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Holocaust survivor finds medicine in everyday beauty

Survivor, storyteller, Hillsboro's Alter Weiner to tell his story in Sherwood this weekend.


PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener will share his experiences at the Sherwood Center for the Arts on Sept. 24.

Late this summer, Alter Wiener took a moment to peer through his apartment window at a row of trees specked with red.

“Look out there ... how beautiful it is,” said Wiener.

Recalling a time in his life when all his eyes could see was the gravel of Nazi concentration camps, Wiener, 90, feasts on the vision.

“Like everything else in life ... once you miss it and it comes back, you know how to appreciate it,” said Wiener.

Wiener, who lives in Hillsboro, is one of the last Holocaust survivors still living in the Portland area.

To eyes that have been starved of hope, that have seen horrors beyond comprehension, every bit of beauty is medicinal.

Displayed on shelves in his home are plaques from schools where he’s spoken, photographs and gifts from people whose lives he has touched, and an honorary law degree from Lewis & Clark Law School.

Among these is a picture of Wiener after he was liberated from a concentration camp at the age of 16. After years of starvation, he was gaunt and emaciated.

“I look at this picture every day,” said Wiener. “How could I have endured those terrible conditions?”


In 1939, when Wiener was 13, the Germans invaded Poland and began imposing curfews and restrictions in his hometown of Chrzanów. That year, his father was murdered by German soldiers.

When he was 15, he was deported by German soldiers to the Blechhammer area, the first of five concentration camps where he was subjected to forced labor, beatings and starvation.

In 1945, he was liberated by the Russian army, only to learn that his brothers, stepmother, and maternal grandparents were murdered in Nazi death camps.

Returning to memory

For half a century, Wiener seldom shared his experiences with others. Then, after he began giving lectures, he sat down in front of his computer to commit his memory to writing.

“What was I going to write?” he remembered thinking. “I had no documents. The Germans took everything.”

Slowly, as he ventured back into his memories, he uncovered recollections that had remained buried for decades. Over the course of two months, he wrote his memoir, “From a Name to a Number,” which he self-published in 2006. To date, he has sold over 35,000 copies of his book.

Since 2000, Wiener has spoken to 974 audiences at schools, churches, libraries and other organizations. This month, he’ll speak at the Sherwood Center for the Arts. The lecture is organized by the Sherwood Public Library in partnership with Sherwood Rotary as part of their celebration of International Peace Month.

Wiener does not accept money for his lectures and speaks from memory.

“This is my life. I don’t look into notes,” said Wiener. “When I give a presentation, it’s not even one percent of what I went through.”

Every time he shares his story with an audience, Wiener returns to horrors he cannot ever understand nor from which he can fully recover.

“You know, even to this day, I have nightmares,” he said.

Wiener is haunted by the cruelty of a guard who beat him with a rifle, by the ache of starvation when he lived on two slices a day of bread made from sawdust, by the image of his father’s partially decomposed face.

“If you are tortured, you are tortured for the rest of your life,” said Wiener. “It’s there.”

If you go

What: Alter Weiner, Holocaust survivor

Where: Sherwood Center for the Arts

2689 S.W. Pine Street

When: Saturday, Sept. 24

1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Doors open at 12:45,

Presentation at 1:30 p.m.

Retelling and reliving trauma provides no catharsis.

“On the contrary ... when I speak, it’s painful,” said Wiener. “It’s not easy mentally, physically, but I do it.”

Wiener continues to share his story, especially with students, because of his conviction that raising awareness and providing perspective can save lives.

Over the years, Wiener has received about 88,000 letters. In a cardboard box, he keeps 300 of them — all pertaining to suicide. Middle schoolers and high schoolers struggling with self-harm and depression have written to him, expressing that his story provided a new perspective on life.

Having that kind of impact is what keeps Wiener going.

“I was not aware, especially at my advanced age, that I can help people,” said Wiener. “I have gratification when somebody tells me ‘I’m so grateful for you. I’ll never forget you.’”

The mother of a student at a middle school in Portland wrote a children’s book based on Wiener’s experience. A prisoner sentenced to life for murder told him he wouldn’t have committed atrocities if he had known Wiener’s story.

“There’s nothing more beautiful than to save a human life. Every day when I get letters, saying ‘You changed my life. You saved my life. You helped me.’ That is the reason I keep doing it,” said Wiener.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Wiener has received tens of thousands of letters from people who have been touched by his story.


