Toy drive aims to recognize Holocaust survivor‘s work


Lena Barakat

English teacher Dan Shaner poses with Holocaust survivor Shulamit Bastacky.

By Lena Barakat, Baldwin High School - PA

Born during the Holocaust, Shulamit Bastacky was given up to a convent by her parents to guarantee her safety. Seven years later, her parents recognized her in an orphanage by a birthmark on her neck.

Since then, Bastacky has given countless speeches to students in the Pittsburgh area to tell her story and educate them about the Holocaust. Through the work of English teacher Dan Shaner, Harrison Middle School students have been among those to hear her story.

This experience has opened the eyes of many through the years, including senior Griffin Graham. 

“I remember that Shulamit was the first Holocaust survivor I ever met in person,” Graham said. “When we were sitting in Harrison Middle Schools’s auditorium listening to her story, I left a different person, and it sparked a sense of curiosity about the Holocaust and the history of people like her.”

Freshman Kevin Hutchinson also had the opportunity to hear Bastacky’s story. 

“Shulamit was very hospitable and compassionate, which I was surprised by, considering her past trauma,” Hutchinson said. “Her speech and her story taught me the importance of learning about the atrocious events that occurred throughout history so we can prevent them from ever happening again. I’m very privileged to have seen living proof of the Holocaust.”

Recently, Bastacky was diagnosed with cancer. In hopes of bringing some comfort to Bastacky during her battle, Shaner and a group of dedicated students are organizing a teddy bear toy drive in her honor. 

For years, Bastacky has been collecting teddy bears and donating them to the Children’s Hospital and other organizations that help children in need. During her years in hiding, Bastacky didn’t have any toys to play with, so it is important to her that no other children suffer the way she did. 

Not everyone can stand up for themselves, but I can stand up for them with my voice. This is my way of leaving the world a better place.”

— Dan Shaner

“All of the toys we collect will go straight to Toys for Tots and the Children’s Hospital in Bastacky’s name,” Shaner said. “We will be sending out all of the donations before Christmas.”

In addition to the toy drive, Shaner has plans to make a video with students who have met Bastacky in which they will send their best wishes to her and thank her for her impact on students in the district. 

Shaner is also pushing for the Baldwin-Whitehall School District to proclaim “Shulamit Bastacky Day” to give thanks for everything she has done for the community. 

Senior Zane Wooddell, who was touched by Bastacky’s speech in middle school, said this project is an important one. 

“I think it is important to remember Shulamit’s legacy and encourage the spread of kindness,” Wooddell said. “Just as my dad always says, kindness doesn’t cost you anything.”

Hutchinson also finds it important to spread kindness. 

“I’ve witnessed my neighbor being victimized for their sexuality and I’ve heard countless stories of people being terrorized for things they simply can’t change about themselves,” Hutchinson said. “Witnessing things like this firsthand is disheartening and it makes me feel motivated to help with everything Mr. Shaner is organizing.” 

Through spreading Holocaust awareness and honoring Bastacky’s story, Shaner hopes to inspire change. 

“If you look at the world today, there is so much hate, injustice and inequality,” Shaner said. “I don’t have much time left. I need to leave the world safer for my grandchildren and the hundreds of students I have taught throughout my career. Not everyone can stand up for themselves, but I can stand up for them with my voice. This is my way of leaving the world a better place.”

This story was originally published on Purbalite on October 27, 2020.