with the publication of Elie Wiesel’s Night in 1959 and the Eichmann trial in 1961. By the 1970s silence had given way to speech—dramatically. In 1976 the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York created a Holocaust commission. Rabbi Schacter was asked to head it. Holocaust memorial events mushroomed. Rabbi Schacter was speaking at them all over the country.
Dayton, Ohio, 1983.
Rabbi Schacter delivered the Holocaust memorial event address.
One Abraham Stine stands up amid the audience.
He walks over to Rabbi Schacter.
In 1945 Stine weighed 85 pounds.
In 1945 he met a chaplain who gave him renewed strength and hope.
Stine’s great wish in life had been to meet this chaplain one day.
“The time is now, the place is here,” said the past president of the federation in Dayton.
Stine embraced the rabbi.
“I’ll never forget you.”
Washington, DC, 1985.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Rabbi Schacter speaks.
“I know that rabbi from somewhere,” an audience member, Martin Greenfield, whispers to his wife.
No way, it can’t be him.
After the ceremony, “Standing there at the Holocaust Museum dedication, which had turned into a Buchenwald reunion, with tears streaming down our faces all we could do was hold onto each other. I didn’t want to let go of him. He didn’t want to let go either. . . . to stand with the man who had held me as a boy when my spirit had been shattered by the Nazis . . . I felt as though I’d been kissed by an angel.”
Was Rabbi Schacter a doer or a climber? Was his second lifetime of a piece with his first lifetime—a continuation of his first lifetime—or was his second lifetime different? Was the character he demonstrated in Buchenwald unique, or did it carry over? In Buchenwald, Rabbi Schacter was a doer. And afterward?
One way to measure is whether, in Rabbi Schacter’s second lifetime, he had time for people who could contribute nothing to his advancement as a leader.
He did, shown not just when he helped others in their own advancement. Rabbi Norman Lamm, who became the president of Yeshiva University, credited Rabbi Schacter with his career. Rabbi Schacter helped convince Rabbi Steven (Shlomo) Riskin to accept what became his first major position of influence as founder of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan. Subsequent to Rabbi Schacter’s positions of national leadership, he led rabbinic placement at YU and helped countless young rabbis advance in their careers.
But this is not the critical difference between a doer and a climber.
When Rabbi Schacter was seventy, a grand-nephew accompanied him home from Rosh Hashanah evening services. Author Dr. Medoff [writes]:
“In the lobby they encountered a wheelchair-bound woman and her daughter, residents of a fourth-floor apartment, who were stranded because the elevator was out of order. The woman had waited so long for someone to help them that she had soiled her wheelchair. To make matters worse, it was an extremely hot evening and there was no air conditioning in the lobby. Without the slightest hesitation, Uncle Herschel turned to me and said, ‘Let’s go, we’re carrying her up.’ And we did, each of us holding one side of the chair, up four floors in a very narrow stairwell. . . . he never said a word about it afterwards.”
What is the difference between a doer and a climber?
It is not just anonymous acts of kindness, whether in a concentration camp or in a stairwell.
And it is not just when there is nothing left in life to climb. It is when your own world declines.
Rabbi Schacter’s own rabbinate—his Mosholu Jewish Center—declined.
As the Jewish population of the Bronx shrank, his synagogue shrank.
From hundreds of members to a few hundred members.
Then, to a hundred members.
Then—on a Shabbos morning—to less than thirty people.
What does a doer do?
He prepares the sermon exactly the same.
Seven hundred people will hear it? Or less than seventy?
It doesn’t matter.
The same thought, the same care, the same pride, the same delivery is put into that sermon.
Week after week, year after year; when the rafters are full, when the rafters are empty.
The sermon doesn’t change.
What does a doer do?
He ministers to his people.
Even when the people have changed.
When they include newly arrived immigrants from the Soviet Union.
He ministers in ways he never ministered before.
It doesn’t matter.
He helps them get jobs.
He helps them file for Holocaust restitution.
He helps them gain admission to a Jewish old age home.
He pulls every trick out of the bag to keep the shul open for the few Jews still in the neighborhood.
It doesn’t matter.
He stays committed.
To his people.
The first Jews Rabbi Schacter ministered to in Buchenwald were alone.
The last Jews he ministered to in the Bronx were alone.
The reasons for that aloneness were radically different.
But the response to that aloneness was the same.
It didn’t matter.
He was a doer.
When he made a big splash, he was a doer.
Also, when he made no splash at all.
It didn’t matter.
Then, tragically, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, “The Rabbi of Buchenwald,” was himself alone.
As alone as any Buchenwald inmate, even if the reasons were radically different.
Rabbi Schacter was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“I was once somebody, now I can’t even read,” he said.
And that is when he could still remember.
In the end, he could not even remember this one single word: Buchenwald.
Yet, as author Dr. Rafael Medoff writes, “the world remembered.”
Rabbi Dr. Hillel Goldberg is the editor of the Intermountain Jewish News.
This article originally appeared as a special, print-only supplement in the Intermountain Jewish News.