First American Rabbi To Set Foot In Buchenwald After Its Liberation Has Died

Rabbi Herschel Schacter, a U.S. Army chaplain who informed inmates of the Buchenwald concentration camp that they were finally free, died Thursday. He was 95 years old.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. The first American rabbi to set foot in the Buchenwald concentration camp after its liberation has died. Rabbi Herschel Schacter was a U.S. Army chaplain during World War II. He went on to a career as a leading modern orthodox rabbi in New York. NPR's Joel Rose has this remembrance.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Herschel Schacter was a chaplain with General George Patton's troops in Germany, so he was one of the first to enter Buchenwald just hours after it was liberated in April of 1945.

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RABBI HERSCHEL SCHACTER: I slowly approached the sight of the huge ovens from which the smoke was still curling upward. I could smell the stench of the charred remnants of human flesh. There were literally hundreds of dead bodies strewn about.

ROSE: But Schacter turned his attention to the living as he described years later at a conference organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

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SCHACTER: The more brave among them slowly began to approach me to touch my Army uniform, to examine the Jewish chaplain's insignia, incredulously asking me again and again: Is it true? Is it over?

ROSE: One of the prisoners Schacter discovered in Buchenwald was a 7-year-old boy named Lulek. He's now Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. Lau told the story of Schacter's arrival last week to President Barack Obama during his visit to Jerusalem.

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RABBI YISRAEL MEIR LAU: He entered into the barracks crying in Yiddish: Jews, you are free. And we didn't believe him. After six years of horror, we never believed. This is the opportunity to thank you, to thank the American people who came finally in 1945 April to take us out not from slavery to freedom but from death to life.

ROSE: Schacter led religious services for the Jewish survivors at Buchenwald. He also helped to keep thousands of them alive, and he helped transport nearly 1,000 orphaned children to new lives in Europe and Palestine, including Rabbi Lau and future Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

ELIE WIESEL: (Unintelligible) to have a Jew in uniform, a Jew, a rabbi, meant something to us. All the uniforms we saw were SS uniforms, and that meant death. Then came Rabbi Schacter, and he spoke on a loud speaker, and they needed those words.

ROSE: Herschel Schacter was born in Brooklyn. He attended Yeshiva University where he was ordained in 1941. After the war, Schacter came back to New York. He led a modern orthodox synagogue in the Bronx from 1947 until it closed more than 50 years later. Rabbi Schacter was also an advocate for the rights of Soviet Jews and an adviser to President Richard Nixon on the issue.

For decades after the war, Schacter said he was haunted by what he had seen in Buchenwald, which the seasoned inmates told him was less brutal than other camps. There were no gas chambers in Buchenwald, only crematoria, Schacter said. And this was the less brutal? How much more gruesome could the other death camps have been? Schacter died last week in the Bronx of natural causes. He was 95 years old. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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