By Kelly Haugh
UPPER BURRELL, Pa. – Two local Holocaust survivors brought their stories to Penn State New Kensington April 13 for the school’s 15th annual “Holocaust, In Remembrance” program.
Shulamit Bastacky, from Pittsburgh, and Sam Weinreb, of White Oak, spoke to a packed conference center of about 100 students, faculty and community members, sharing their personal stories of the atrocities suffered during the Holocaust, and answering questions from the audience.
The annual event, which commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day, was put together by Dr. Lois Rubin, associate professor of English, to help educate students and the community.
“I continue to bring survivors because I think we still need to be mindful of the terrible consequences of hatred and prejudice,” she said before she introduced the survivors. “Every year when I make this introduction, there is some new incident of man’s inhumanity to man taking place in the world. … Clearly, we still need to learn the lesson of valuing the humanity of others, especially those who are different from us.”
Bastacky, who was the first survivor to speak, spent the first few years of her life in the cellar of a Roman Catholic nun, hiding from the Nazis who had seized her hometown, Vilna, Poland, exactly two months before she was born.
“Because I was born Jewish, my sentence was death,” she told the rapt audience as she explained why her parents were forced to send their young daughter into hiding a few months after she was born.
“Seventy thousand Jews from my area, including mothers and children, were simply executed – I cannot use socially correct word – executed, murdered for no other reason, as a result of all this horrendous degree of hate. Because Jews were not considered as human beings according to the Nazi ideology and policy.”
She described the conditions she was kept in as “simply outright misery, deprivation of everything possible.” There wasn’t much light or much food and, since she was separated from her parents, she was forced to go without the important nurturing all infants receive. Due to growing up in such conditions, Bastacky remembered being scared of things like telephones ringing and noisy toys.
“I would react the way a younger child would react because I was deprived of all the stimulation of sounds I didn’t have,” she said. Despite all she was forced to endure in her early years of life, Bastacky said she was “lucky.” She managed to avoid falling into Nazi hands and was one of the lucky “hidden children” whose father was able to find her after the war. She was reunited with both of her parents, who survived their time in local labor camps, but said she still lost many relatives.
“I will never have a memory, a visual memory, of some of my relatives,” she said. “I don’t have any items that belonged to them. I don’t have any pictures. I can’t even visualize what they look like. So all of you who have parents, grandparents, appreciate what you have. Value what you have, because I have no idea who they [my relatives] were.”
In 1963, Bastacky and her family immigrated to Pittsburgh, where she continued her education and received a master’s degree in social work from Pitt. She stressed to students the importance of education, saying, “they can always take your house, your car, your apartment. Not your diploma. It’s yours for the rest of your life.”
That belief in education is part of the reason she came to speak at PSNK. She said a student once asked what her revenge for the Holocaust was: “I put it in three words. Education, education, education.”
She said the reason she travels to different schools to share her story is to “honor the memory of those for whom there is no one to speak,” and she also strives to teach people the horrific result of hate.
“I encourage young people or adults not to hate because it takes energy to hate,” she said. “We should use the same energy we have to do something good and reach out to wonderful people.
“If you reach out you realize how human we all are … there are some differences but there are similarities, and the key is to appreciate the dignity and humanity in all of us.”
The importance of understanding that lesson was driven home by the story of the event’s other speaker, Sam Weinreb. Although his experience was different than Bastacky’s, the themes remained the same. His story simultaneously showcases the best and worst of humanity, with the people who risked their own lives to help him standing out in a sharp contrast to the shocking brutality of the Nazis.
Weinreb, a native of Czechoslovakia, was just a few weeks shy of 13 when he came home one evening to find his house locked and his parents, two brothers, and six-year-old sister gone.
“That afternoon was the last time I ever saw or spoke to any member of my family,” he said.
A neighbor told him they’d been taken away, along with many other people on that street. The neighbor put him in touch with people who could help smuggle him into Hungary, where it was supposed to be safer. He made the long, difficult journey safely and was able to locate his uncle in Budapest. After a few weeks, a neighbor reported his uncle to the police for “hiding a foreigner,” so Weinreb was shuffled to a distant relative’s house.
