Rabbi Herschel Schacter z”l


herschel-schacterIt is with great sadness that we report the passing of Rabbi Herschel Schacter z”l at the age of 95.

Rabbi Schacter was well-known for his service during World War II, when he served as a chaplain in the Third Army’s VIII Corps. and was the first US Army Chaplain to enter and participate in the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945, bringing comfort to many survivors.

He later aided in the resettlement of displaced persons and led a UNRRA Kindertransport from Buchenwald to Switzerland after World War II. In 1956, he was a member of the first rabbinic delegation to the Former Soviet Union and escorted a transport of Hungarian refugees from Austria to the United States.

Prior to World War II, Rabbi Schacter attended Yeshiva University until 1938 and Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchonon until 1941.

He is said to have been the first person to receive formal semichah from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.

Rabbi Schacter, a talmid of Rav Moshe Soloveitchik as well, served as the rabbi of the Mosholu Jewish Center for more than five decades. When scores of newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Europe arrived in New York after the war, they founded the shul. Seventy-two years later, its few remaining members dispensed with its memories, and in 1999 the shul closed. It was one of the last vestiges of the old Jewish Bronx, as the shul on Hull Avenue in Norwood outlived nearly all of its neighbors, the shuls that once dotted the east Bronx and Grand Concourse neighborhoods, along with the kosher butchers and the Yiddish libraries.

Rabbi Hershel Schaecter leading the davening on the first day of Shavuos for Buchenwald survivors shortly after liberation.
Rabbi Schacter leading the davening on the first day of Shavuos for Buchenwald survivors shortly after liberation.

Had it not been for the stubborn devotion of Rabbi Schacter, who led the shul since 1947, a year before his marriage, the Mosholu Jewish Center would have closed much earlier than it did. Rabbi Schacter kept showing up as the membership shrank from thousands to hundreds, and hundreds to handfuls, raising money from outside sources and preparing the same impressive drashos week after week. But the shul – where people once waited years for a permanent seat – could not survive the migration of Jews from the Bronx.

The decline in membership began around 1974 and for years was barely noticeable. But gradually, from its peak of 3,500, the shul membership dwindled.

At one time, the shul was both a social nexus and a center of moral and spiritual gravity. As Rabbi Schacter gained national prominence, he shared his insights in his speeches.

From his pulpit in Norwood, he rose to chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. He met with Golda Meir and every president from Kennedy on, and was especially close to Richard Nixon, becoming his confidant and emissary to Russia.

Rabbi Schacter said that when people asked him why he did not move to a larger, more famous shul, he replied that Mosholu gave him ”the freedom to find fulfillment outside.” But in reality, he made the shul his life’s work.

“Rabbi Schacter was a Renaissance man. He had a spiritual presence and was a man of the world,” one of his congregants once said about him.

Rabbi Schacter is survived by his wife, Mrs. Penina Schacter, whom he was married to for 65 years; his two children, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, university professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, and Miriam Schacter, a psychotherapist; as well as four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

The levaya will be held this morning, at 10 o’clock, at The Riverdale Jewish Center, located at 3700 Independence Avenue in Riverdale, NY.

The family will sit shivah at the Schacter home, located at 3701 Henry Hudson Parkway, Apt 7B, in the Bronx, until Erev Yom Tov.

Yehi zichro boruch.

The following is a speech Rabbi Schacter gave at a conference convened  by the United States Holocaust Memorial Council at which eyewitnesses to the  liberation shared their memories.

Dear friends, so very very much has been spoken. All of us here, I know, have seen so  much, have read so much, and yet I am convinced that we can’t begin to fathom the  enormity of the cataclysm, of the tragedy that struck our people and so many other  peoples of the world.

During the Second World War, I served as a young Army chaplain, perhaps not as young  as Leon Bass or Alan Rose, but not much older than they at that time. I worked my way  across with front-line combat troops through Europe. I was attached to the VIII Corps  Headquarters of the Third Army.

The most unforgettable day of my life is April 11, 1945. I learned from some of the  officers in my unit that early that morning our forward tanks had entered the notorious  concentration camp called Buchenwald, outside of Weimar. I had heard the name before.   My mind’s eye conjured up all sorts of images. I quickly ascertained the directions and  drove at high speed to Weimar and then to the camp.

As I drove up to the main gate, I was struck by the large German inscription over the  gate: Arbeit Macht Frei-what a tragic travesty. I drove through the gate into the open  Appellplatz [inspection or roll call area] and there I was in Buchenwald. This was about 4:00 in the afternoon, just hours after the first columns of American tanks drove through  and liberated that dungeon on the face of this earth.

I did not know where to go first. Happily, a young American Army lieutenant recognized  my Jewish chaplain’s insignia, and he approached me almost reverently. He urged that I  follow him to see first the crematoria. We’ve heard descriptions. As I said, we’ve read,  and we’ve seen pictures. As long as I shall live, I will never, never forget that gruesome scene that is indelibly engraved upon my heart and my mind. There simply are no words  in the human vocabulary. Yes, our Polish friend this morning told us how difficult it was  for him to find the words in any language.

