The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump mentioned two Holocaust survivors during the State of the Union — including one who also survived the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

A survivor of the Holocaust and the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Judah Samet, attended President Trump's 2019 State of the Union Feb. 5. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

President Trump during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address introduced two Holocaust survivors, including a man who escaped death again this past fall — narrowly — at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Judah Samet, whose 81st birthday was Tuesday, was four minutes late for worship one Saturday in October, missing one of the deadliest attacks ever on American Jews.

The crowd in Congress serenaded Samet with “Happy Birthday” after Trump had introduced him Tuesday.

“Of course, I am very honored,” Samet on Monday told the Tribune-Review of the congressional appearance. “[Trump] invited me, I was told, because I represented two of the biggest tragedies for the Jewish people in the last hundred years.”

Joshua Kaufman, who is about 90, was a prisoner at Dachau concentration camp, the White House said. Kaufman, who lived in Israel before moving to Los Angeles, where he was a plumber, testified in Germany about the Nazis in 2016, ABC reported, because he wanted to communicate “how he removed bodies from gas chambers at the World War II death camp after victims had been killed with Zyklon B,” according to the television network.

The emphasis on the two men, and other comments about Israel and Iran, were presented to showcase what some Jews see as the president’s concern about anti-Semitism and Jewish survival. The vast majority of U.S. Jews — who lean Democratic — tell pollsters they disapprove of Trump’s policies on topics including immigration, taxes and health care.

Following Trump’s speech, the refugee resettlement agency singled out by the Pittsburgh shooter issued a statement rebuking the president’s policies.

“Stories of Holocaust survivors are reminders that we should welcome the stranger and protect the refugee. Making the U.S. great means upholding our commitment to international law and asylum seekers. Blocking people from applying at ports of entry and forcing asylum seekers at our southern border to remain in Mexico to await their hearing is illegal, dangerous and unprecedented in American history," said Melanie Nezer, a spokesperson for HIAS, a Jewish organization that resettles refugees.

Samet escaped death more than 70 years ago in Germany’s Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. As estimated 50,000 people, including the child diarist Anne Frank, died in the camp, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Before the camp was liberated by the British forces in April 1945, Samet’s family boarded a train, along with about 2,500 others, intended for Theresienstadt concentration camp but liberated by American troops before it reached its destination. His family was from Hungary.

“I’m basically a very strong person, and I went through a lot, but nothing, nothing ever defeated me,” Samet said, The Washington Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker reported in October. “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.”

Samet has been a member of the Conservative congregation for 54 years, he said. For four decades, he was a part-time cantor, chanting prayers and helping to lead worship.

On the Saturday morning of the shooting, he did what he always does on the Sabbath — he went to the synagogue. Services start at 9:45 a.m. Yet that morning, Samet was delayed.

“I was talking to my housekeeper here; she comes once a week,” he said in a phone conversation from his condominium, where he lives alone. He needs only a few minutes to drive the leafy streets to his synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the nucleus of Jewish Pittsburgh. “I was four minutes late. Instead of 9:45, I got there about 9:49, maybe 9:50.”

Those four minutes may have saved his life, Stanley-Becker reported.

He entered the parking lot and was pulling into a handicapped spot when someone knocked on his window. A man dressed in black advised him to back out carefully.

“He said there was an active shooting going on inside the synagogue,” Samet recalled then.

Having lived through the Holocaust, he said, “It’s almost like, ‘Here we go again.' We’re now more than 70 years away from it, and here it happens all over again.”

Trump also honored the visit Tuesday of Timothy Matson, a Pittsburgh police officer who suffered multiple gunshot wounds while responding to the shooting.

Kaufman told the History Channel that he remembers American soldiers liberating the camp in 1945. He was cooped in a cattle wagon outside the camp, not knowing if he was going to be killed at any minute.

“Through a little hole in the wall I saw American soldiers coming with their tanks and I saw the German running away. To me, the American soldiers were a proof that God exists and they were sent down from the sky," he said to History.

On Tuesday, Kaufman carefully stood and saluted an elderly American veteran beside him who had been involved in the Dachau liberation.

Some of the president’s supporters see him as a champion for Jewish safety through his policies supporting the Israeli government and his forceful critique of certain governments, including Iran.

“We will not avert our eyes from a regime that chants “Death to America” and threatens genocide against the Jewish people,” Trump said Tuesday night. He also drew some applause when he said he had “recognized the true capital [of Israel] and proudly recognized the embassy in Jerusalem.”

The president’s Jewish critics, however, believe his hesitance to speak out on white nationalism has led to a surge in hate crimes against religious minorities.

This story has been updated.