Friday, March 29, 2013

Taking Leave of a Hero

Slowly, one by one by one, they are slipping away. The liberators, as a class older than the survivors, are almost gone—there were, after all, children among the Shoah survivors but there were no child liberators, all of whom were soldiers serving either in the American, British, or Soviet armies—and the few that remain are very old: Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who died last week at age 95, was a young man of twenty-seven when he entered Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, and was confronted with the physical evidence of savagery that even the most inveterate pessimist sleeping though the worst of all nightmares could never manage actually to conjure up.

We at Shelter Rock have in our community several individuals who were liberated earlier that same day by four soldiers from General Patton’s Third Army: Jack Rosenthal, Joe Zeller, and Irving Roth. What that can have been like, for those four soldiers—their names were Pfc. James Hoyt, Tech. Sgt. Herbert Gottschalk, Captain Frederic Keffer, and Sgt. Harry Ward—or even for as hardened a solder as George S. Patton himself (who entered the camp personally a few days later to see for himself what even he must have been hardly been able to believe), we can only imagine. Still harder than that would be to imagine what the survivors, and particularly the children among them, could possibly have made of the presence of American soldiers treating them with kindness where just one single day earlier there had only been S.S. officers and German soldiers treating them with unimaginable brutality. But perhaps hardest of all to conjure up would be the emotions triggered by entry into the camp in the heart of the first Jewish chaplain on the scene. We, after all, who know the larger story and who have the ability to set Buchenwald into its context as a specific kind of camp playing a specific role in the Nazi war against the Jews, can hardly comprehend the vastness of the horror. But for Rabbi Schacter, who arrived in the camp on the day of liberation itself without any verifiable sense of the extent of the catastrophe that had befallen the Jews of Europe, it must have seemed as though he had somehow stepped across an unseen border separating the verdant hills of eastern Germany from some unknown outpost of hell on earth, a hell to which had been consigned not only the already dead but, amazingly, also a significant number of the somehow still living.

That day, April 11, 1945, was by the Jewish reckoning the 28th day of Nisan, thus not even a week after the end of the Passover holiday. The theme of liberation from bondage suffuses the holiday and its various customs and observances. Even in the army, Jewish soldiers were permitted to participate in seder meals and encouraged to take pride in religious traditions that so precisely matched the sense of the Allied mission to bring freedom to occupied Europe. And, indeed, what Jewish American soldiers could possibly not have found great satisfaction in the thought that they, the latter-day descendants of the Israelites who fled from slavery and became free people in the desert, were engaged in the slow, painful process of bringing freedom back to so many nations that had become little more than vassal states in the service of their German masters? Nor, of course, was it solely Jewish soldiers who felt that way—the liberation of Europe by all Allied troops was well underway when Rabbi Schacter walked into Buchenwald and found what he found, and it must have been the rare soldier who did not personally feel the burden of history weighing down on his shoulders as victory became inevitable and, acre by acre, Europe—including Germany itself—was made free of its demonic overlords.

It seems amazing to say it this way, but Buchenwald, where over 56,000 people died, was not an extermination camp per se. Indeed, aside from its Jewish inmates, Buchenwald also housed among its prisoners Poles, Slavs of other ethnic sorts, homosexuals, Gypsies, criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Allied prisoners of war (including Americans and Canadians). But the most brutal punishment was reserved for the Jews and that explains why a mere 4,000 of the approximately 21,000 prisoners liberated on that day in April were Jewish, almost all of them survivors of various death camps in Poland who had been marched or shipped to Germany towards the end of the war as the Nazis, acting neither from shame nor remorse but merely from a fear of punishment at the hands of the victorious Allied forces, became eager to obliterate the evidence of their own barbarism. Among them were, amazingly, 904 children under the age of seventeen including, aside from the Shelter Rockers mentioned above, the young Elie Wiesel and the even younger Yitzchak Meir Lau, later the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. These were the people to whom Rabbi Schacter was called to minister.

