Holocaust survivor reflects one year after Tree of Life massacre

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Romita Das | Staff Photographer

Shulamit Bastacky, a Pittsburgh resident and Holocaust survivor, spoke in the fourth annual installment of a lecture series featuring Holocaust survivors organized by Alpha Epsilon Pi, one of Pitt’s Jewish fraternities.

By Rebecca Johnson, Staff Writer

Shulamit Bastacky, a Squirrel Hill resident and Holocaust survivor, said she was touched when she saw her photograph on the Cathedral of Learning’s lawn as part of the “Lest We Forget” exhibit on Holocaust survivors — in particular when Chancellor Partick Gallagher noticed her picture.

“I told the Chancellor, ‘Here I am. I survived. I accomplished something academically, professionally, and all those skinheads and neo-Nazis they are the losers, and I am the winner,’” Bastacky said.

Bastacky returned Sunday evening to the William Pitt Union for the fourth annual installment of a Holocaust survivor lecture series organized by Alpha Epsilon Pi, one of Pitt’s Jewish fraternities.

This year’s lecture was Bastacky’s second talk to Pitt students following a visit last year, this time speaking to a crowded Lower Lounge. Noah Rubin, the president of the fraternity, said that they invited Bastacky to return because of her inspirational speech last year and desire to speak again.

“We brought her back from last year because she captivated the audience. People love her story, and they love her message,” Rubin, a senior political science and history double major, said. “She actually asked us if she could come back, and we were more than willing to have her.”

Bastacky was born in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, on Aug. 25, 1941. Bastacky said 1941 was a year of upheaval for the Lithuanian Jewish community — there was a mass execution of Jews and a large relocation to concentration camps that affected many of Bastacky’s relatives.

“70,000 of my fellow Jews were slaughtered execution style — men, women and children. It was absolutely horrible,” Bastacky said. “Many other Jews were taken to the camps, like some of my close relatives. I will speak more on my father’s side than mother’s side. I choose not to speak of her ordeal since she passed away.”

Bastacky, at just a few months old, was rescued by a Polish Roman Catholic nun who hid her in a basement for the first four years of her life.

“I was hidden away in a cellar that isn’t like the ones many of you have in your nice homes. It was damp, dark, and there wasn’t much light. I was isolated, I couldn’t see anything or hear anything,” Bastacky said. “She risked her life, and was the one who provided a bit of human touch. She is an example of one individual who can make a difference.”

When the war was over, Bastacky ended up in a Catholic orphanage. As a result of her isolation, Bastacky said she was left with severe injuries and was unrecognizable. Her parents, who survived the Holocaust after being forced to work at local labor camps, looked for Bastacky and were only able to recognize her because of a birthmark.

“I was in a horrible health condition. I was malnourished, very underweight, deprived of sunlight and psychologically injured. I didn’t even respond to my original name,” Bastacky said. “My father knew that I had a birthmark. He knew what it was and where it was. That’s how he recognized me.”

Bastacky moved to New York City in 1963 and eventually relocated to Squirrel Hill within Pittsburgh, where she learned to speak English and eventually completed high school, as well as undergraduate and graduate degrees at Pitt. Bastacky then pursued a career in social work, before retiring early to spread knowledge about anti-Semitism prevention through speaking engagements.

Bastacky said she believes education, knowledge and love are the easiest ways to prevent anti-Semitism.

“Education is the only way to combat anti-Semitism. Once you are educated you are able to fight with knowledge,” Bastacky said. “Words matter, what we say matters, what we do matters.”

One year after the Tree of Life massacre, the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, Bastacky said education about anti-Semitism is more important than ever.

“It was very painful, it was very difficult as a member of the Pittsburgh Jewish community,” Bastacky said. “The only way to stop it is with education and kindness.”

Claire Finnerty, a junior rehabilitation science major, said Bastacky’s talk showed her the struggles of Holocaust survivors, especially after attending a non-diverse high school.

“I thought it was inspirational to say the least, and it definitely isn’t a common thing you can find very often,” Finnerty said. “This really opened my eyes. Coming from a non-diverse area and moving to Pittsburgh, so many people can share their stories and help the community.”

Finnerty agreed with Bastacky that education is the best approach for preventing anti-Semitism, including the “Lest We Forget” exhibit.

“I went to the exhibit in front of Cathy a couple weeks ago and there were so many specific facts I had never learned about,” Finnerty said. “Education is key to making sure something like the Holocaust never happens again or recognizing the seriousness of the situation.”

Bastacky ended her talk by commenting on other crises happening around the world as well as the current political climate and the responsibility that she believes Jews have in helping those displaced people.

“The state of intolerance and hate is being expressed politically. We can disagree, but we must disagree respectively,” Bastacky said. “We as Jews have a responsibility to help refugees. They are human beings, and this is what happened to us.”

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