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Reflections on my father’s legacy

She found R. Herschel Schacter's letter explaining why he left his pulpit for a WWII army chaplaincy

Four years ago today, the 10th of Nisan, my father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, Harav Tzvi ben R. Pinchas v’Miryam passed away. A few days after he died, his obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times, highlighting his service as a chaplain in the American army in 1945, and his activities in Buchenwald, a concentration camp outside Weimar Germany, upon its liberation by the American army.

What my father saw there and what he did afterward, on behalf of the survivors, served as the foundation upon which he built his career as a Jewish activist throughout his life.

My father served as a pulpit rabbi in the Bronx for more than 50 years. During that time, he was the president of the Mizrachi-Hapoel Hamizrachi; founding chairman of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry; chairman of the Chaplaincy Commission of the Jewish Welfare Board, the director of Rabbinic Services at Yeshiva University, and the president of the Presidents Conference. In 1956, he was a member of the first rabbinic delegation to the USSR, and he escorted a transport of Hungarian refugees from Austria to the US. In 1971, he spearheaded an international conference in Brussels to highlight the plight of Russian Jews. He met with American presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr., advocating on behalf of the Jews, both in the US and abroad.

I have spent years wondering about the mindset of my 27-year-old not-yet-father, as he entered Buchenwald. What was he thinking and feeling? What resources did he call upon that prepared him for what he encountered when he arrived in Buchenwald? What inner strength propelled him to take on the role of helper, dare I say savior, of the surviving Jews in Buchenwald?

My father remained behind in Buchenwald for a few months, after the American army moved on, catering to the physical and spiritual needs of the Jews. He spent his days lifting the spirits of the people in the infirmaries. He collected the names of relatives of the survivors and worked with the Red Cross to unite families. He worked with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and organized a kindertransport to Switzerland, where 400 of the healthier younger Jews were transported and received further medical care, eventually to move to more permanent homes. He provided spiritual sustenance to hundreds of men and women who had lost their faith.

How was he able to speak lovingly and sternly to the Jews whose spirits were broken? For the past 60 years, our family received first-hand reports directly from the survivors about what my father did during those first months after the liberation. From securing medicine and food for some, tefillin for others, finding the names of relatives for others, he was consumed with fulfilling the needs of the survivors to the best of his ability. Whenever we heard these stories, I always wondered how this young man was able to muster the wisdom and strength to nurture these surviving Jews. How did he bring them back to life, and some to God and to religious observance? From where did this 27-year-old draw his inner strength?

Dr. Rafi Medoff, while engaged in researching a forthcoming biography of my father, came upon a passionate letter by my father to his father, written in Hebrew, in October 1942, explaining why he was about to enlist the United States army. My father at that time was the rabbi of Congregation Agudath Shalom in Stamford, Connecticut, while his father was a shochet and lived in Brooklyn. We don’t have the letter by my grandfather that my father was responding to, but we can assume, by what my father wrote, that his father had been quite distressed and likely asked my father to reconsider his decision to join the army.

Reading, and rereading this letter, filled with biblical and talmudic references, gave me a clue, helping me understand my father’s mindset, as he embarked upon his chaplaincy in the fall of 1942. His letter is filled with his love and gratitude to the United States of America for welcoming and sheltering his family, and his strong conviction that he was responsible to help Jews in need. He knew of the plight of European Jews and he felt obligated to represent America, fight on her behalf, and respond to the cry of suffering Jews.

My father wrote:

I thought a great deal about your feelings of sorrow concerning my decision to leave my comfortable position here and join as a soldier in the Army of our blessed land — a land of freedom and independence, the only land in all the world that has given equal rights to the people of Israel. I do this in order to fight for her and to protect all these rights for us and for all the world.*

My father believed he was enacting God’s will. He believed that even though his biological father disagreed with his decision, his heavenly Father was in support of his decision.

I understand well your feelings, and you are correct in claiming that my decision is opposed to the will of my parents. However, I am fully convinced that this is in no way, opposed to the will of my Father in heaven.

My father believed this was a time of action, a time to be proactive. It is a time to respond to the plight of the Jews. As a part of the American army, as a chaplain in the American army, my father believed he had a role to play. He was aware of the destruction of much of European Jewry. He felt that the Jewish people were at a cross roads, and that he could and should participate, as an American soldier in this battle.

Any human being who has a mind in his head, who sees and understands all that is taking place in the general and Jewish world, is compelled to compare this life today with the era about which it is said, “It is a time to act for the Lord for they have violated your teachings” Psalms 119:126.

