American Chaplain Rabbi Hershel Schaecter leading the Shavuot prayer service for survivors
American Chaplain Rabbi Hershel Schaecter leading the Shavuot prayer service for survivors in the Buchenwald camp Germany, May 18, 1945. Photo by Public domain
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David Shechter
German students participating in a memorial service at Buchenwald during the student conference held by the Jewish Agency in 2010. Photo by David Shechter

Rabbi Herschel Schacter, a Jewish chaplain in the U.S. army who in 1945 raced through the Buchenwald concentration camp to announce that prisoners were free, has died in New York at the age of 95, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.

Schacter was the first Jewish chaplain to arrive in the Nazi death camp Buchenwald with the American army, and held services for the survivors to provide comfort in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust.

Known for his role in the liberation, Schacter went on to become an influential Modern Orthodox Jewish leader in the U.S. Schacter died last Thursday.

Speaking at a conference organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, Schacter once recalled the April afternoon when he first drove through the gates of the Buchenwald concentration camp. His first sight fell on the crematories from which the smoke of burning bodies was still rising.

"As long as I shall live, I will never, never forget that gruesome scene that is indelibly engraved upon my heart and my mind," Schacter said. "There simply are no words in the human vocabulary." When Schacter asked a lieutenant if there were any Jews still alive, he was led to a smaller camp within the enclosure finding hundreds of men crammed in run-down barracks.

"And there I stood and shouted in Yiddish, 'Sholem Aleychem, Yiden, yir zent frey!'" Schacter said, which means "Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!" "The more brave among them slowly began to approach me to touch my Army uniform, to examine the Jewish chaplain's insignia, incredulously asking me again and again, 'Is it true? Is it over?'" he said.

For the next two months, Schacter spent every day in Buchenwald ministering to the survivors. "As I saw these men - brothers, flesh of my flesh, and blood of my blood - I could not help but think of the old clichi, 'There but for the grace of God go I,'" Schacter said. Referring to his birth in New York in October 1917 to immigrant parents from Poland, he added: "If my own father had not caught the boat on time, I would have been there."