Pittsburgh massacre again shakes Holocaust survivors
Magda Brown had just walked out the door, ready to go from O’Hare Airport in Chicago to Pittsburgh.
Brown, a 91-year-old Auschwitz survivor, was to speak Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, at Chatham University -- an engagement organized by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
“Have you seen the news?” her son-in-law asked over the phone, telling Brown that a gunman had killed 11 people inside Tree of Life, a Squirrel Hill synagogue shared by three congregations.
“He informed us what has happened in Pittsburgh and said, ‘Maybe you don’t want to go,’” Brown said.
She didn’t hesitate with her response.
“Now the world needs to hear the story even more. Let’s go. Let’s go,” she said. “I was invited to tell my testimony, and then this killing happened that made my subject matter more important than ever.”
Brown’s story of suffering and survival begins on what would normally be one of the happiest days of a young girl’s life, her 17th birthday. But that day - June 11, 1944 - was when she and her family were rounded up in their hometown of Miskolc, Hungary. Nazis forced them into a crowded cattle car that transported Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a concentration camp. She and her parents were immediately separated upon arrival. She never saw them again.
The mass shooting at Tree of Life -- and the searing hate behind it that the alleged gunman Robert Bowers expressed online and reportedly to police officers as he surrendered -- brings back painful memories for Brown, not just of that day but also the ones leading up to it.
“Now, I am looking back at all the anti-Semitism that was gradually growing back home, all the discrimination that was continuously happening,” Brown said, also describing “little things” that left emotional scars.
“Here, I’m just a teenaged kid at the time and I had a friend who was going to the Catholic school and we used to play and everything else,” Brown said. “Now, that girl became hesitant to converse with me, not that she didn’t like me anymore but (her) neighbor, who could be a bad Nazi, could have reported her and she would have been in trouble.”
Shulamit Bastacky is one of the hidden Jewish children who survived the Holocaust. She spent her first three years of life hiding from Nazis in a Catholic nun’s cellar in Lithuania.
Age 77, Bastacky lives in a modest apartment, where a wall supports a long row of teddy bears that comfort her. One of her neighbors was Melvin Wax, an 87-year-old retired accountant, who was killed inside Tree of Life. Bastacky said the massacre is a symptom of growing anti-Semitism in the United States.
“When the neo-Nazis were screaming hateful things against Jews in Charlottesville, that disturbed me to no end,” she said. “I never imagined that you would be hearing that kind of thing in this country.”
Bastacky said hearing the news of the mass shooting made her physically ill. ”... I couldn’t eat or drink for the whole day, and that’s very unusual for me.”
Unlike fellow Holocaust survivors, 80-year-old Judah Samet - a Hungarian-born survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where his family was sent to die in 1944 - learned of the tragic events at Tree of Life firsthand. He arrived for Sabbath services a few minutes late. As he pulled into a handicapped parking space, gunfire was already being exchanged by the shooting suspect and police. The sounds - “dat, dat, dat, dat, da....dat, dat, dat, dat, da” - brought back painful memories.
“I was flushed with (memories of) the concentration camp. It kind of descended on me,” said Samet. “And I was thinking to myself, ‘It never ends, it never ends for my family.’
“Whoever thought when you come to America, you’re gonna go through the same thing all over again.”
Magda Brown lives in the predominantly Jewish village of Skokie near Chicago’s northern border. She recalls when neo-Nazis attempted to march there in the 1970s and feeling an understandable sense of panic, wondering if what happened in Europe in the years leading up to and during World War II could happen again, only this time in the United States.
“I have the ultimate belief that there are more good people than bad people,” Brown said. “And that there are more people who will keep their eyes open and not follow the brainwashers who are spreading anti-Semitism.”