Kareem and chief rabbi talk of Buchenwald heroes

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JERUSALEM — Thursday the rabbi met a basketball legend.

Former L.A. Lakers basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, met last week, linked by their connection to Buchenwald.

As a child, Lau survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, which a black family friend of Abdul-Jabbar's had helped liberate. The friend, Leonard Smith of New York, could not make the trip but had urged Abdul-Jabbar to try to see the rabbi.

"He told me, if you ever get to Israel, we have friends there you should see," Abdul-Jabbar told reporters.

Lau told Abdul-Jabbar that he was almost 8 years old when the camp was liberated, and that he remembered black troops among those forces.

"The first black face I saw in my life was in the broken gates of Buchenwald," Lau told him.

The chief rabbi added that during the 1991 Crown Heights riots in New York, he had urged unity among the blacks and Jews.

"Just as they united in a time of war, they should be able to do so during times of peace," he said, adding, "It's time to forget all the differences and hold our hands together."

Abdul-Jabbar said he had learned much about the role of African-Americans in the liberation from the stories his father's friend told him, and he urged greater awareness of this episode.

"It's fading from sight," he said.

Lau noted that there will be a reunion of survivors from Buchenwald and liberators in Washington in the beginning of September, and he invited Abdul-Jabbar to come, along with his father and family friend.

Abdul-Jabbar, who retired from the NBA in 1989, was also taking part in a streetball competition sponsored by the Jerusalem municipality.

A convert to Islam, he said he planned to pray at a local mosque.