Only a few weeks later, the police were tipped off once again and Weinreb was forced to flee. He took the first streetcar into the city without any money for food or any idea what to do. He tried to find work, offering to clean restaurants or do dishes for a little bit of food, but no one would hire him.
For the next five to six months, Weinreb lived on the streets of Budapest and spent his days struggling to find food.
“On the days I could not get any food anywhere, I usually checked garbage cans behind restaurants,” he told students. “Can you just imagine what it is like to be only 13 years old and not having a home to go to? Not knowing where you’ll sleep each night. Not knowing where you will get your food each day. Not being able to speak the language of the country that you are in and be in constant fear.”
Living like that, “if you can call that living,” eventually drove him to turn himself in to the police.
“I thought, what could they possibly do to a 13-year-old kid whose only crime was he was born Jewish?” he asked. “How wrong I was to think that way.” Weinreb told police his story and asked to be allowed to stay with his grandparents, who lived in a small town in Hungary.
“I don’t believe I finished that last sentence when I was slapped in my face by one of those officers and told, ‘there’s only one place you’re going to and that is straight to prison,” he said. Without so much as a hearing, he would spend the next two years in prison before finally being released into his grandparents’ custody.
Only a few months later, the Nazis overtook the area. Weinreb and his grandparents were rounded up with all the other Jews and sent by train to Auschwitz.
“I find it extremely difficult to properly describe to you the terrible conditions while we were on that trip,” Weinreb said. “The trip did take about 3 days or so. We had about 60 to 65 people in each cattle car. While on that trip, we received no food or water. We had no bathroom and toilet facilities on that train. We had people on that train who absolutely never stopped crying, others who were praying constantly. We had children – little children, babies – who were screaming and crying all the time.”
When they arrived at Auschwitz, they were divided into two groups. The group on the right, which consisted mostly of the elderly and women with young children, “were all given a towel and a bar of soap and were told that they would shower and clean up,” Weinreb said, “When they got to the place where they were to shower, doors were locked on them and gas instead of water came out of those showers.” Those sent to the left, including Weinreb, ended up in German work camps.
“I was given a number which was tattooed on my arm, and I was told that I would no longer need to remember my name,” Weinreb said. He was also told as part of the “welcome” speech that those who didn’t work or were too weak would be sent to the gas chambers.
Weinreb said he was assigned mostly construction jobs but “also worked in a coal mine where I was too weak to lift the empty shovel, let alone a shovel with coal on it. I suppose I was fortunate that the person on each side of me was stronger and was able to load coal into those cable cars, and the guards did not notice that I was not able to do that.”
Somehow, Weinreb survived on the meager rations they were given each day. Shortly before the war ended, his group of over 5,000 prisoners was put on a “death march” to another camp. After two days of marching, he estimates only around 400 people were still alive.
“Anyone who could not walk, for whatever reason, was shot and left behind,” Weinreb said. “I knew I would not be able to go on much longer, so I decided that I was going to run out of that line and try to escape. I knew my chances of succeeding were very, very slim, but at that point it really didn’t matter.” He made his break at night.
“To this day, I have no idea how far and how long I ran,” he said. Russian troops found him lying on the ground unconscious and took him to a Russian military hospital. He weighed only 80 pounds at the time and had to be nursed back to health before the Russians deemed him strong enough to return home. Sadly, there was no joyous homecoming awaiting him.
“I cannot begin to tell you how devastated I was when I found out that no one in my family survived,” Weinreb said. “Throughout all that time, the only thing that kept me going – and I’m certain it was the only thing – was the hope that, if I do survive, I will be again with my family. Unfortunately, that did not happen.”
Weinreb’s story clearly struck a chord with everyone in attendance, as did Bastacky’s. PSNK junior Mark Messina called the experience “moving” and said, “It’s amazing to hear stories like that. No two stories are the same and it’s truly a thing that’s dying. There’s a lot of Holocaust survivors that are dying and it’s really, really important that people hear these stories.”
Both survivors’ stories can be found in the book “Flares of Memory,” which includes 92 stories from survivors in the Pittsburgh area. A copy of the book is available in the PSNK library.