The youngest of ten. Son of a seven-generation shochet. Ordained at Yeshiva University by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. None of these things rank among the most impressive facts about Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who was traveled to Buchenwald just minutes after it was liberated by American troops. Schacter passed away last week.
In Buchenwald that April day, Rabbi Schacter said afterward, it seemed as though there was no one left alive. In the camp, he encountered a young American lieutenant who knew his way around.
“Are there any Jews alive here?” the rabbi asked him.
He was led to the Kleine Lager, or Little Camp, a smaller camp within the larger one. There, in filthy barracks, men lay on raw wooden planks stacked from floor to ceiling. They stared down at the rabbi, in his unfamiliar military uniform, with unmistakable fright.
“Shalom Aleichem, Yidden,” Rabbi Schacter cried in Yiddish, “ihr zint frei!” — “Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!” He ran from barracks to barracks, repeating those words. He was joined by those Jews who could walk, until a stream of people swelled behind him.
Among those Schacter encountered was a boy named Lulek, who would later become Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi from 1993-2003.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.