Judah Samet is a Holocaust survivor who survived a concentration camp and served in the Israeli army before traveling to America and settling down in Pittsburgh. Last year, the octogenarian narrowly survived the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. A staunch supporter of President Trump, Samet will be one of the president’s guests at the State of the Union address. Tuesday is also Samet’s birthday; he is turning 81. Here’s what you need to know about Judah Samet:
1. He Is a Survivor of the Bergen-Belsen Death Camp
Samet, who is now 81 years old, was born in Debrecen, in Hungary. He and his family lived in the city’s Jewish neighborhood, across from the synagogue. When Samet was just six years old, German Gestapo troops put him and his family on a train headed for Auschwitz. The family never reached Auschwitz, because Slovak resistance fighters blew up railroad tracks. Instead, Samet and his family were sent to work at a lumberyard owned by a Nazi in Austria. They were later sent to the notorious Bergen-Belsen death camp — the same camp where Anne Frank died. Samet and his family spent 10 months at the camp, and he turned 7 while there.
Samet told the Washington Post that even as a little boy in the camp, he was strong and confident: “I’m basically a very strong person, and I went through a lot, but nothing, nothing ever defeated me,” Samet said. “In the camp, I was out all the time. I found a friend. My brothers were in the bunk. My mother couldn’t hold me in.”
Towards the end of the war, Nazi soldiers put Samet and his family on a train to another concentration camp. They were rescued by American troops and were sent to France, and then traveled on to Israel, where they settled.
2. He Was Four Minutes Late to Prayer Services on the Day of the Tree of Life Shooting
Samet has been a member of the Tree of Life congregation for 54 years now. For 40 of those years, he served as a part time cantor, helping to lead services. On October 27, 2018, the day of the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, Samet was on his way to the Saturday morning prayer service. But on that day, the 80 year old Samet was running just a few minutes late. He later told the Washington Post that he was four minutes late getting to the synagogue because he was talking to his housekeeper.
When he pulled into the synagogue’s parking lot, police were already in the middle of a shoot out with the gunman. “I wanted to see who he was shooting,” Samet told the Post. He said that while he was in the parking lot, the gunman had come out of the synagogue “and had a shootout with police, then he went back and finished the job in my synagogue.” Samet said that he himself was “in the line of fire” but escaped without being hit. He soon pulled out of the parking lot and returned home.
3. He Arrived in Israel as a Child & Served as a Paratrooper in the Israeli Army
Samet was just 7 years old when American forces rescued his family from Nazi hands at the close of World War Two. His father died of typhoid shortly after the rescue; Samet, his mother, and the rest of his family were put on a train to France. In Marseille, they boarded a ship to Israel.
Samet lived in Israel from 1946 until 1961. After graduating from high school, he served in the Israel Defense Forces as a paratrooper and a radio man. His brother, Jacob, was killed in 1956 while serving as a machine gunner in the Israeli army.
In 1961, Samet moved to Toronto and, from there, to New York City, where his uncle had a coat factory. From there, he eventually settled in Pittsburgh.
4. He Has One Daughter & Two Grandchildren
Samet moved to New York City to work in his uncle’s coat factory. He met his future wife, Barbara, at a bar mitvah celebration on Long Island. He told the Pittsburgh TribLive that they had a whirlwind courtship:
“I was very impressed with my wife’s English. I had a very bad accent. She said, ‘I cannot hear you. Why won’t you come sit next to me?’ ” he said. “So then we decided to take a walk on the boardwalk, and within three and a half months we were married.”
Samet moved to Pittsburgh, where Barbara was a teacher. He went to work for her family’s business, Irving Schiffman Jewelers in downtown Pittsburgh, eventually becoming the owner and turning the store into an engagement ring center. His wife, Barbara, passed away in 2013. Samet is retired. He has a daughter and two grandchildren.
5. He Says He ‘Loves’ President Trump & His Policies
Samet describes himself as a “Jewish Republican” and says that, although he spent much of his childhood in Israel, his first allegiance is to the United States. Samet is a staunch Trump supporter who says he “loves” the president. “I don’t fall in love with people, except my family, but I love him for what he’s doing,” Samet told the Washington Post. “Our economy is fantastic.” Samet added that he sees Trump as a huge improvement over the last president. “Obama was a jerk and hated Israel,” he said.
Samet told the Tribune-Review that he was “very honored” to be chosen as one of President Trump’s guests at the State of the Union address. “Of course, I am very honored,” Samet said. “(Trump) invited me, I was told, because I represented two of the biggest tragedies for the Jewish people in the last hundred years.”