Rabbi Herschel Schacter – Cried to the Jews of Buchenwald: ‘You Are Free’
The smoke was still rising as Rabbi Herschel Schacter rode through the gates of Buchenwald. It was April 11, 1945, and Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army had liberated the concentration camp scarcely an hour before. Rabbi Schacter was the first Jewish chaplain to enter in its wake. He recalls the sting of smoke in his eyes, the smell of burning flesh, and the sight of hundreds of bodies strewn everywhere.
He would remain at Buchenwald for months, tending to survivors, leading religious services and eventually helping to resettle thousands of Jews.
For his work, Rabbi Schacter was singled out this past March by name by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, in a meeting with President Obama at Yad Vashem.
In Buchenwald that April day, Rabbi Schacter said afterward, it seemed as though there was no one left alive. In the camp, he encountered an 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!” — “you are free!” He ran from barracks to barracks, repeating those words. 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 recalled 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.
Rabbi Schacter discovered nearly a thousand orphaned children in Buchenwald. He helped arrange for their transport to France — a convoy that included Lulek and the teenage Elie Wiesel — as well as to Switzerland, and to Palestine.
For decades afterward, Rabbi Schacter said, he remained haunted by his time in Buchenwald, and by the question survivors put to him as he raced through the camp that first day. “They were asking me, over and over, ‘Does the world know what happened to us?’ ” Rabbi Schacter told The Associated Press in 1981. “And I was thinking, ‘If my own father had not caught the boat on time, I would have been there, too.’ ”
And what of Lulek, the orphan Rabbi Schacter rescued from Buchenwald that day? Lulek, who eventually settled in Palestine, grew up to be Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
Rabbi Lau, who recounted his childhood exchange with Rabbi Schacter in a memoir, was the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel from 1993 to 2003 and is now the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.
On Friday, March 22, 2013, Rabbi Lau told President Obama of his rescue by Rabbi Schacter — he thanked the American people for delivering Buchenwald survivors “not from slavery to freedom, but from death to life” — he had not yet learned of Rabbi Schacter’s death the day before.
Later, in an interview with The Times, Rabbi Lau said: “For me, he was alive; I speak about him with tears in my eyes.”
 NYT, Fox, Margalit, 3/26/13