March 27th, 2013

RIP Rabbi Herschel Schacter

[NOTE: The following article actually appeared in the NY Times. But since the Times is behind a firewall, I'm linking instead to this copy of the piece. Note also that it is about Rabbi Herschel Schacter, whose last name has only one "h," and who died recently at the age of 95. There is another very prominent Rabbi Herschel Schachter, whose last name has two "h"s.]

The story of Rabbi Herschel Schacter is well worth reading. Here’s one of the more interesting excerpts:

It was April 11, 1945, and Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army had liberated the concentration camp scarcely an hour before. Rabbi Schacter, who was attached to the Third Army’s VIII Corps, was the first Jewish chaplain to enter in its wake…

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.

As he passed a mound of corpses, Rabbi Schacter spied a flicker of movement. Drawing closer, he saw a small boy, Prisoner 17030, hiding in terror behind the mound.

“I was afraid of him,” the child would recall long afterward in an interview with The New York Times. “I knew all the uniforms of SS and Gestapo and Wehrmacht, and all of a sudden, a new kind of uniform. I thought, ‘A new kind of enemy.’ ”

With tears streaming down his face, Rabbi Schacter picked the boy up. “What’s your name, my child?” he asked in Yiddish.

“Lulek,” the child replied.

“How old are you?” the rabbi asked.

“What difference does it make?” Lulek, who was 7, said. “I’m older than you, anyway.”

“Why do you think you’re older?” Rabbi Schacter asked, smiling.

“Because you cry and laugh like a child,” Lulek replied. “I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?”…

Please read the whole thing. If you do, you’ll find out what eventually happened to Lulek.

[NOTE: Much more about Lulek here. Quite an extraordinary child from an extraordinary family.]

15 Responses to “RIP Rabbi Herschel Schacter”

  1. Gringo Says:

    [NOTE: The following article actually appeared in the NY Times. But since the Times is behind a firewall, I'm linking instead to this copy of the piece...]

    While the NYT article was behind a firewall when you posted this article, currently it is not. But better to prepare for firewall contingencies.

    Here is an additional article on what happened to Lulek.

  2. DNW Says:

    Lulek,” the child replied.

    “How old are you?” the rabbi asked.

    “What difference does it make?” Lulek, who was 7, said. “I’m older than you, anyway.”

    “Why do you think you’re older?” Rabbi Schacter asked, smiling.

    “Because you cry and laugh like a child,” Lulek replied. “I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?”…”

    No disrespect but, do you believe that dialog is true?

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    DNW: I wondered about that myself. It seemed too amazing to be true.

    Read the link Gringo offered, and then decide. I have decided it is most likely true, and not a misremembering after the fact. Young Lulek was quite a kid, it turns out.

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    Gingo: that was a great article. I’m adding the link to the post as an addendum.

  5. DNW Says:

    Ok, let me put it this way. The series of verbal exchanges in the text seems improbably arranged in order to lead to a foreordained conclusion.

    I have a hard time imagining that a conversation in those circumstances would instantly develop into a QvQ joust which just happened to lead to a didactic conclusion; much less believe that a seven or eight year old, who in the link is stated as having been in the camp for 6 years …

    “having witnessed more death and destruction in his few short years than most of us can ever imagine, the most poignant question is what gave this young orphan boy the strength to survive throughout six years of hell.”

    … would have anything like the perspective that is imputed to him – with it’s implied grasp of significant comparisons relative to a normative baseline.

    Was he much older than eight, maybe?

    If not, then maybe the kid was a prodigy. Maybe he was raised up answering questions with questions. Maybe despite being so frightened he was hiding behind a pile of corpses, he managed to compose himself to enough to deliver a little meditation on life as he was experiencing it relative to a life one assumes he couldn’t have really known. But, what happy kids could he have known in the past six years in order to establish the framework for this edifying anecdote?

    “Yes … I was once like you, but I’m older than that now”

    It just doesn’t seem contextually coherent, and the dialog seem unnatural and artificial to me.

    But then, I don’t know anything first hand about concentration camps. I have a few creased GI taken photos of corpses laid out in rows, with scribbled sarcasm on the backs about “these Nazis” being “some swell guys” or the like.

    My uncle mentioned opening ovens and observing ash and bones. Nothing about encountering precocious child philosophers. But that was Dachau, not Buchenwald.

    If the rabbi says it happened, well, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt as to the emotional contours of the event, at least.

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    DNW: did you read the second piece? This child had not only been through a lot of aging experiences, but he started out as an unusually thoughtful and reflective child who was from a long line of thoughtful and reflective scholars.

    Some children are wise and reflective way beyond their years, even without the sort of horrific experiences to which he was subject.

    And when you wrote, “Maybe he was raised up answering questions with questions” I had to smile. That’s pretty much the Jewish way, actually.

  7. DNW Says:

    neo-neocon Says:
    March 27th, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    DNW: did you read the second piece? This child had not only been through a lot of aging experiences, but he started out as an unusually thoughtful and reflective child who was from a long line of thoughtful and reflective scholars.”

    Maybe I got the timeline wrong. If he were 12 or more, I might expect that he would after 6 years in a concentration camp still have some memory of childhood laughter. We can all remember earlier than that, but I doubt that our memories of being two or three are embedded in critical comparisons.
    I’ll re-read the second piece more carefully. I was quickly data mining the first time around.

