Pitt remembers Holocaust survivor, alumna Shulamit Bastacky


TPN File Photo

Holocaust survivor and educator Shulamit Bastacky passed away Jan. 1, at the age of 79, after battling cancer.

By Millicent Watt, Staff Writer

Teddy bears are a common gift for any age or event, but for the Pitt community, teddy bears represent Holocaust survivor and educator Shulamit Bastacky, and her overwhelming kindness and passion to help others.

Alex Cohen — family and alumni relations chair of Alpha Epsilon Pi, one of Pitt’s Jewish Greek organizations — had grown close to Bastacky over the past five years. Cohen said Bastacky always loved teddy bears and would collect them to donate to children in need.

“One of her biggest things was that she loved teddy bears. But she never had one growing up, so what she would do is if there was a kid in a tough situation, she would give the kid a teddy bear,” Cohen, a junior history and secondary education double major, said. “The older she got, people tended to give her teddy bears after she spoke and she donated those teddy bears to kids in need.”

Bastacky passed away Jan. 1, at the age of 79, after battling cancer. She graduated with a bachelor’s in social science and master’s degree in social work, and resided in Squirrel Hill for most of her life.   

Bastacky was born during World War II in Vilnius, Lithuania — then Poland — on Aug. 25, 1941. A few weeks after she was born, Bastacky was taken in, hidden and cared for in a basement by a Catholic nun. After the war ended in 1945, Bastacky was recognized by her father in a Catholic orphanage because of a distinctive birthmark, and she was reunited with her family.

She remained in Poland until her late teens, then moved to Israel with her family, where she served in the army. In her mid-20s, she moved to Pittsburgh. She resided in Squirrel Hill for about 50 years, where she learned English, received her GED and graduated twice from Pitt.

Devin Cecere, development associate for alumni engagement at Pitt’s School of Social Work, said Bastacky’s life reflects the School’s own values.

“The University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work is proud to call Shulamit Bastacky an alumna,” Cecere said. “Her extraordinary life, overcoming such tragedy, and giving back so much to the community, reflects our core social work values.”

Bastacky worked as a social worker, and because of her childhood, had a passion for helping children in need. After retiring from social work, Bastacky focused on sharing her story and educating others about the Holocaust. She frequently spoke at events around Pittsburgh, including at local schools, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and at Alpha Epsilon Pi’s events. She was also featured at the “Lest We Forget” exhibit on the Cathedral of Learning’s lawn in 2019.

According to Cohen, an important aspect of Alpha Epsilon Pi is Holocaust remembrance, and Bastacky was invited to speak twice for the fraternity’s Holocaust speaker series. Cohen said the organization invited Bastacky twice because of her talent and passion for speaking to college students.

“She’s just fantastic when it comes to engaging with college students because that’s what she really enjoys doing,” Cohen said. “For us, she’s always the obvious choice because one, we love her. We did love her, and the other was that she just genuinely was very good at what she did.”

Noah Rubin, a past president of Alpha Epsilon Pi and 2020 Pitt alumnus, said Bastacky was able to use her experience and the Holocaust to emphasize the importance of education and kindness.

“She chose to be somebody who wanted to give back and wanted to say ‘this atrocity happened, but I can make it better by educating, and by being there for others,’” Rubin said.

Cohen also said Bastacky shared her story to prevent hatred and fight against anti-Semitism.

“For her, Holocaust education extends beyond just talking about what happened, and who died,” Cohen said. “For her, talking about it really exposed hatred, and how education is a cornerstone in preventing it from happening again.”

Cohen added that Bastacky enjoyed speaking to both Jewish and non-Jewish students, and seeing the support from the entire Pittsburgh community.

“When it came to speaking to college students especially, she really enjoyed that because she likes seeing, for one, Jewish students continue to honor the memory of our ancestors, but also it made her very excited when she saw non-Jewish students there,” Cohen said. “She would always say ‘it’s one thing for the Jewish people to advocate for their own safety, it’s another when we have allies who make it known that they care.’”

Rubin, who was very involved in his community and synagogue, said he met someone his first year at Pitt who was Jewish, but had never met another Jewish person before. Rubin said it’s important to have events for Jewish students because hearing Bastacky speak gave him a sense of community.

“To meet somebody in my freshman year, who had never met a Jew before, just because where he was from and kind of that was just his lived experience, to going and being able to host an event where literally hundreds of Pitt students came at heard from a Holocaust survivor,” Rubin said. “I mean it doesn’t get more full circle than that.”

Cohen said Bastacky’s accomplishments are not limited to educating others on the Holocaust, but also being a social worker and Pitt aluma.

“An important aspect of her story that not enough people can credit for is what she did as a social worker, beyond grants in the Holocaust and surviving,” Cohen said. “She did a lot in the Pittsburgh community. And she is a Panther. She’s a graduate of this school, she embodies the values that we all strive to be as a Panther, and I wish people would just recognize that she was an extraordinary individual.”

Rubin said he finds comfort knowing that she has touched so many lives with her story and kindness.

“I take solace in the fact that even though I know that she is gone, because of all the students she talked to and because of all the lives that she touched,” Rubin said. “I mean, the fact that we’re talking about her right now, I know that her message is going to live on and I take a lot of comfort in that personally.”