I’m taking a break from regularly scheduled programming to talk about something different today. I typically shy away from commenting or engaging in social media posts regarding heated debates, controversial topics, and definitely politics. But…today, I’m breaking that rule.
I had a life-changing experience this past weekend. Not nearly as life altering as the victims and the victim’s families of those lost in the Tree of Life Shooting - those people are living through their own personal hell - but, I am forever changed by my experiences, in ways that I’m not even sure I comprehend just yet.
I was woken up early Sunday morning by a friend, colleague, and mentor who simply asked if I had journalism experience. I told him that I did (my degree is in Communications Media/Television Broadcasting, and I originally had aspirations to become a television news journalist). He told me that BILD, a German newspaper, was looking for a photographer to cover the Tree Of Life Synagogue Massacre and asked if I was interested. Although I hadn’t stepped into a journalism role in years, I knew this was important. This was something I was compelled to do.
I spoke to the editor, who gave me the reporter’s contact information, and off I went. Into an experience that would affect me in ways that I am still wrapping my head around. I met the BILD reporter, Herbert Bauernebel, at a Starbucks in Squirrel Hill where he proceeded to tell me that his newspaper wanted him to follow the personal stories of the day by speaking directly with the families of the victims. We spent the next four hours visiting the homes of those families to see if anyone was willing to tell the stories of their loved ones. Not just how they died, but how they lived. Understandably, we didn’t find too many willing to talk or even home, as they tried to make sense of this senseless tragedy that took their loved one(s) away from them.
Late in the afternoon, we decided to head to Baldwin, to the home of Robert Bowers, the man accused of gunning down 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue during a morning worship service. We arrived at Mr. Bowers’s apartment complex - a non-descript building in the middle of a residential neighborhood, and began knocking on doors in hopes that someone could give us some insight into this man.
The couple who lived next door to Mr. Bowers, Chris Hall (28) and Kerri Owens (26) agreed to tell us what they knew about their quiet, unassuming neighbor Robert Bowers. They said they didn’t know much about the man, that he said “Hi” when they saw one another, and that he said he was a long-haul truck driver. Therefore, they did not find it suspicious when Robert Bowers left his apartment on Saturday carrying a duffle bag - they assumed he was headed out for a job, not to allegedly gun down 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue. They said that they never felt threatened by Mr. Bowers or felt that they were endangered in any way.
I returned home that night tired, soaking wet from the rain that fell all day, and a bit emotional after a long, and at times, harrowing day.
The next morning, I received notification that I was needed a second time to go along with Mr. Bauernebel to interview and photograph Mr. Judah Samet - a man who was 4 minutes late to Synagogue - 4 minutes that would save his life. A man who, 73 years earlier at the young age of 6, would survive the Holocaust. I threw on some clothes and was out the door again to meet a man who would educate me better than any history book ever could.
Mr. Judah Samet lives in a penthouse at the top of an apartment building in Oakland, decorated beautifully with sculptures, artwork and furnishings. Surrounded by so much beauty, I was unsuspecting of the horrors he would tell about his experiences and his life.
Mr. Samet woke up on Saturday morning for worship at Tree of Life Synagogue, something he does every Saturday. But this Saturday was different. This Saturday, Mr. Samet was running late, 4 minutes late. 4 minutes that would save his life. He pulled up to the Synagogue and saw something moving - a man with a rifle. Then, he heard the rapid-fire of an assault rifle returning fire. Mr. Samet says he moved over to the passenger seat of his car to try to get a better look at the man who would later be charged with killing 11 of his friends in case he needed to ID the man to police later. He wanted to make sure he was apprehended.
Mr. Samet said while he didn’t actually see the bullets, he heard them whizzing past his head. He was that close to the gunfire that erupted between the police and the gunman. Someone knocked on Mr. Samet’s car window and told him to “get out”. Mr. Samet doesn’t know who it was, but he believes it was his Guardian Angel.
When asked what he did then, he replied, “I drove home. I don’t get excited.”
Perhaps Judah Samet doesn’t get excited because at the age of 6 he and his family were forced from their home in Hungary by Nazis. The family was put on a train and ended up at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Northern Germany.
Samet recalls those days. “My mother spoke Hungarian and German and was used as an interpreter. Gestapo were told to shoot any Jew that spoke on sight, no hesitation. My mother had a gun held to her head because she told a Gestapo that there wasn’t enough water onboard the train to keep everyone alive for the trip to Germany. She was spared because a Commandant intervened realizing that without her they would have no way to communicate with the others on the train.”
He credits his mother for keeping him and his siblings alive because she divided the small portion of bread they were fed daily at Bergen-Belsen and fed them six times a day to keep their stomachs from deteriorating. See, Bergen Belsen’s method of killing was to starve it’s prisoners. His mother also told them to eat the lice that infested the camp because lice are blood suckers and the nutrients from the blood the lice consumed would keep them alive.
Mr. Samet also told of how he met a boy about the same age as him at the camp, and they would forage for food together. Initially, he says, they respectfully ran around the pile of dead bodies at the camp, but after a few weeks of being there and seeing enough death they began to just run over top of the dead bodies…and heard their bones cracking under their weight.
Judah Samet moved to North America in the early 60s - initially to Canada. But, after a few months of living there, he moved to the Pittsburgh area. When asked why he left Canada he replied, “It was too cold.”
Mr. Samet knew all 11 of the victims from Saturday’s shooting. When asked if he hated the man that did this to his friends, he replied, “I hate what he did. I don’t know the man.”
I can’t help but be affected by his story and the events at the Tree of Life Synagogue. I am not a history buff. In fact, other than math, it was my worst subject in school. However, I learned more about the Holocaust from talking to Judah Samet than any history class ever could have taught me. It’s the personal stories from someone who experiences an event that really gives you insight into what it was like to live through an event.
As for my foray into journalism 25 years after college graduation, it was an experience that I will never forget and I have a newfound appreciation for reporters that hunt down a story on a daily basis. Would I do it again…absolutely! It’s important. Important that stories are told. The stories of a nation, the stories of its people, the stories of the world need to be told. It’s how we learn, grow and change as individuals and as a society. Perhaps one day we will truly live in a world where there is no violence and people respect one another’s differences. I hope that world comes soon. But, for the victims and families of the Tree of Life Synagogue, and all who came before, that world didn’t come soon enough.
JUDAH SAMET GALLERY
ROBERT BOWERS GALLERY