Holocaust survivor shares story

Photo by Roger Werth

Holocaust Alter Wiener speaks Friday morning at Lower Columbia College. The picture of him in the background was taken shorty after he was freed from a concentration camp in 1945.

For years after surviving the Holocaust, Alter Wiener wouldn't talk about the beatings, starvation or death of most of his family — not even to his wife.

Now 80, the Polish emigre is compelled to share his story. He plans to publish his memoirs and has spoken at hundreds of schools.

"Within the next 10 years, there's going to be no survivors to tell the story," he said. "Those who listen to my story plead with me that I should write."

His audience of nearly 150 people at Lower Columbia College sat attentively Friday morning — a few of them crying — as they heard him curse prejudice and recall the rare expressions of goodwill that helped him survive five years in Nazi death camps.

Wiener grew up a Jew in Poland, and he was 13-years-old when Germany invaded in 1939.

"All the roads were clogged with refugees," he said.

Wiener's father disappeared, and his corpse was found three months later in a mass grave. He had been shot dead along with more than 30 other civilians.

"I remember distinctly how my father looked, partially decomposed," Wiener said. "They shot them to bleed — to suffer — until they expired. Is it a crime to be a Jew? I didn't understand it then, and I don't understand it to this very day."

When Wiener was 15, the Nazis took him from his home after they slapped his protesting stepmother unconscious. He spent the remainder of World War II in five Nazi camps, where he was used for slave labor and beaten for no reason, he recalled. He slept on a straw bed infested with roaches and lice. He ate watered-down soup.

"We had no rights, and we were dying of starvation," Wiener said.

As Wiener was beginning to detest Germans, he met a German woman who helped keep him alive.

One of the camps was connected to a textile factory, and a women working there risked her life by leaving him a sandwich each day for 30 days.

"I will remember her until the last day of my life," he said. "I have no right to make a generalization that I hate the Germans as a people."

When Wiener was freed when the war ended in 1945, he weighed 80 pounds. Of his family, only four cousins survived. He was homeless.

"I had a very tough time after the war," Wiener said.

He moved to New York. He had no money and no schooling. But he got a job as a bookkeeper, and worked in that field until he retired. He moved to Oregon six years ago and lives in Hillsboro, west of Portland. He's given public talks about his experiences almost 300 times.

Wiener doesn't plan to ever return to Poland.

"I don't think that I'm strong enough," Wiener said. "I'm afraid."

Wiener is devastated by people who haven't learned about the Holocaust and by people who deny it ever happened, such as the Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"There's nothing more painful to me than someone who denies the Holocaust," he said. "Nothing else has been so well-documented as World War II… Unfortunately, there are people you cannot reason with."

In the past few years, Wiener has received more than 9,000 letters from people who've heard him speak, he said. Some of them are from young people who wanted to run away from home, drop out of school or commit suicide, but they changed their minds after hearing Wiener's life story.

LCC student Britta Hendrickson attended Wiener's talk with her political science classmates, and said she felt privileged to hear about the Holocaust from a survivor.

"It made me thankful (for) how lucky I am that I didn't have to go through something like that," Hendrickson said.

Richelle Huntley saw Wiener speak before, and this time, she took her 15-year-old daughter along to hear him, too.

"I thought it was very inspiring," Huntley said. "It gives a sense of appreciation."

Wiener said he hopes people can learn from his experiences and help stop modern-day genocides, such as the mass killings in Sudan. There, Sudan's government has armed Arab militia groups to attack black African residents in the Darfur region.

"I'm very concerned. It is genocide, and we all have to make our contribution the best way we can. … If we are not going to stop prejudice, there is another Holocaust brewing right in front of our eyes."

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