Lessons still relevant

Almost every day, he thinks of the person who saved his life — a German woman who worked in the same factory as Jews forced into slave labor at the concentration camp.

One day, the woman gestured towards a box where she had hidden a bread-and-cheese sandwich for him. For the rest of his time at that factory, she left him a sandwich every day.

“That German woman risked her life for me,” said Wiener. “She read in the newspaper every day that I am an ‘untermensch,’ a subhuman ... and risked her life for a young boy because she felt sorry for me.”

That experience salvaged his faith in humanity.

“What kept me going? I wanted to live. I was so young. I had no idea what life was all about. I wanted to live,” said Wiener.

The German woman’s gesture has stayed with him, reminding him to never stereotype people on the basis of nationality, race or religion.

“Prejudice is so senseless. Absolutely senseless,” said Wiener.

Memories of his family kept him going in concentration camps.

“I came from a home that was just love. I never heard (anyone raise their) voice in my home,” said Wiener, whose stepmothers and brothers died in concentration camps. “I still don’t understand how people can be so cruel. I saw people dying and being killed every day.”

Today, when he reads the newspaper or turns on the television and learns about innocent people being killed in conflicts all over the world, he is despondent.

“This is my biggest disappointment,” said Wiener. “When we were liberated, I hoped that the world learned something, that it’s never going to happen again.”

Then, massacres happened again — in Rwanda, in Kosovo, in Syria.

“If it happens again, it’s going to be much worse than the Holocaust, and you know why? The means of destruction today are much more powerful than in the time of the Holocaust. To kill six million Jews and five million others systematically was a big operation. Today, any biochemical device can kill millions,” said Wiener.

By sharing his testimony as many times as his health allows, Wiener strives to address what he considers to be the root of all evil: ignorance.

“If somebody is ignorant, and he’s willing to have an open mind ... you can be ignorant and willing to learn,” said Wiener.

Despite the atrocities occurring all over the world, Wiener still has faith in humanity.

“But then I think about it ... look, you’re going to find good people everywhere,” said Wiener. He’s met a wide range of people in his life and has learned to judge each individual on the basis of character.

“Growing up in Poland, there was very widespread anti-Semitism,” said Wiener, remembering being bullied by Catholic peers as he walked to school. “And here, I came to a Catholic church and they gave me a standing ovation. How can I judge that every Catholic is going to be bad?”

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Weiner speaks to students at Tigard High School in 2010. The two photos show Weiner after he was rescued from the concentration camp (left) and after he had healed from his injuries (right)

Keeping faith

For Wiener, who was brought up in a religious household, it’s a faith that was tested in the face of harrowing evil.

“In the camps, I talked to God ... ‘How could you let it happen?’” said Wiener. “I will die without understanding God. He works in mysterious ways. I just don’t understand it. But I never gave up my hope. I know there is something divine.

Wiener moved to Oregon in 2000. Before that, he lived in New York and worked as an accountant. He returned to school and received his high school diploma at the age of 35.

He is one of the few Holocaust survivors left in the Portland area.

“We used to meet once a month, but there are very few left and many are disabled,” said Wiener.

Every year, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Wiener fasts and says a prayer for his family, who were never given burials or funerals.

“And I say a prayer. I cannot go to the synagogue, so I do the best way I know in my heart. The Holocaust lives within me, I don’t live within it. It is right here,” said Wiener, gesturing to his heart. “It is a part of my life, and that is the way it is going to be until the end of my life.”

At his peak, Wiener gave several speeches a month, going wherever he was invited by organizations and schools.

These days, he gives fewer lectures due to his declining health. While he has a couple of presentations scheduled, he generally isn’t accepting new invitations to speak.

But in his retirement, Wiener still keeps busy, reading as much as he can and visiting with friends he has made at his various presentations.

“Despite everything, I don’t have one boring moment in my life. It is the way I was brought up,” said Wiener. “It says in our scriptures ... to be idle is the killer of the soul.”

Every morning, he has oat bran cereal for breakfast. Throughout the day, he eats fresh fruits and vegetables that he picks out at a nearby New Seasons market. He’s been a vegetarian for 46 years.

Most of his meals must be blended. A Nazi guard knocked out his teeth in 1943 and years of starvation have left a negative impact on the function of his esophagus.

But when he prepares an apple, banana and blueberry smoothie, he finds joy.

“My legacy is one sentence — count your blessings,” said Wiener. “You don’t know how lucky you are.”