Alter Wiener, one of the very few Holocaust survivors still living in the Portland area, spoke to students and an audience of other visitors at the Banks Christian Academy on Monday January 28, 2013.
Wiener, who is eighty-six years old, shared his life story with approximately 200 avid listeners, as he recounted the horrors of the Nazi occupation in his homeland of Poland and his survival in five different forced labor camps over three years. Wiener was liberated by Russian soldiers in 1945.
Mr. Wiener’s autobiography “From a Name to a Number” was published in April 2007. He has spoken and told his story in Oregon and Washington to almost 800 audiences at universities, colleges, schools, churches, synagogues, prisons, companies and book clubs. He has been interviewed by radio, TV stations and newspapers.
Wiener told the Banks Christian Academy audience that when he was thirteen years old his father was murdered by Nazi soldiers in 1939. He said that after his father was killed, as a Jew he was no longer allowed to attend school. He was sent to a work camp in June of 1942 at the age of fifteen, traveling in a cattle car and standing the entire time with nothing to eat or drink for a day and a half. He spent the next four years working in Blechammere; Brande, Gross Masselwitz, and Klettendorf work camps and attempting to survive. He spent the final months of his captivity at the Waldenburg Concentration Camp.
Wiener says he was reunited with his older brother at the first camp, Blechammere; he did not recognize him initially because the harsh conditions had changed him so much. Wiener says in the morning the prisoners were fed two slices of bread made mostly from saw dust and in the evening they received an extremely weak broth.
Wiener tells a very moving story about how, at one camp he was working in a factory where there were also German citizens working. The Germans were told not to have any contact with the prisoners, but one woman would hide a sandwich in a secret hiding place each day for Wiener. Wiener says she did this each day for a month straight until he was moved to another camp. “She risked her life for me and I don’t know why she did it,” says Wiener. Wiener says he returned to that town many years later hoping to find the woman and thank her, but was unable to locate her without any information about who she was.
Wiener recounts that he weighed just eighty pounds when he was liberated. Wiener says the Russian soldiers openly wept when they saw the people in the camps and gave the camp survivors three days to roam the local towns and exact revenge on the Germans they could find. Wiener says he was too weak and refused the offer of the Russians.
Wiener says that he still has visions of his time in the work camps, especially when he talks to audiences about his time there. He reminded his listeners throughout his presentation that “every Jew was a victim, but not every victim was a Jew,” during the holocaust, noting that many other people were persecuted and murdered, including the disabled and handicapped, homosexuals, gypsies and others that were termed undesirables.
In the days immediately following his liberation, Wiener recounts that he was invited into the home of a German woman who fed him and tried to nurse him back to health. Several weeks later he returned to Poland and learned that 123 members of his immediate family-his brothers and stepmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins-had all been murdered by the Nazis; he and five cousins were the only ones who survived.
Wiener immigrated to the United States where he says he lived in New York and worked cleaning toilets. He tried to go to Brooklyn College, but was initially denied entrance because his formal education had ended when he was just thirteen. He studied, passed a high school equivalency exam when he was thirty-five years old and went on to study and become an accountant. He married and has two sons and six grandchildren.
Wiener told his audience that he often receives letters from young people who hear his story and who tell him they decided to stay in school because they better appreciate their chance to get the education he was denied. He also states that several people have told him they were contemplating suicide, but upon hearing his story, decided that their problems were not so bad, and instead chose to continue on with their lives.
Wiener says he does not hate all Germans and holds no grudge against the offspring of those who committed the atrocities during the holocaust. He does get angry when he hears anyone who tries to deny the holocaust.
Mr. Wiener moved to Oregon in 2000 and currently lives in Hillsboro. He has received an Honorary Bachelor Degree from Warner Pacific College and an Honorary Law Degree from Lewis & Clark Law School.