Judah Samet was four minutes late to synagogue.
Services at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh start at 9:45 A.M. Samet, who is 80 years old, pulled into a handicapped spot in front of the building on the morning of October 27 at 9:49.
“Somebody knocked on my window,” Samet said the next day. “There was this guy. Very calm and respectful. [He] told me, you better back up, there is an active shooting going on in your synagogue.”
It took Samet sixty seconds to process what the man was saying. Samet was born in Hungary. He turned eight years old at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. He spent five and a half years in an orphanage in Israel. He has been a member of Tree of Life Congregation for fifty-five years.
“My God, my story doesn’t end,” he said.
Samet turned. Standing three feet away from him, on the other side of the car, was a police officer with a pistol drawn. “He was popping his head out from behind a wall and shooting,” Samet said.
Samet looked to see who the police officer was shooting, and saw a man aiming an automatic weapon in his direction. “He was shooting towards the cop, who was about four feet away from me,” Samet said. He saw the men exchange fire.
“I saw smoking coming out of his muzzle,” Samet said. “I was in the line of fire.”
Samet tried to back his car out of the parking lot, but other cars were trying to do the same thing. The attacker wasn’t aiming at him. “None of the bullets hit me or hit my car,” Samet said. “The policeman could kill him.”
Samet knew virtually everyone who the attacker, Robert Bowers, allegedly murdered that day. He was a leading figure at Tree of Life; had been the designated Torah chanter for four decades, and had led morning services for years. Two years ago, he led services at the shiva for synagogue member Joyce Fienberg’s husband. She was shot dead on Saturday morning. “She was a real lady,” Samet said. “She completely dedicated her life to the synagogue since her husband died.”
Samet was friendly with Sylvan and Bernice Simon, the 86 and 84 year old who were murdered together in the synagogue sanctuary. Samet and Sylvan Simon would talk about their time as paratroopers, Samet in the Israeli army and Sylvan in the U.S. army.
Irving Younger, 69, usually stood by the door of the sanctuary, Samet said, and greeted people as they arrived. He would have been the first person the attacker saw when he assaulted the service. Younter was among the dead on Saturday.
Cecil Rosenthal, 59, who was developmentally disabled, also sat near the door. “Everybody loved him,” Samet said. He and his brother, David Rosenthal, were both murdered.
Samet said that Rose Mallinger, who was in her 90’s, would attend the service each week with her daughter. “They sit behind me,” Samet said. “If I was inside the synagogue, I would be in the line of fire.”
More than anything on Sunday, Samet seemed to be going back in his mind to the 1940s, when the Nazis tortured and murdered his family. His father died of typhoid shortly after the war.
“My mother was the interpreter,” he said. “She spoke fluent German. She saved hundreds of Jews.”
The Nazis put Samet’s family on a train to Auschwitz, but Slovakian partisans blew up the railroad line. The Samets ended up in a large lumberyard owned by a man with a large swastika tattooed on his chest, which he would show the family.
“My mother taught us never listen what they have to say,” Samet said. “Look at their hands. Because words cannot kill you.”
On Sunday afternoon, Samet was preparing to travel to a local church to tell the story of his family’s experience in the Holocaust. He said he would likely say something about what he had been through the day before.
Asked what his mother, Rachel Samet, would have said about the massacre he survived on Saturday, Samet said: “It just never ends.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.