In some ways, he was the right man for the job. He spoke Yiddish well, which made it simple for him to communicate with the newly liberated. What he found at Buchenwald was beyond description in any language, of course. And yet, somehow possessed of a sense of duty that most of us can barely imagine ourselves taking on without collapsing beneath, he went to work. He traveled to London and came back with Passover supplies and conducted a kind of after-the-fact Pesach seder in Buchenwald in the style of the second Passover briefly mentioned in the Torah in the ninth chapter of the Book of Numbers. He began the slow, painful work of restoring life to the living, of helping the survivors come to terms with the disaster that had befallen not only them but their families and the communities from which they came and in which they had grown up. He wasn’t a seasoned clergyman—having been ordained at Yeshiva University in 1941, Rabbi Schacter had served for exactly one single year in a synagogue in Stamford, Connecticut, before enlisting as a chaplain in 1942. And now, a mere three years after that, he was—in one of those kismet moments that seem so natural in the movies but which it never seems quite possible to imagine happening in real life—as the result of one of those unimaginably unlikely concatenation of events, qualifications, and experiences, Rabbi Schacter suddenly found himself center stage at one of the pivotal moments of all Jewish history leading, of all things, a seder celebrating freedom from slavery for people who themselves had only weeks earlier themselves been slaves to a pharaoh no less intent than his ancient forebear on eradicating the Jewish people. Nor did he simply provide standard chaplaincy services for the newly freed inmates by leading religious services and providing them with tefillin and other religious paraphernalia. In the end, he watched over the Jews of Buchenwald and helped them find their way into the world, personally bringing some of them to new lives in Switzerland, helping arrange for others to settle in the United States, and assisting still others find their way to what was then still British Palestine.  Later on, he served as the rabbi of the Mosholu Jewish Center on Hull Avenue in the Bronx for more than half a century.  Eventually, he became the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, then ended his career in the service of his alma mater, working as director of rabbinic services at Yeshiva University.

It’s hard to imagine Rabbi Schacter at twenty-seven facing Buchenwald with exactly one year of rabbinic experience under his belt. It’s hard, actually, to imagine anyone suddenly coming face to face with misery on that scale and not running for cover. But reading his obituary in the paper  the other day prompted me not only to wonder about the mettle of a man who could step up to the plate in a situation like that and proceed to bring the solace of faith to people who had experienced a level of degradation we who were not there can barely fathom. I did, of course, wonder what kind of person could step into that situation. But I also inevitably found myself (and still find myself) wondering how I personally would have behaved in that situation, if I could have found it in me to speak about faith, about pride, about destiny, or about the eternal nature of the Jewish people without looking away, without ducking behind the kind of platitudes and slogans that reduce theology to pap. The question, of course, has no real answer. Which of us could ever say with any degree of certainty how we would have responded to the unimaginable, how we would have behaved in a situation that we ourselves would have been unable to conjure up even hours before stepping through that famous gate mockingly emblazoned with the words Jedem Das Seine (“We Get What We Deserve”) lest any inmates imagine they were being unjustly punished in that place? Which of us—no matter how secure we feel in our faith or how proud of our membership in the House of Israel—which of us could say with certainty that, when confronted with evidence of inhumanity on a scale the world itself hadn’t even known, we would have found the foundation upon which rests what we believe about God to be strong enough not to collapse under the weight of what we would then know first-hand about the world?

I would like to think that, had I been in Rabbi Schacter’s shoes, I would have behaved as admirably as he did, that I would have found it in me to serve the living in a way that a single year dealing with a suburban synagogue in Stamford could not possibly have prepared him even to imagine, let along actually to negotiate successfully.  In the end, we find out all sorts of things about ourselves as we move forward through life. Some of those things are pleasant confirmations of what we think we already know. Others are more sobering. Some, occasionally, are truly distressing. I would like to think I could have done that work.  In the end, though, who really knows what any of us is capable of undertaking? And that question, unanswered and unanswerable, is what I took with me from the story of Rabbi Schacter’s death, may his memory be a blessing for us all and may he rest in peace.

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