Because we are the special ones, who have been privileged to settle on this precious soil, under the protection of the flag of the prosperous America, are we to remove ourselves with the excuse that “our hands have not shed this blood?” Deuteronomy 21:7.

My father’s sense of responsibility for suffering Jews, was breathtaking. His heartfelt feeling of obligation to assist his fellow Jews was powerful. Equally strong to his feeling of obligation, was his feeling of gratitude to his beloved America. He beseeched his father to acknowledge that they were all alive because of America’s welcoming arms. America welcomed his father, uncles, and extended family, and now it was my father’s turn to join those who threatened the United States of America.

Are we not as faithful Jews, obligated to dedicate our lives on behalf of this truly blessed country that has provided refuge and rest to our unfortunate and oppressed brethren? Please ponder, my dear father, where would you yourself be if America did not open her compassionate doors and gates to those who knocked, to all the persecuted and debased in all the ends of the earth? Indeed, I am confident you will agree with me in thinking and will say “ you are right my son, this is a milchemet mitzvah — a war which we are obligated to wage”.

My father believed he was about to engage in a holy war, defending and protecting Jews. From Stamford, Connecticut, he heard the cry of the Jews across the ocean. He felt he was responsible to respond to these cries.

 At the very hour when the future of the people Israel is suspended between life and death, at a time when all the cities of our land ,(European cities) when ancient Jewish communities in all the lands of our dispersion, when millions stand at the threshold of death and destruction, God forbid, how can we sit with folded hands and not lend our ears, as a “receiver” and not listen to the voice of the blood of our brothers who are crying out to us from the earth — the earth of wickedness?

And then my father repeated the question that we imagine his father asked him — But why you in particular? Indeed you are a Torah student … sit in your own tent!

My father opened his letter by first making reference to the Torah portion of Bereshit (the first chapters of Genesis) that was read that morning in the synagogue. He quoted Adam’s response to God’s questioning “where are you” — “I heard the sound of You in the garden …. and I was afraid, and I hid” (Genesis 3:10). My father did not want to be like Adam, who attempted to hide from God. Rather, he modeled himself after Abraham, who when the angel of God called out “Abraham, Abraham,” Abraham responded, “Here I am” (Genesis 22:11).

I have decided there is no other way. It is to follow in the footsteps of he who was the first to recognize his Creator, he who dedicated himself to proclaim to all the world His (God’s) oneness and His unity. May he be blessed – our father Abraham. When he heard the voices, when God called to him, “Abraham, Abraham”, he answered “Here I am.” Abraham was not afraid and he did not hide. And so, I have decided, and am convinced, that yes “I am my brother’s keeper” and I hear the voices that today moves about in the garden, I do not want to respond “I was afraid” and “I hid.” To the voice that calls to me from my conscience, from the innermost place of my soul, I have but one response — to proclaim with all my soul and might, “here I am, ready and prepared to do everything in my power to protect my nation and land, to encourage and strengthen all the soldiers who are fighting unceasingly, especially at a time when they are thirsty for the word of God, for faith and security. Only this is the will of my Father in Heaven.

I am stunned by my father’s devotion to the Jewish people, I am deeply moved by his sense of purpose and his clear vision. He had a razor-sharp understanding of his role at that moment in his life. Simultaneously I am a bit unnerved by his larger than life sense of self, by his comparing himself to Abraham. He was 25-years-old when he wrote to his father —

To the voice that calls me from my conscience, from the innermost place of my soul, I have but one response — to proclaim with all my soul and might “here I am, ready and prepared to do everything in my power to protect my nation and land…

This letter has given me a deep understanding of my father’s mindset, as he entered the war. He saw himself as a messenger of God. He felt it was his personal responsibility to protect and defend Jews, and to represent the United States of America, a country he loved, a country to which he felt loyalty and gratitude. He approached this mission with a sense of purpose. He was ready and eager to serve the Jewish people, to serve God.

There are moments in Jewish history, in human history, when knowing what to do, knowing what to believe, knowing how to behave is clear. My father lived at such a moment. He seized that moment, and put his entire being into that moment. He used every ounce of his intelligence, strength, guts, perseverance, faith in God and belief in the essential goodness of people to lift the surviving Jews from their despair.

May his deeds be a reminder to us, to take action, to stand behind our strongly held beliefs and to do in our times what we believe to be just and right.

*Rabbi Jack Schechter, my cousin, translated this letter for his own private use. I am using his translation.

About the Author
Ms. Schacter is a psychoanalyst in private practice on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, seeing both individuals and couples. Ms. Schacter is on the faculty of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Rabbinical School in New York where she coordinates the students' professional development, and teaches Pastoral Counseling.
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