Alter Wiener's life story lets students touch history
Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener made his purpose clear to Mountain View Middle School students last week: 'I'm not going to entertain you,' he said. 'I'm just going to tell you my life story.'
For the next 1½ hours, the Hillsboro resident did just that -- talk about his early life growing up in Poland, the execution of his father and deaths of family members at the hands of the Nazis, and the long years he spent in five forced labor camps for Jews.
By the time the war ended, he would lose 123 members of his extended family.
A long-time New York resident, it wasn't until he moved to Oregon that he began talking about his experience after meeting a Holocaust survivor who urged him to join the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center.
While his March 19 appearance in front of Mountain View eighth-graders marked the 400th time he's discussed life in his formative years, he still finds it a difficult subject to talk about more than 60 years after the war's end.
'It is not easy for me physically (or) emotionally,' he said. 'I'm 82 years old.'
What encourages him to continue speaking about his experiences in a concentration camp are the more than 12,000 letters he's received over the years, mostly from students, some who have told him his words have been life changing.
Several of those letters have come from students who were considering suicide but changed their minds after hearing Wiener speak. One was from an eighth-grade girl.
'Listening to me, she realized how trivial her problems were compared to mine,' said Wiener, adding that if he can save a life his talking about the uncomfortable subject is worth it.
Still, he comes across those who know little about the Holocaust, or worse yet, those who deny it ever occurred.
'How dare they say it didn't happen,' said Wiener, pointing out that he bears both the physical and emotional scars to prove it did. 'This is very painful to me.'
By the time the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, Wiener's biological mother had died and the family was living in a town that was half Jewish and half Roman Catholic. The man who would later become Pope John Paul II was a neighbor.
While the family fled, Wiener's father, a shopkeeper, was forced to stay.
Returning later, the family found their apartment looted and their father missing.
Someone told the Wiener family they believed their father was among 38 residents shot by Germans in Wiener's hometown.
'Then those victims were thrown into a pit,' said Weiner, adding that they had been buried for three months. He accompanied his stepmother and stepbrothers to the site and eventually discovered clothing that would identify one of the bodies as that of his father.
They then took the 37 bodies - one man had escaped during the night and later met up with Wiener at a labor camp - and buried them in a nearby cemetery.
'Daddy, why did they kill you?' Wiener said he remembers repeating as a 13-year-old boy. 'He didn't do anything wrong.'
From camp to camp
In 1941, soldiers came to his door and took his brother away. A year later, they came for Wiener, who recalled that the German soldiers slapped his stepmother (as his 8-year-old brother clung to her) when she begged them not to take the boy.
Soon Wiener was loaded onto a cattle car with 80 other people. With nothing to eat or drink - one man died standing up before reaching the train's destination - they were taken to the Blechhammer labor camp. There, the then-15-year-old Wiener would discover his brother, whom he barely recognized.
'In one year, he aged 10 years,' recalled Wiener.
Camp accommodations consisted of jamming 18 people into cramped 8-by-10 foot rooms, sleeping on stacked beds with no mattresses and eating a diet of two slices of bread, most of it composed of sawdust.
During his imprisonment he saw those who were marked with separate Star-of-David badges identifying them as Jews, gypsies, homosexuals or other groups the Nazis considered undesirable.
'What did I learn? Every Jew was a victim but not every victim was a Jew,' he said.
He was so hungry at the camp that he accepted an offer to trade his watch for a loaf of bread. The bread never materialized but the camp commander found out about the incident, and demanded to know who committed such a crime.
'I did step forward and I said, 'I gave away my watch for a promised loaf of bread because I was so hungry,'' said Wiener. 'I was whipped 15 strokes on my bare body.'
Although bruised and beaten, he got up the next morning and went to work.
Soon he would be moved to the Brande work camp.
'From that moment of separation, I never saw my brother again,' he said.
The new commander was crueler than the first, entertaining himself through torturing inmates. One night, he forced Wiener and other inmates to stand up all night in an ice-cold shower.
At his third labor camp, Gross Masselwitz, Wiener observed a remarkable act of kindness. Working in a textile mill where half of the building had been converted into an ammunition facility, a German woman gestured for him to come over to a box. German civilians were forbidden to talk or even make eye contact with prisoners.
'I found underneath a crate, a sandwich - two slices of white bread with a slice of cheese,' he recalled. That act of kindness was repeated for the next 30 days.
Wiener said he never did discover the woman's motivation and challenged students to come up with their own reason for her actions.
'I don't hate the German people as a people,' he said. 'You have to judge each individual on their own merits.'
In his fourth camp, Kletendorf, Wiener recalled digging trenches to stop allied tanks. Once he found a dirty potato in the dirt and ate it raw.
Near the trenches were railroad tracks and Wiener recalled seeing the trains that transported men, women and children to the death camps.
At his final labor camp, Waldenburg, Wiener received the number 64735.
'They never called me by my name again,' he recalled.
In May 1945, Russian soldiers entered the camp with the words, 'You are liberated.'
At 18, Wiener weighed only 80 pounds.
'Those heroic men, when they saw our emaciated bodies, they cried,' he said.
Wiener said they offered the prisoners the chance to kill their German captors. Too weak, and having been brought up in a religious family where he was taught to 'hate hatred and shun violence,' he declined.
Doctors who examined him shortly after the liberation told him they didn't expect him to live for more than a few years. In a few months he gained 40 pounds.
He moved to New York in 1960 where he spent most of his adult life.
Several years ago, a U.S. Army officer who helped liberate Buchenwald approached him after one of his local talks.
'And he stared to cry,' said Wiener. 'He remembered what he found in those camps.'
The man encouraged Wiener to write a book so that no one would forget what happened.
Wiener did. The result was, 'From a Name to a Number: A Holocaust Survivor's Autobiography,' a self-published book that's available at Amazon.com.
Touched by his faith
After his talk, Wiener took students' questions.
When no one initially volunteered, he pointed out that there are 180 Holocaust survivors in Oregon and only a handful in the Portland area.
'In 10 years, they're all going to be gone,' he pointed out.
Asked how he could keep his faith under such circumstances, Wiener replied that he prayed every day.
'I had trusted that God was going to come to my rescue at some point,' he said.
But life wasn't easy once he was liberated from the camps. He was homeless and when he returned to his apartment in his hometown, someone was living there and they wouldn't let him in.
'There was nothing I could do,' he said.
Although some Holocaust survivors revisit the concentration camps, Wiener said he's never had a desire to do so.
After his talk, Wiener's spellbound students said that they were profoundly moved by his experiences.
Andrea Hawkinson, an eighth-grader, said the most important thing she learned was that 'without hope, you lose everything' and that it's not fair to judge all people based on the actions of some.
Megan Ortega said that she was amazed at the photo Wiener showed of himself as a gaunt, starving prisoner, along with a subsequent photo taken after his release.
'The before and after picture really amazed me,' she said. She said she couldn't even imagine what he went through.
Another eighth-grader, Maria Ramos, who gave Wiener a hug, agreed.
'The way he was treated, I could not survive that,' she said. What also amazed her was that 'even after all that, I still can't believe people deny (the Holocaust).'
Isiah Sheehan called Wiener's talk a 'great speech.'
'I couldn't believe what I was hearing,' said Sheehan. 'It just moved me a lot.'
Other students were equally touched.
'I just wanted to say it was the most powerful message I ever heard and something I'll never forget,' said Kashka Hargis.