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Story of Holocaust survivor is unforgettable

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Alter Wiener, 87, survived five Nazi forced labor camps and at one point was slated for execution before a factory owner pulled him out of the line for the gas chamber. Today he lives in Hillsboro and dedicates much of his time to educating the public about the Holocaust. Alter Wiener has lived his extraordinary life by the numbers.

A successful accountant by profession, Wiener is now 87 years old and enjoying a comfortable retirement in Hillsboro. But as a teenager the concept of numbers had a far different — and sinister — meaning. As a prisoner in no fewer than five German forced labor camps during World War II, he was stripped of all identity as a human being and instead referred to only as a number. That number — 64735 — was seared into his memory forever.

A native of Chrzanów, Poland, Wiener is one of the few remaining survivors of the Holocaust living in Oregon today. His horrific experience as a child — he was just 13 when the German Wehrmact overran Chrzanów in September 1939 and thrust him and the town’s 10,000 Jewish inhabitants into the inferno of history — have always been the source of recurring and ongoing nightmares.

But today, he has at least partly tamed some of the worst of those fears and has made it his life’s work to educate people about the reality and ongoing consequences of the Holocaust.

“When I lived in New York I never talked about it,” Wiener said. “I was busy building my life, and I didn’t think people would believe. But I came to Oregon in 2000 and I was asked to share my story, and I realized the impact it had on young people. This is why I’m making the physical and emotional effort. I do it just because of the response I’m getting.”

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - The cover of Alter Wiener's autobiography shows a photo of him taken the day he was liberated by Russian soldiers from a Nazi forced labor camp. The first time he spoke in public about his experiences was in 2000 at Century High School in Hillsboro. He was nervous and unsure of how he would be received.

Afterward, however, he was visited by a teacher, who gave him more than 100 handwritten letters from students who had attended his presentation. The kids, the teacher said, had been blown away by what they heard. The letters went on to have the same effect on Wiener. As he kept speaking, the letters continued to pour in.

Here are a few more numbers: To date, Wiener has given 865 public presentations. In return, he has received more than 56,000 written letters thanking him for speaking out. More than 100 of those letter writers, he added, even credited him with saving their lives.

“That’s the main reason I’m doing this,” he said.

On Jan. 8, Wiener will give presentation number 866 at the Wilsonville Public Library from 6 to 8 p.m., giving local residents a chance to experience a rare firsthand account from a survivor of one of the worst crimes in recorded history.

Copies of Wiener’s unforgettable biography, “From a Name to a Number,” also will be available at the presentation and also are available online at Amazon.com, where it is currently number 50 on the best-seller list for the entire site.

Wiener’s presentation in Wilsonville, like all his appearances, is free and open to the public. He donates to charity any money he makes from speaking fees or books sales.

“The most important thing is, at the end of my presentation, I leave time for questions,” he said. “And the questions are sometimes very, very profound, very philosophical, and it has a tremendous impact. I’m asked quite often, ‘Are you willing to forgive the Germans?’ And I say that I just don’t feel qualified or delegated to talk for those who are no longer here. But those who hurt me personally I am willing to forgive.”

Aside from the impact on people’s lives, Wiener also counts public education as being of foremost importance in his effort. Ignorance about history in general and the Holocaust in particular disturbs him. Even worse, he said, are those who deny the Holocaust ever happened, even in the face of voluminous evidence.

He still runs into people like that, notably an agitated skinhead inmate at the Oregon State Penitentiary during a presentation there a few years ago. He also has sent copies of his biography to former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who gained international notoriety for questioning the Holocaust and threatening the state of Israel with destruction.

In the face of such forces, he said, “I feel a moral obligation. There are very few (survivors) left, and in five or 10 years there will be nobody left.”

Murder unleashed

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Alter Wiener speaks about his experiences at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Wilsonville Public Library. Wiener’s story is achingly familiar.

More than 6 million European Jews were murdered by the Germans between 1939 and 1945. Another 5 million people of various ethnicities, as well as political undesirables and the physically disabled, died alongside them in Hitler’s attempt to produce a pure, Aryan nation.

Poland was the first country to fall to the German blitzkrieg, and ultimately more than 90 percent of the country’s 3.5 million Jewish citizens were murdered in the Holocaust.

In Chrzanów, a small city of 20,000, the 10,000 Jewish residents were first placed under curfew and then under increasingly grotesque restrictions. By the end of 1941 the death penalty was expanded by the German military to apply to Poles who helped a Jew in any way, even a ride in a car.

Long before that, however, Wiener’s father, Mordechai, was murdered alongside 28 other Jews during the early days of the German invasion. The discovery of his father’s body in a mass grave three months after his murder had a horrifying impact on the 13-year-old boy that still lingers today.

“I have nightmares to this very day,” Wiener said. “This is not a part of history for me, it’s here, I lived the Holocaust and I’m going to die with the Holocaust. It’s nothing in my control, I cannot control my nightmares and I cannot control my feelings. It’s there, and this is the way I’m going to die.”

In 1942, Wiener was “evacuated” to the first of what would be five forced labor camps. In reality he was kidnapped from his home by German soldiers who gave him five minutes to gather his meager belongings before bundling him out the door and into the night. He would never see his stepmother or other family members again.

In total, 123 of Wiener’s immediate family members perished during the Holocaust. A handful of his cousins survived the war along with him and would go on to move to New York City. Wiener, however, traveled a more circuitous route to join them years later.

Before that, however, he spent more than a year after the war ended searching for a way out of a seemingly endless nightmare. Despite being freed from the Nazi labor camps, the psychological and physical damage was immense.

Only 19 years old at war’s end, Wiener returned to Poland to find his family’s old apartment in Chrzanów occupied by strangers who rudely told him to leave. He slept that night in the graveyard where his father was buried.

Ultimately he made his way through Europe and eventually to Palestine, which was still under British rule. Interned along with other refugees by British authorities before they could land in Haifa, Wiener was later freed and joined the fledgling Israel Defense Forces, serving a little over a year and watching the birth of the new state of Israel.

Still lacking in education because of the timing of his enslavement during the war, Weiner worked a series of menial jobs and later began to learn about bookkeeping and accounting.

When he finally received permission to immigrate to the United States in 1960 he joined his remaining living relatives in New York and finally earned his high school diploma at the age of 38. A college degree quickly followed, and Wiener carved out a successful career as an accountant before moving to Oregon upon retiring in 2000 at the age of 73.

After that first speaking engagement at Century High, he knew he had found his new calling. These days, Wiener doesn’t allow himself to let up in his unceasing effort to educate about the Holocaust and the dangers of intolerance and prejudice.

“I never did it before, I never spoke before an audience, and here I’m in front of a few high school kids,” he said. “My English is not perfect, I have an accent, and I hesitated. But when the teacher gave me a hundred letters — they wrote to me and said I’m doing something important — when students tell me, ‘You saved my life,’ I have a completely different perspective.”



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