‘Words can injure’ says Holocaust survivor

Thursday, June 6, 2019 | 6:00 AM

Shulamit Bastacky spent the majority of her first four years hidden in a dark cellar.

She was deprived of basic things a child needs to thrive, including nourishment, nurturing from family and stimulation.

“What did I do? I was born Jewish, so I was not supposed to be alive,” Bastacky, 77, of Squirrel Hill, told the crowd of about 60 people gathered at United Presbyterian Church of Ambridge on June 2 for the Peace is a Community project.

Bastacky shared her story of survival from the holocaust and encouraged others to speak out against hate.

“Speak up, because words are what led to killing in Nazi time, words can injure, words can lead to killing, but words can heal,” she said. “What we say matters. Do we have to agree on everything? No, we don’t. But we have to have dignity and respect for each other’s differences.”

Leaders from United Presbyterian, New Hope Lutheran and Beth Samuel Jewish Center, who formed a partnership for the program, all shared messages through song or word on the importance of building bridges and coming together in peace.

“Bringing the message of love, that’s what we’re about,” said Pastor Beth Wierman of United Presbyterian.

Following the murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill last October, Sewickley-based nonpartisan group Welcoming Everyone hosted a program in January that brought together a large number of religious leaders from across the area, said Barbara Wilson, director of programming and operations with Beth Samuel.

Relationships between religious leaders were formed and they’re finding new ways to come together, like Beth Samuel Cantor Rena Shapiro leading a Jewish seder at New Hope Lutheran.

At the January event, representatives from The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh were seated at the table with Wierman and New Hope Pastor Martin Galbraith.

They connected to spread a message of acceptance.

Peace is a Community was meant to show that “we are so much more alike than we are different,” Wilson said.

For Bastacky, spreading the message against hate is important.

“Regretfully, we live in a hateful world today, so we need gatherings like this to learn to respect each others traditions and religions and beliefs,” she said.

Bastacky was born in what is currently Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

There was a “wonderful Jewish community,” she said. “But 70,000 of those were wiped out…. 70,000 of my fellow Jews — men, women and children — slaughtered execution style.”

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

“She really risked her life,” Bastacky said.

When the war was over, Bastacky ended up in the Lithuanian Catholic Orphanage.

Her parents survived the Holocaust and her father went to the orphanage searching for her.

She was in such bad shape, the only way he could recognize her was a birthmark. But Bastacky survived, and by 1959, moved to Israel, then in 1963, moved to the United States.

She has been sharing her story, mostly with school children as young as third and fourth grade, since 1985. At each speaking event, she collects teddy bears to donate to various organizations.

“I feel that one person can make a difference,” she said.

Bastacky hasn’t found a way to forgive what happened, but she doesn’t hate. She said she’s shocked by events like the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.

“It’s something that should not have taken place,” she said. “It was sheer, utter hate.”

That’s why programs like Peace is a Community are important, organizers say.

“In a world where we think this kind of thing won’t happen, it continues to happen,” Wierman said. “This is, for me, it’s our way of saying, ‘No more, not here, not in our neighborhood.’”

Many times, people point to religion to justify hateful acts, “which is very much against our understanding of our faith,” Galbraith said. “So we have to offer a different voice…. We will offer something different, something better.”