I slowly approached the site of the huge ovens from which the smoke was still curling upward. I could smell the stench ofthe charred remnants of human flesh. There were literally hundreds of dead bodies strewn about. Dr. Kelling, you were right, but many of these bodies were not stacked neatly like cordwood. They were just scattered, waiting to  be shoveled into the furnaces, which were still hot.

I stood riveted to this scene for what seemed like an eternity, tormented within with searing agony, until I finally tore myself away, my eyes burning from the smoke and, even more so, from my inner rage. I walked back from the crematoria toward the endless rows of barracks still dazed by what I had just seen.

I asked the young lieutenant who was there at my side, and who seemed to know his way around, whether he knew if there were any Jews still alive in this camp. He led me to an area called the Kleine Lager-the little camp within the larger camp. I hurriedly walked into one of the dilapidated, filthy, foul-smelling barracks, and there again I was smitten by an indescribable scene. There on a series of shelves-and again, you’ve seen the pictures ofthe series of shelves-were just raw planks of hardwood. From floor to ceiling were hundreds upon hundreds of men and very few boys who were strewn over scraggly straw sacks looking down at me, looking down at me out of dazed eyes. Last night Elie Wiesel so graphically and movingly described how he perceived our eyes. I remember their eyes, looking down, looking out of big, big eyes-that’s all I saw were eyes-haunted, crippled, paralyzed with fear. They were emaciated skin and bones, half-crazed, more dead than alive.

And there I stood and shouted in Yiddish, “Sholem Aleychem, Yiden, yir zent frey!” “You are free.” The more brave among them slowly began to approach me, as was just described, to touch my Army uniform, to examine the Jewish chaplain’s insignia, incredulously asking me again and again, “Is it true? Is it over?”

Indeed, as Elie Wiesel said, I felt that love, that gratitude, that admiration. I ran from barracks to barracks throughout the whole area, repeating again and again the declaration, the scene, the experience. As I moved about, bands of Jews were now following me, pouring out tales of woe, asking me over and over, “Does the world know what happened to us? What will now happen? Where will we go from here?”

I stood among them. As I saw these men-brothers, flesh of my flesh, and blood of my blood-I could not help but think of the old cliché, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Alan [Rose] was so right. If my own father had not caught the boat on time, I would have been there.

Thus started a period of about two months during which I spent every day in Buchenwald. I must confess that I paid little attention to the needs of American servicemen who really, at that time, did not need many of my services. I devoted myself-what little energies, what little ingenuity, what bit of initiative a young man could muster-to my new-found flock.

While I could never develop any accurate statistics, my estimate was that there were approximately 20,000 inmates, from every country in Europe, in Buchenwald at the time of the liberation, of whom only about 5,000 were Jews.

We know that Buchenwald was primarily built and maintained for the incarceration of political prisoners and was, therefore, less, less savagely brutal and torturous than the extermination camps in Poland. There were no gas chambers in Buchenwald, only crematoria. And the inmates who were then becoming my friends related to me in harrowing detail how every morning dead bodies were collected in the barracks and in the work stations and were carried off on wheelbarrows to the crematoria. And this was the less brutal? How much more gruesome could the other death camps have been?

{Noam Amdurski-Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. When I saw the heading I got so scared. I thought it was Rav Hershel Shachter, rosh yeshiva of RIETS.

    BDE> Rabbi Schachter was a special person

  2. we recently lost LT. Myer Birnbaym, Reb YY Friedenson, and now R’ Shacheter, who all were in the liberation of the camops, although R’ Yosef also went through the horrors of the concentration camps.

    Zechor,. Zechor.

    Who will here be to rememember?

    WHo will be their Zaidy if not we

  3. Zechor al Tishkacha. Never forget. Rabbi Schachter was witness to the enormity of the cataclysm, of the tragedy that struck our people

    yihi zichri birich

  4. One of the last eyewitnesses to the churban in
    Europe is now gone. His life was testimony to
    the horrors committed by the Nazis and to the
    continued spirit of hope instilled in the survivors. He spent his life speaking about the atrocities and giving veracity to what happened
    to the world at large. And yet there are people who deny what happened.

  5. Pomy:

    R’ Schacter was a talmid of R’ Moshe, the son of R’Chaim Brisker, at YU.

    He was an eyewitness to so much history, and a tireless osek b’tzorchei tzibur.

  6. “Mosholu Jewish Center for more than five decades. When scores of newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Europe arrived in New York after the war, they founded the shul. Seventy-two years later, its few remaining members dispensed with its memories, and in 1999 the shul closed.”

    Stira minei ubei.

    If it closed after seventy two years in 1999, it wasn’t founded after WWII. Rather, it was founded pre WWII in the 1920’s, like many Shuls.

  7. My Uncle was a Buchenwald survivor unfortunately he passed away a year ago. He would often share the story especially around Pesach of how he was ‘bafreit’ from Buchenwald. A tank entered the camp and a soldier stood on the tank and said in a loud piercing voice ‘Yidden kim aheim’ Yidden come home. That was the legendary Rabbi Herschel Schacter. A true ‘Maloch Hashem’ a true Angel of G-d