Holocaust survivor who escaped Tree of Life synagogue massacre dies at 84

‘Only people like me can bear witness’: Judah Samet survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, served in IDF, and lived through 2018 attack on Pittsburgh synagogue

Judah Samet walks around the Tree of Life Synagogue, October 24, 2019, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Judah Samet walks around the Tree of Life Synagogue, October 24, 2019, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania — Judah Samet, a Holocaust survivor who narrowly escaped a shooting rampage at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, died Tuesday, aged 84.

Samet, who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in World War II, was running a few minutes late for services at the Tree of Life synagogue and was just pulling into a handicapped spot when a man told him there was gunfire inside. Samet saw an officer exchange fire with the assailant. Eleven people were killed in the deadliest attack on Jewish people in US history.

Afterward, he said he was surprised something like this hadn’t happened sooner. “I didn’t lose the faith in humanity,” he told The Associated Press two days after the shooting. “I know not to depend on humanity.”

Born in Hungary on February 5, 1938, Samet was 6 years old when the Nazis came to his house and told them to pack. His family spent 10 months at Bergen-Belsen in Germany before being liberated in 1945. His father died of typhus a few days later.

After the war, Samet went to Israel, where he served as a paratrooper. He relocated to Pittsburgh in the 1960s. Samet worked at his father-in-law’s jewelry shop and later owned it.

Samet did not talk publicly about his Holocaust experiences for decades. But by the 1990s, with the release of the epic film “Schindler’s List” and with older survivors dying of old age, he told himself, “My God, who’s going to tell this story?”

A man places flowers outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2020, the second anniversary of the shooting at the synagogue that killed 11 worshipers. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Samet estimated that he spoke about his Holocaust experience to tens of thousands of people at schools and other settings, mostly in the Pittsburgh area, but as far away as Montana.

“Unfortunately, only people like me can bear witness,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2020. But he said historians and others will need to tell the story in compelling ways once the last generation of Holocaust survivors pass.

“Judah leaves an unparalleled legacy to the world, of a man who survived not one, but two horrors committed by humanity against the Jews,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life said in a written statement. “He taught us how to respond with controlled fervor, grace, and strength.”

Samet sat with then-first lady Melania Trump at then-president Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union speech, where lawmakers jumped to their feet and applauded as the president told Samet’s story and broke into a spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Samet smiled and shouted, “Thank you.”

“What a life he had!” his nephew, Larry Barasch, wrote on Facebook in announcing Samet’s death.

Samet’s funeral was Thursday. He is survived by a daughter.

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