    “Some children are wise and reflective way beyond their years, even without the sort of horrific experiences to which he was subject.”

    I suppose. I’ve met some kids who seemed preternaturally self and socially conscious, and eager to frame events for the adults they are talking to.

    And when you wrote, “Maybe he was raised up answering questions with questions” I had to smile. That’s pretty much the Jewish way, actually.

    LOL

    Why do you always answer a question with a question?

    And why shouldn’t I?

    Yeah, I guess I’ve seen a Mel Brooks movie or two.

  8. KenWaltzer Says:

    The child was and is Israel Meir Lau (Lulek), former chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, son of the Chief Rabbi of Piotrkow, Poland, and today head of the Yad Vashem Council. The story told is an embellished form of a story that began to emerge in recollections of liberation in the 1980s and 1990s, and was repeated at numerous commemoration gatherings. Schacter and Lulek did encounter each other after the liberation and Lulek was a special object of attention. he was eight years old, not the youngest, there were two four year olds, but among the youngest.

  9. Ann Says:

    Neo wrote a while back about a book she was reading: Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose.

    I’m reading it now, and Frank, though older than the young boy in the camp, certainly punched way above her weight as well in her observations about life.

  10. DNW Says:

    Speaking of “the Jewish way”, although I am not competent on the basis of a few experiences to comment on Jewish cultural habits of the interpersonal sort, your remark put me in mind of something which I cannot really state the significance of, but has stuck with me for years.

    I was taking a course in Jewish cultural and intellectual history – or so it was titled, it was basically ancient biblical history – taught by a locally prominent rabbi who was an adjunct professor at the school.

    And what I most recall, other than historical details, was the manner of presentation. The classes were basically sonorous readings of highly polished if occasionally polemical notes that resembled finished texts, of a quasi popular sort.

    I guess I had expected references to archeological findings, and journal monographs, critical data points and vector lines [figuratively speaking] but what we got was a “story”, a kind of literary performance.

    I don’t know if that manner of delivery and presentation was a personal idiosyncrasy or represented a practice.

    That is not to say there was no scholarship, he knew the subject inside out, obviously. And I had no reason to complain grade-wise. He could not have been more generous.

    But it was unlike any other class I had had in history or philosophy.

  11. DNW Says:

    Ok,

    “Rabbi Lau was born in 1937 …”

    “At the tender age of five, his family was brutally torn apart when his father and brother were taken…”

    “At age seven, he was separated from his mother …”

    So, he was in a position for some time as a child to feel the very direct influence of his mother. He was not a feral camp child but in a position to be acculturated and habituated.

    That takes care of most of what I imagined as anomalous, contextually speaking.

    And Mr. Waltzer has provided a very natural explanation of how, and why the anecdote took on its present polished form above.

    Sometimes speeches are not meant to be construed as stenographic recordings …

    “When he was set before the emperor’s tribunal, he spoke as follows: “Had my moderation in prosperity been equal to my noble birth and fortune, I should have entered this city as your friend rather than as your captive; and you would not have disdained to receive, under a treaty of peace, a king descended from illustrious ancestors and ruling many nations. My present lot is as glorious to you as it is degrading to myself. I had men and horses, arms and wealth. What wonder if I parted with them reluctantly? If you Romans choose to lord it over the world, does it follow that the world is to accept slavery? Were I to have been at once delivered up as a prisoner, neither my fall nor your triumph would have become famous. My punishment would be followed by oblivion, whereas, if you save my life, I shall be an everlasting memorial of your clemency.”

    http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.8.xii.html

  12. neo-neocon Says:

    DNW: Plus, his 16-year-old brother was with him, and he was under his influence. The brother had been charged with protecting him. It’s not clear how long the brother survived, but it may have been that he was with him the whole time.

    By the way, Buchenwald was not technically an extermination camp, although the death rate there (and the suffering) was very high. See this.

  13. neo-neocon Says:

    DNW: That would be highly HIGHLY unusual and atypical.

    Even the Talmud is a bunch of people debating with each other, and the Passover Seder emphasizes the asking of questions by children.

  14. Gringo Says:

    I find Lulek’s response plausible, though admittedly rather precocious for a 7 year old, for two reasons.

    First, difficult experiences can lead children to make observations that would seem more appropriate for someone much older. Moreover, while adults may view childhood as a happy time, from the child’s point of view, even a normal childhood has its own difficulties. To everything there is a season…

    Second, it is possible that either his older brother or his mother might have made a similar remark to Lulek. “Lulek, childhood is a time for laughing and playing, and instead you are living under conditions that are difficult for adults, let alone children. May God give you the strength and wisdom to overcome this difficult time.” I could easily think of either his mother or older brother saying something like this to Lulek.

    Lulek either simply repeated what had been told him, or he had assimilated what he had been told, thought on it, and made it his own. I consider the latter more plausible.

    Most likely what Lulek said was a combination of his reflecting on his experiences and what his elders had told him.

    A friend and neighbor is currently celebrating Passover. Her sister from Israel is visiting. Because they are from Morocco, their family did not experience the Holocaust.

  15. Gringo Says:

    Instapundit had a link to the philosophizing of a nine year old. Which makes Lulek’s statements all the more plausible.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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