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Holocaust survivor shares his memories with Beaverton History Center

For most people, even comprehending the life of a Jewish Holocaust survivor is daunting. Listening to someone who has lived through it is at times incomprehensible.

But for nearly 850 audiences over the years, that’s exactly what Alter Wiener has done.

For an hour on Oct. 8, Wiener held an audience packed into the Beaverton History Center spellbound with a riveting account of death, survival, atrocity, kindness and the will to live.

Not surprisingly, nearly 70 years after his harrowing ordeal, Wiener still finds it painful to talk about.

“It’s not easy emotionally,” Wiener told the audience. “I still see images when I talk about it.”

Those images include the knowledge that he lost 123 members of his extended family in the Holocaust.

Celebrating his 87th birthday the day of his lecture, the Hillsoboro resident recalled the horrors of surviving five camps in Nazi Germany, living in inhumane conditions, and often having nothing more to eat each day than watered-downed soup and bread consisting mainly of sawdust.

His journey is chronicled in his book, “64735: From a Name to a Number — A Holocaust Survivor’s Autobiography,” published in 2007. It is the result of an American soldier who helped liberate Buchenwald concentration camp, begging him to write down his experiences so that no one would forget what happened to those who ended up in labor and extermination camps before it was too late.

“That’s the only reason I wrote this,” he told an audience of more than 130 people. “I have no financial gain.”

The book is ranked 89th out of 42 million listed on Amazon.

Over the years, Wiener said he’s received 56,000 letters related to his book or from those who have attended his lectures.

And despite the accounts of historians or those who survived the concentration camps, Wiener still finds those who are ignorant about the annihilation of 6 million Jews during World War II.

“There are people who are ignorant about the Holocaust,” he said. “There are people who believe it didn’t happen.”

So appalled was Wiener when he heard that Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinjead, denied that the Holocaust ever happened, he forwarded him one of the monthly compensation checks he and other survivors receive from the German government along with a note: “If there was no Holocaust, why do I get the check and not you?”

Over the years, Wiener has discovered the power of his message, saying he once heard from a girl who had been contemplating suicide and changed her mind after hearing Wiener’s story, seeing that her problems weren’t as bad as what Wiener had gone through.

A knock on the door

A native of Poland, life for Wiener changed suddenly in 1939 when the Germans invaded his country. At the time, he was living with his two brothers, his father and stepmother, all of whom would eventually perish. The family fled, but Wiener’s father, a shop owner, had to stay.

When they returned, Wiener discovered his father was missing, and the family’s apartment had been looted. They soon learned that 38 of the town’s residents, including his father, had been gathered up and randomly shot by the Nazis, their bodies thrown into a mass burial pit. One victim survived and escaped to tell what had happened.

Three months later, Wiener’s stepmother, accompanied by 13-year-old Wiener, had to identify her husband after the Nazis agreed to open the burial pit.

Wiener recalled that he asked aloud why his father had died, never having discovered an answer.

“I don’t understand at the age of 87... why did they murder my father?” he said.

In 1941, a knock on his door by German soldiers resulted in his older brother being taken away.

“We have no idea what happened to him,” Wiener said. Only during a reunion of Holocaust survivors in 1990 did a man approach Wiener and tell him that he knew his brother, Shmuel, well and had been one of the prisoners who pushed him into the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Wiener said the Germans again burst into the family’s apartment in 1942, having this time come for Wiener.

“My stepmother pleaded with the Germans,” he recalled, only getting a response that how dare she question their actions.

Given nothing to eat for days, he arrived at his first camp.

“Upon arrival, I was beaten for no reason,” Wiener recalled, saying that he found his brother at the camp, all but unrecognizable because of the harsh conditions he had endured.

Wiener ended up living in a small room with 28 other people who shared three bunks filled with straw and infested with lice.

Hungry all the time, Wiener said millions of prisoners died from starvation alone, and that the Nazis not only singled out Jews for death but also Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals, gypsies and countless other groups.

“What did I learn?” Wiener asked. “Every Jew was a victim, but not every victim was a Jew.”

Starving at the camp, Wiener said a man offered him a loaf of bread in exchange for the watch the boy had managed to hang onto. Wiener gave it to him, but the man never produced the bread. When the camp commandant found out about it, he demanded that the person who traded his watch for bread step forward.

“I did step forward,” he said. “They whipped me 15 strokes on my body.”

After four months, he was sent to another camp where he recalled a punishment by a sadistic commandant who forced him to stand under a freezing cold shower all night for no particular reason.

Act of kindness

Over the years, Wiener said he has had numerous calls from those asking forgiveness for a relative’s participation in the Holocaust. He said a German professor once called him and said he was sorry his father worked in one of the camps.

“I told him he was not responsible for his father,” Wiener recalled.

It wasn’t until he reached his third work camp that he personally encountered an act of human kindness that would stick with him forever. During the day, he was forced to work in a textile mill that included German employees. Although the Germans were forbidden to have contact with the prisoners, a woman made eye contact with him, indicating for him to come over.

“I found a sandwich of two slices of white bread with cheese,” he said. “Every day she left a sandwich for me.”

That continued for 30 days before it abruptly stopped. To this day, he cannot comprehend what motivated her to risk her life to help keep him alive.

“But she’s my hero until the last day of my life,” he said, noting that her kindness was a marked difference between the guard who once knocked out his teeth for talking. Both were from the same race — one was wicked, the other righteous, he said.

After the war, armed only with a vivid memory of what the woman looked like and not her name, he tried to find the woman who had shown him kindness in that factory.

“Unfortunately, after all my efforts after the war, I couldn’t locate her,” he said.

It was at his next camp — where he once discovered a raw potato in the dirt and happily consumed it — that he was stripped of all his possessions and given an identification number: 64735.

“They never called me by my name again,” he pointed out.

For Wiener, his long ordeal ended in May of 1945, when the Russian army marched in and liberated the camp. When the Russians saw the prisoners, “they broke down and cried like babies,” Wiener recalled.

Weighing only 80 pounds, Wiener was told by a doctor he would not survive.

A new country

Eventually, he made his way to New York City, where he got a job cleaning toilets, received what now would be considered a GED, attended college and became an accountant.

Wiener said it’s important that he share his message with others.

“There are very few Holocaust survivors left,” he said.

He noted at one point during his talk that he was once waiting in line at one of the killing centers.

“I sniffed the offensive odor of burning flesh,” he writes in his book. “I felt downright scared. The thought of being so close to an imminent death sucked the life out of me. I ‘consoled’ myself with the thought that if so many wonderful people were being murdered, what difference would my death make?”

Then Wiener was suddenly plucked out of the line by a German entrepreneur who said he was strong enough to work until work killed him.

“You never know,” he told the audience. “You never know. You can never lose hope.”

After his lecture, Wiener received a standing ovation — and a birthday cake.

Answers to life in the Nazi camps

After Alter Wiener’s lecture at the Beaverton History Center, the Holocaust survivor took questions from the audience and observations about his life in the Nazi camps. Here are some of them:

• Why didn’t he try to escape? Escape from any of the camps he was in was impossible. “In all those five camps, no one tried to escape,” he said, pointing out that other prisoners would suffer if someone tried to escape.

• He doesn’t like to use the word “killed” when talking about the Holocaust. “This was systematic, planned murder.”

• His years in the work camps still haunt him. “I would like to not have nightmares. They are there.”

• Does he feel guilty for having survived? “I don’t have a guilt feeling. I appreciate every day I’m alive.”

• Since the book came out in 2007, he’s talked with an estimated 150,000 people, reaching 842 audiences.

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