Holocaust survivor, Tree of Life witness Judah Samet dies at 84

Judah Samet, a Holocaust survivor who witnessed the Tree of Life synagogue, died peacefully at his home surrounded by family members.

Police officers guard the Tree of Life synagogue following shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, October 27, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/JOHN ALTDORFER)
Police officers guard the Tree of Life synagogue following shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, October 27, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JOHN ALTDORFER)

Judah Samet referred to himself as "a professional survivor." He survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after the Nazis forced him and his family from their home in Hungary when he was 7 years old.

Four years ago at age 80, Samet also survived the October 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue he regularly attended.

On Tuesday afternoon, Samet's remarkable life came to an end when he died of complications from stomach cancer, which he was diagnosed with in June. He was 84. He died peacefully at his home surrounded by family members.

"He led an epic life and made a huge impact on everyone who knew him," said his daughter, Elizabeth Samet, senior vice president and creative director for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He had relentless optimism and fierce loyalty to his family, to his friends and to his community."

"He had relentless optimism and fierce loyalty to his family, to his friends and to his community."

Elizabeth Samet

"(Tuesday) was Rosh HaShanah, and in Jewish tradition, if you die on Rosh Hashanah, it's considered a sign of a righteous life."

 A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in October 2018. (credit: CATHAL MCNAUGHTON/REUTERS) A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in October 2018. (credit: CATHAL MCNAUGHTON/REUTERS)

Judah Samet's history

Judah Samet was born on February 5, 1938.

As a young child, Samet and his family spent many months in a slave labor camp in Austria before being sent to Bergen-Belsen.

"In Bergen-Belsen, they killed you by the method of starvation," Samet told the Tribune-Review in a 2018 interview.

However, his mother Rachel's resourcefulness in finding food helped her family survive. They were liberated in 1945, but his father, Yekutiel, died of typhus three days later.

The Samet family eventually immigrated to Israel where Judah became an Israeli Army paratrooper. He was in his 20s when he came to the United States and moved to Pittsburgh, where he married his wife, Barbara. They had a daughter, Elizabeth.

"There was absolutely no reason he should have been as amazing as a father as he was since he didn't have his own father," Elizabeth Samet said. "But I always tell people, 'I was born under a lucky star.' There was never a day in my entire life that I didn't know how loved I was, and I don't think most people can say that."

Samet worked in his father-in-law's jewelry business, Schiffman's Jewelers, and eventually became the store owner. He went decades without speaking about his experiences in the Holocaust.

"I never told my story until maybe five or six years ago. I didn't want to talk," Samet told the Trib in 2018. "But then I noticed that all the survivors are old and pretty soon there won't be anybody to tell the story. And I was wondering 'why am I alive?' and I started to talk, and I realized that this is probably my mission because I want people to know that happened."

Samet spent years speaking to students at schools and at events sponsored by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, among other organizations. He said the horrific events at Tree of Life and his narrow escape only reinforce the idea that he had been spared so he could continue to tell his story.

The Tree of Life massacre 

On October 27, 2018, Samet arrived four minutes late to services on the Sabbath at Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill. He ended up surviving the worst antisemitic attack in US history because he was delayed by a conversation with his housekeeper on the way out the door of his Oakland apartment.

"If I had been sitting in my seat (at Tree of Life), I would be directly in the firing line that killed Rose Mallinger," he said. Mallinger, at 97, was the oldest of the 11 victims.

So, instead of arriving on time at 9:45 am, he showed up at 9:49 am After pulling into a handicapped parking space, a man approached his car and knocked on the window. He told Samet he had better leave because there was a shooting happening in the synagogue.

"All of a sudden, I see a guy next to my car with a pistol, and I could tell he was a detective and he was shooting. And then I heard a salvo of bullets coming out."

Samet stayed in his car as the bullets whizzed by and saw the face of the alleged shooter, Robert Bowers.

Samet told the New York Post last March that he was hoping to testify against Bowers and was worried that the delays leading up to the trial, combined with his age, could prevent that from happening.

"I want to testify because he has to pay for what he did," Samet told the Post. "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."

A year after the Tree of Life shooting in which 11 of his friends died, Samet represented the synagogue as a guest at President Donald Trump's 2019 State of the Union address in Washington, D.C.

Trump wished him a happy 81st birthday, and members of both houses of Congress sang an impromptu rendition of "Happy Birthday" on national television.

"That was a real highlight of his life," Elizabeth Samet said.

She said her father had a lot to be proud of, especially his family.

"The fact that the Samet family is growing and successful and keeping on the name and the Jewish traditions was most important to him," she said. "For him, it was important to show that the fact they made it through the concentration camps had value."

"The fact that the Samet family is growing and successful and keeping on the name and the Jewish traditions was most important to him, for him, it was important to show that the fact they made it through the concentration camps had value."

Elizabeth Samet

In addition to his daughter, Elizabeth, Judah Samet is survived by his son-in-law, David Winitsky; his grandsons, Ezekiel and Alexander; two sisters, Henya and Miriam; two brothers, Moshe and Itzik; and four nephews and four nieces and their combined 22 children. He was preceded in death by his wife, Barbara; his parents, Rachel and Yekutiel; and his older brother, Yaakov.

The funeral will be held Thursday at Ralph Schugar Funeral Home on Centre Avenue in Friendship. Visitation is at 11 am, and the funeral is at noon followed by interment in Beth Shalom Cemetery.

Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at [email protected]