Holocaust survivor’s story emphasizes themes of respect, tolerance in today’s world

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Even though her experience took place 70 years ago, Holocaust survivor Shulamit Bastacky’s message to youngsters and others isn’t unlike that of anti-bullying campaigns today.

Don’t be a victim. Don’t be a victimizer. Stand up for what’s right. And be respectful of other people and their differences.

“The only way to fight ignorance and intolerance is to open your eyes and heart and be educated,” Bastacky said April 24 during an event at Punxsutawney Area Middle School in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was April 19. “It is important to be respectful of people’s differences.”

“I emphasize tolerance,” she said. “If there is a situation, do not be a bystander. If you cannot control it, do not stand by and do nothing; go to a teacher.”

In her native Lithuania, Bastacky was already a victim at birth, because she was Jewish, and Adolf Hitler’s Nazis were well on their mission to eradicate Europe of her people.

But Bastacky had someone who was not a victim, not a victimizer and not a bystander. It was a Polish Catholic nun, who cared for the young girl hidden in the basement of a home in Vilna, Lithuania.

The basement was Bastacky’s safe place for the next three years, until the city was liberated by the Russian Army in 1945.

After rehabilitation years later, growth into adulthood and her own career and history, Bastacky shed her victim status and never became a bystander, instead sharing her experience with others as a means to educate them about the Holocaust.

The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh — for which Bastacky has volunteered since 1985 — defines the event as “the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews, including 1.5 million Jewish children in Europe, by the Nazi regime and its collaborators that took place between 1933-1945.”

“I tell my life story and answer any questions, if I have the answers,” Bastacky said.

• • •

Speaking with the students at PAMS, Bastacky first asked what the word “holocaust” meant to you? Some answers included war between two different groups of people, of “something that should have never happened.”

“To me, the Holocaust was the most horrific period in human history,” when in the 1930s, Adolf Hitler was successful in “brainwashing a whole people into taking part in a horrific event,” Bastacky said.

The Holocaust, she said, began as an experiment, the outward discrimination against Jews, who could not attend schools, teach, shop or operate businesses in certain places.

Sept 1, 1939, almost two years before her birth, was “the beginning of everything; the first beginning of the misery:” When Germany invaded Poland, igniting the start of World War II.

In the simplest terms, Bastacky said “The ultimate plan: The total annihilation of every single Jew on the planet, starting with Europe.”

Bastacky was born Aug. 25, 1941, in Vilna, Lithuania. By the end of that summer, however, more than 70,000 Jews had been murdered by the Nazis, who formed special execution squads to barbarically kill their victims, whom they also forced to dig their own mass graves.

“They would round people up from their homes and truck them to a location” for execution, she said.

Many times, Bastacky said she has asked herself, “Why did I survive, and they didn’t?”

• • •

“It was dark; there was not much light,” Bastacky said about her life in the basement in Vilna. “I had none of it.”

Because she was so young, Bastacky doesn’t remember much of that time. The nun brought her food and comfort, but what else, Bastacky doesn’t recall.

About the nun, she said, “She was the only person who gave me a bit of human touch. I was just barely alive. The only touch was from this Polish, Catholic nun.”

From what she has learned over the years, no one else knew she was in the cellar.

“I was too young, and it was too risky,” Bastacky said. “The less you knew, the more secure it was.”

When asked by a student if the Nazis ever searched the house, Bastacky replied, “Oh, I’m sure. They were searching all over.”

After Vilna was liberated by the Russians, the nun placed the young Bastacky on the bank of a river, where a Lithuanian man found her and placed her in a Catholic orphanage and gave her a Lithuanian name.

The toll of her hiding over the years was apparent. The slightest noise, such as a telephone ringing, caused her to panic.

Just by luck, she said, her father found her in the orphanage — “That’s where he found me,” she said.

But after years of being alone — except for the little contact she had with the nun — being malnourished over the years and with her young age, Bastacky did not know that the man was her father. She did not respond to her birth name, either.

“If I had not been found, I would have become a different person, not the one I was born as,” she said.

Fortunately, her father knew how to find out that this sick little girl was his daughter.

“My father knew I had a birthmark, and that’s how he knew it was me,” Bastacky said.

Her family then moved to central Poland, where the young Bastacky was physically and emotionally rehabilitated. She received treatments for her long period of sun deprivation, and slowly, she began a long road to becoming a normal child.

After World War II, Bastacky was not the only member who had to re-learn a normal life.

“My parents had to learn to be parents again; how to be humans again,” she said. “Children had to learn how to relate to their parents again, and parents, how to relate to their children.”

Her parents, who survived the war, spoke only sparingly about their ordeal and only sparingly about her ordeal.

It’s something that Bastacky has chosen to leave alone all these years later.

“I probably do remember some things, but it’s so painful, and I kind of block it out,” Bastacky said. “What would I do with it? Open it all up? I decided to leave what I don’t know alone.”

• • •

Years later, at 17, Bastacky moved to Israel, where she served in the army for five years. Her family had settled in the United States, and in December 1963, Bastacky moved to Pittsbugh’s Squirrel Hill, where she lives today.

Her life as a new citizen in a new country would also come with its challenges: “‘Yes,’ ‘No’ and ‘OK.’ That was the extent of my English vocabulary,” she said.

Even then, Bastacky said she knew what one’s greatest asset could be: “Education, education, education,” she said. “I understood how important college was. Education is yours forever. You cannot sell it.”

Upon coming to the United States, Bastacky worked during the day and attended night school to earn her high school diploma. She later earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the University of Pittsburgh.

After working in a Jewish nursing home, then retiring, she began volunteering with the Holocaust Center, part of the United Jewish Foundation, in Squirrel Hill.

“At first, I became involved just basically to meet people, but then the center celebrated its 30th year of existence,” she said “That’s where we have our core of survivors.”

These days, there are about five of us. Four survivors passed away between March and April.

“I’m afraid by the end of the year, we might lose some more,” she said. “There’s not much anyone can do about that.”

Of this group, Bastacky is the youngest.

• • •

As a child, Bastacky was not afforded routine meals, human contact or love, because her life was in jeopardy. She wasn’t afforded common delights that normal children have, such as playtime or toys.

Sharing this sentiment with a group of students at a Fox Chapel middle school began Bastacky’s teddy bear story.

“When I was little, I didn’t have any toys or teddy bears to hug or to have,” she told the Fox Chapel students. “When I was upset, I didn’t have a favorite toy or animal to give me some comfort.”

At age 22, Bastacky bought herself her own teddy bear from a store on Forbes Avenue.

After the event in Fox Chapel, Bastacky received a call from a teacher at the school, who said she had a gift bag for her. Inside the bag were 18 teddy bears, a special number, Bastacky said, because the number 18, when applied to Hebrew symbols, is the word for life.

Today, students — such as those at Punxsutawney Area Middle School — still bring her teddy bears. Over the years, Bastacky estimates she collected about 5,000 teddy bears, which she gives to others, such as victims of abuse, nursing home patients, anyone in need of comfort.

“It’s about giving up something that you already have, and a symbol of friendship,” she said.

“I emphasize tolerance,” she said. “If there is a situation, do not be a bystander. If you cannot control it, do not stand by and do nothing, go to a teacher.

“There is a very famous Hebrew quotation,” Bastacky said. “We can connect it to bullying: ‘If you have done something to save life, then you save the world.’”