Judah Samet survived two unthinkable tragedies: imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp and the 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. But still he held onto his faith in humanity – and made a point of sharing what he’d witnessed.
Samet died on Tuesday of complications from stomach cancer, according to his family. He was 84.
“I have the right to believe that the world is a rotten place, but I don’t,” he said in a 2019 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, which shared a video of his remarks and praised Samet’s “tireless efforts to document the past and secure a better future.”
“He went through his life with an unrelenting optimism and just saw the good in everybody and every situation,” said his daughter, Elizabeth H. Samet.
Surviving both the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where more than 50,000 people died, and the Tree of Life shooting, where 11 people were gunned down in the deadliest attack on Jews in American history, was a responsibility Samet took seriously.
“I was supposed to be dead at 6 and a half . … So why did I survive everything? I believe I survived to tell the story to as many people (as possible),” Samet told the Shoah Foundation.
An opportunity to share his experience changed him
For much of his life, Samet avoided speaking about what had happened to him and his family during the Holocaust.
Because of the concentration camp uniforms he and others were made to wear, he’d forbid his daughter from wearing stripes. And growing up, when she’d ask for more details, he changed the subject.
“He’d say, ‘Why should we talk about such unpleasant things?’” Elizabeth H. Samet recalled.
But community leaders urged him to speak with the Shoah Foundation in the 1990s as the organization began collecting survivors’ stories. The experience transformed him.
“Once he told it, it was like it unlocked some part of his conscious,” his daughter said. And from that point forward, he kept speaking out.
Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, said she watched Samet win over rooms full of students and adults alike with his story.
“He really had a way of connecting with people. … They just loved him. They loved his strength, his strength of character,” she said.
He watched a Nazi soldier put a gun to his mother’s head
Abraham Judah Samet was born in Hungary on February 5, 1938.
When he was 6, Nazis forced Samet and his family from their home.
They were initially put on a train headed to the Auschwitz concentration camp, he told CNN in 2018. But instead they were rerouted to Bergen-Belsen in Northern Germany.
On the train, Samet said he watched a Nazi soldier put a gun to his mother’s head.
She’d spoken without being spoken to, Samet recalled, and she could have been executed that day. But her knowledge of the German language saved her.
A commandant intervened, Samet said, because his mother spoke both Hungarian and German and could be used as an interpreter: “He said, ‘You idiot, you kill her you will have nobody to talk to them.’”
He credited his mother with helping the family endure 10 months at Bergen-Belsen.
“My mother saved us all,” Samet told CNN. “She divided the rock-hard bread, she broke it down into little pieces and she fed us six times a day.”
In April 1945, the family was placed on a train out of the camp. They feared they were heading to their execution.
“The train stopped in the middle of a forest. And everybody panicked. They felt this was going to be the place where they’re going to come and kill us all,” Samet recalled in a 2019 interview for a documentary film project. “And sure enough we heard the rumble of a tank, and then the turret opens, and a soldier popped out, and my father yelled, ‘Americans!’”
American soldiers liberated the train’s more than 2,000 passengers.
After surviving the Holocaust, Samet was present for the founding of Israel in 1948 and served as a paratrooper and radio man in the Israeli Defense Forces.
He went on to manage a kibbutz, according to a family obituary, “where he developed a profound distaste for socialism and emigrated to the U.S.”
He was late to synagogue and narrowly missed the Tree of Life massacre
In the US, he met and married his wife, the late Barbara Lee Schiffman, after two dates. They were married for 50 years.
Living in Pittsburgh, Samet became a jeweler and a father. He attended the Tree of Life Synagogue for decades, usually arriving early to services.
But Samet arrived four minutes late on the morning a gunman ambushed the congregation on October 27, 2018.
When he got there, Samet could hear bullets flying, he told CNN in an interview after the shooting. He moved into the passenger seat of his car to get a better view of what was going on. And from the parking lot, he saw the gunman shooting.
The family obituary for Samet notes that somehow he escaped unharmed, “unlike 11 of his dear friends.”
“It just never ends. It’s never completely safe for Jews. It’s in the DNA. Not just America’s DNA but the world’s,” Samet told CNN in 2018.
After the shooting, a devastated fellow congregant came to him for help coping with what had happened.
“They said, ‘Judah, I don’t know what to do.’ He said, ‘You get dressed and you go out and you move forward.’ And he really did do that,” Elizabeth H. Samet said.
But even as he moved forward, Samet never forgot what he saw that day. In March, he told The New York Post he hoped to testify at the alleged gunman’s trial, adding that he was worried that if the trial continued to be delayed, he might not have the chance.
“If I don’t testify, and nobody else testifies, he may walk,” Samet told the Post. “Justice delayed is justice denied. The man did a crime and he should pay.”
Last week a federal judge set April 24, 2023, as the start of jury selection in the trial.
Bairnsfather, of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, told CNN that she’d also heard Samet say how much he wanted to testify in the case.
“I really equate this with how he felt about telling his Holocaust story. He really believed it was important to bear witness,” Bairnsfather said. “He really believed in his duty.”
As a State of the Union guest, he brought people together
Samet made headlines again when he attended President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address — one of 13 guests that the White House described at the time as representing “the very best of America.”
As part of his remarks, Trump introduced Samet and noted it was his 81st birthday.
Republicans and Democrats alike erupted into a rendition of “Happy Birthday” — something Trump quipped they’d never do for him.
The touching moment on a night known for partisan pageantry moved Samet’s family, even though many of them didn’t agree with the devoted Trump supporter’s politics.
“He is the only person in history to have the entire United States Congress sing Happy Birthday publicly and in Unison,” nephew Larry Barasch said in a Facebook post. “Judah always had a way of bringing all sides together.”
He took pride in his family’s accomplishments
Through all he endured, Samet found strength and took pride in his family.
He told the Shoah Foundation in 2019 that his family members were the reason he didn’t think the world was a rotten place, despite everything he’d experienced.
“After my daughter was born, it completely shaped my life. My wife used to say that I was a workaholic. But once my daughter was born, I couldn’t wait for 5 o’clock so I could get home. … It changed a lot of my beliefs,” he said.
Resisting hate was one of the core beliefs he espoused in numerous interviews. Asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper in 2018 whether he hated the gunman who’d attacked his temple, Samet responded, “I don’t know him.”
“Whatever you do, don’t hate,” Samet told the Shoah Foundation, “because it’s going to consume you, too, eventually. …. Just cling to your family. Hug your children. Make sure that they know that they’re loved.”
The middle name he gave his daughter: Hope.
CNN’s Sara Sidner, Kiely Westhoff and Sarah Boxer contributed to this report.