Wyden presents U.S. flag to Holocaust survivor
Even for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who opens his town hall meetings with special recognitions or long-lost military decorations, this one was special.
The Oregon Democrat presented a U.S. flag flown over the Capitol in Washington to Alter Wiener, 90, of Hillsboro, one of the few Oregon survivors of the Holocaust — when 6 million Jews were systematically killed by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Among the victims were 100 members of Wiener's extended family, and many members of Wyden's own family — although his father escaped before the war started.
The presentation took place Saturday (May 6) at a town hall meeting attended by hundreds at the Liberty High School auditorium in Hillsboro. (Wiener announced last year that his Sept. 24, 2016, appearance in Sherwood would be his last public lecture due to health issues.)
Wiener wrote his story in a 2007 book, "64735: From a Name to a Number, A Holocaust Survivor's Autobiography," and has retold his story to numerous audiences.
He said he wrote the book after a World War II veteran who took part in the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 — the first by the U.S. Army — told him, "Nothing annoys me more than people who deny the Holocaust."
Wiener said he sent the first copy to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then the president of Iran, who has described the Holocaust as a myth.
"Unfortunately, there are so many people who know nothing about the Holocaust," he said. "That is very sad... It is not just a chapter in history."
In a global poll by the Anti-Defamation League a few years ago, only 54 percent of those sampled said they were aware of it — and 32 percent said the Holocaust was greatly exaggerated or a myth.
Wyden first met Wiener a few years ago at another town hall meeting in Oregon City.
"I want to make sure the people of our state understood the horrors of the Holocaust," he said. "This quiet, dignified gentleman wants to tell students and adults throughout Oregon about it."
Wiener was only 15 when the Nazis took him away from his home in Poland, sent to a labor camp, tortured and enslaved.
"His history speaks for many millions who have endured similar terrors. He didn't just survive. He persevered. He has rebuilt his life in America," Wyden said.
"We are so fortunate that his survival story teaches us to be aware of prejudices or stereotypes against anyone.
"What Alter has done in terms of educating us about the Holocaust is describing what happens when any group on the basis of religion or ancestry is singled out. It's a story that has a lot of resonance today."
Wyden referred to President Donald Trump's advocacy of a border wall with Mexico and Trump's executive orders — stalled by the courts — temporarily banning travelers from six Muslim-majority nations.
"We should not be singling people out," Wyden said to audience applause.
Wyden also has a personal tie to the Holocaust.
His father, Peter Wyden, fled Nazi Germany and came to the United States in 1937 at the age of 14. His mother, Edith Rosenow, also fled.
More than 50 years later, after a career as a journalist and author, Peter Wyden wrote about a classmate at the Goldschmidt School in Berlin who informed on Jews. His 1993 book was "Stella: One Woman's True Tale of Evil, Betrayal and Survival in Hitler's Germany."
Peter Wyden died in 1998 at the age of 74.
Ron Wyden said other family members failed to escape Germany. Some died during the November 1938 surge of violence against Jews known as Krystallnacht; others died at Theresienstadt concentration camp, now in the Czech Republic.
His presentation to Wiener took place on or near several significant anniversary dates of World War II.
On May 6, 1942 — 75 years ago on Saturday — U.S. forces surrendered the island fortress of Corregidor to Japanese troops in their battle for the Philippines. Two days later, the Battle of the Coral Sea ended as the U.S. Navy turned back a Japanese offensive. It was the first sea battle between aircraft carriers, and opposing ships never sighted nor fired directly at each other.
On May 7, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered to U.S. and Allied forces in Europe. Japan surrendered four months later to end World War II.
On May 9, 1945, Soviet troops liberated the Gross Masselwitz labor camp in Poland, the fifth where Wiener had been a prisoner. He was down to 80 pounds, and the cover of his book depicts him in that state.
"I was reborn that day," Wiener said.
Upon release, Wiener first went to Palestine, then to New York City. He came to Hillsboro in 2000.
He has made it his mission to persuade the Oregon Legislature, without success so far, to require schools to teach about the Holocaust.
He quoted from the Talmud, a central text of Judaism, a saying popularized in the 1993 film "Schindler's List," "if you save one life, you save the world."