Judah Samet, survivor of Holocaust and Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, has died at 84
“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 Hazzan Jeffrey Myers
Judah Samet, a Holocaust survivor whose late arrival at synagogue one Shabbat saved him from the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history, has died. A mainstay at daily minyan and Shabbat services at Tree of Life Congregation, Samet passed away on Sept. 27. He was 84.
“What a life he had,” wrote Larry Barasch, Samet’s nephew, in a Facebook post. “Grew up in Hungary, survived the Holocaust, became orphaned upon leaving the camps, moved to Israel and found his mother. Joined the Israeli Defense Forces as a paratrooper and radio man, fought side by side with General Moshe Dayan for Israeli independence. Emigrated to Canada, married Barbara Schiffman, and became a well-known jeweler in Pittsburgh working for my grandfather, Irving Schiffman.”
Abraham Judah Samet was born into an Orthodox Jewish family on Feb. 5, 1938, in Hungary. In April 1944, the Gestapo forced the Samet family into a work yard and later took them to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, Samet said in an interview with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. He survived internment at Bergen-Belsen and was riding a rail car to another work camp when it was liberated by American troops.
“We heard the rumbling of something, a military vehicle, which turned out to be a tank,” Samet said. “It came out of the woods, and we thought, ‘This is it.’ It was kind of funny, the turret was not aimed at us. It was aimed to the side. And when the turret opened, it was an American.”
Samet migrated to Israel, where he joined the IDF. He later moved to Canada, then to Pittsburgh, where he married Barbara Schiffman, whose family owned Schiffman’s Jewelers in downtown Pittsburgh.
Samet participated in daily minyan and other services at Tree of Life for about 40 years.
Tree of Life’s Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers said the congregation is deeply mourning Samet’s passing.
“Judah leaves an unparalleled legacy to the world, of a man who survived not one, but two horrors committed by humanity against the Jews,” Myers said in a prepared statement. “He taught us how to respond with controlled fervor, grace and strength. I will forever remember his smile, his humor and the twinkle in his eyes as he regularly shared his wisdom and deep Torah knowledge with us during Shabbat services. May his memory be for a blessing.”
“He was such a strong, solid guy — he was a fighter,” said Alan Hausman, president of Tree of Life. “There was the perception that he’d last forever. He was a one-of-a-kind person.
“He was incredibly learned; he knew all the Talmud and all the parsha and he’d always have a question to ask the rabbi,” Hausman added. “I really respected his knowledge.”
On Oct. 27, 2018, Samet arrived four minutes late to Shabbat morning services, thereby avoiding the mass shooting that killed 11 Jews worshipping at the three congregations housed in the building: Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light. Samet had just pulled into a parking spot when someone told him there was gunfire inside the building. He told reporters he looked the gunman in the eye while the gunman was being pursued by police. The gunman did not fire at him.
Samet told the New York Post earlier this year that he was hoping to testify against the accused murderer at trial.
“I want to testify because he has to pay for what he did,” Samet said. “If I don’t testify, and nobody else testifies, he may walk. Justice delayed is justice denied. The man did a crime, and he should pay.”
Jury selection for the trial is set for April 24, 2023.
Samet embraced the spotlight that came with his being present at the time of the shooting, attending President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in 2019 in Washington D.C.
Samet didn’t talk about the Holocaust for decades but, in recent years, became a sort of spokesperson for the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, according to Executive Director Lauren Bairnsfather.
“He was one of our busiest speakers,” Bairnsfather said. “At the Holocaust Center, he fit in that way.”
“He embraced a public role,” Bairnsfather added. “He had strong beliefs and he liked a good debate. Whenever I talked to Judah, I felt like I had to bring my A-game … he was a character.”
Audrey Glickman attended morning minyan with Samet for more than a decade. Glickman, who is politically left-leaning, often engaged in wars of words with Samet, who was more conservative.
“He was sweet and brilliant and stubborn and generous — maybe put brilliant first,” Glickman said. “He was a great guy. He always had a smile on his face … I loved arguing with him. I’m going to miss our sparring.
“His knowledge was encyclopedic,” Glickman added. “He knew his stuff, and it was amazing and he always had it at the tip of his tongue … He knew all the [Jewish] texts. He was well-educated. And it was always a pleasure to hear him chant haftorah — he was such a nice guy, such an entity. It’s a huge loss.”
Samet’s funeral was Sept. 29. He is interred at Beth Shalom Cemetery.
He is survived by family in the U.S. and in Israel: his daughter, Elizabeth, and son-in-law David Winitsky; his grandsons, Ezekiel and Alexander; two sisters, Henya and Miriam; and two brothers, Moshe and Itzik; five nephews, six nieces, and their combined 32 children; dozens of cousins and a legion of wonderful friends.
“He was small in stature,” added Hausman, the Tree of Life president. “But those are shoes that cannot be filled.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.