Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hillel Schaechter, 1923-2010

Hillel Schaechter died last week in Jerusalem. He was born in Leipzig, and some parts of Leipzig never left him. All the years - 14, I think - in which I was his boss at Yad Vashem, he always insisted on calling me Dr. Lozowick. I had a staff of 150, most of them younger than I, and everyone called me Yaacov. But not Hillel Schaechter. He would come into my office sometimes, "Dr. Lozowick, I know you're busy, but I'd really like to tell you about the files I'm working on right now". But I'm running ahead with the story.

He was 15 when Kristalnacht happened, in November 1938. He was a German citizen, but his parents were Poles, so the event was doubly terrifying: All Jews were being attacked and their property assaulted or stolen, but the Polish Jews were being deported. His parents hid on the grounds of a consulate, if I remember the story he told me. Each year on November 9th he'd come around and remind me of those traumatic few days, to ensure we didn't forget, nor overlook it because of the worse events that followed.

He had been lucky not to have seen what followed. In August 1939 he bade farewell to his parents, and boarded a train that took him to a camp that sent him to a ship that took him to Haifa in Mandatory Palestine. He was 16 when he arrived; if I've go the story right, he had an older sister who was here already, somewhere. (She's still alive, deep in her 90s).

He was sent to a religious kibbutz in Gush Etzion, thirty years before Jewish settlement there was defined as being illegal by international law. Later he was transferred to a different kibbutz,where he worked as his parents and entire family were murdered in Europe. After that war, and then after the one in Israel, he met and married. He and his wife had four children, and they lived in Kfar Haroeh, where he spent his career dealing with administration, and logistics, and accounting, and what's now called human resources; in the 1967 war he was still fighting in the reserves.

Then it was time to retire. He and his wife moved to Jerusalem; soon thereafter she fell ill and died. It was about then that he came to Yad Vashem, where the archives made use of his ability to read German handwriting, and especially the Gothic handwriting that has long since been disused so younger Germans cannot decipher it.

He had been an administrator, not a historian or archivist. Yet the documents he was dealing with were from the world he'd been born into; the descriptions were from his world. Many times he'd come by to tell me how important it was that the latter generations be told about the things he was finding on those files: irrational antisemitism of the Nazis; hopeless attempts by Jews to extricate themselves. It was almost as if, on the smallest of scales, his efforts were directed at fixing what could never be fixed.

One morning five or six years ago he came to work with a platter of cakes and invited us to celebrate with him: his eighth great grandchild had just been born, and he did the arithmetic for us: "I lost 36 members of my family in the Shoah, but I'm almost there again", he told us, counting his children grandchildren and great grandchildren. "That's my revenge on the Nazis, all those descendants".

This morning I went to visit his children as they sit shiva in his son's home, about two miles from the first kibbutz he stayed in, in 1939. "He lived to see 41 grandchildren and great grandchildren", his oldest daughter said, "he had a full professional career and then a second one at Yad Vashem. Yet throughout it all, he was always that frightened 16-year-old, taking leave of his parents forever at the train station in Leipzig".

He was a good man.


Laura Beck (Laura SF) said...

That's beautiful. Thank you for sharing, and for keeping his memory alive.

May his memory be for a blessing, and may his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.


Anonymous said...

Ditto everything Laura wrote.

The people who survived Nazi Europe are such treasures.


Anonymous said...

Ditto to the comments above and many thanks to Yaacov for posting this. It makes me think of my father z''l, who was about a year older and also left Europe in 1939, for the United States in his case. He often referred to himself and his friends with similar backgrounds as "fugees", short for refugees. Just a few of them left now.

David E. Sigeti

Anonymous said...

when I worked in personnel in the 70s I saw many US-passports telling the story of escape and I could never stop to marvel at how infallibly polite and even friendly and helpful (improving my English) these people were to me


Jewish Ideas Daily said...

Thanks for making us feel as if we knew this special man.