2018: Holocaust survivor, educational speaker dies in crash
Editor's note: This story is part of the News-Times' special series, "Decade in Review." This series features three stories that helped to define each year of the 2010s. These can retell single stories that mattered to readers of the time, a saga that played out across many articles, and even stories that were crowded to the margins by other news at the time but have made a lasting impact on our region.
Hillsboro lost one of its most famous and beloved residents on Dec. 11, 2018.
Alter Wiener, 92, was crossing Northeast Century Boulevard that evening after dark when a southbound car struck and killed him. Wiener reportedly died instantly. Hillsboro police said he hadn't been crossing at a crosswalk and was wearing dark clothing, and the driver of the vehicle didn't see him until it was too late.
Wiener was a published author and well-known public speaker in the greater Portland area and beyond. He spoke at schools, churches, synagogues and community centers on the topic of tolerance and confronting hate speech and violence — drawing from his own experiences as a survivor of five Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.
"If you are tortured, you are tortured for the rest of your life," Wiener told a Pamplin Media Group reporter in 2016. He was haunted by the memories of the Holocaust and the death of many of his family members, including his father and brothers, and he said it was "painful" to speak about them even more than 70 years later: "It's not easy mentally, physically, but I do it."
Wiener's motivation was simple, he said.
"There's nothing more beautiful than to save a human life," Wiener said. "Every day when I get letters, saying 'you changed my life,' 'you saved my life,' 'you helped me,' that is the reason I keep doing it."
Officially, Wiener had retired from public speaking engagements. In reality, he couldn't stay away altogether.
Just days before his death, Wiener addressed an assembly at Lakeridge High School, where he had formed a friendship with student Claire Sarnowski. Finding an ally in state Sen. Rob Wagner of Lake Oswego, Wiener and Sarnowski had begun working on legislation to require schools to teach about genocide and the Holocaust as part of their standard curriculum.
"It's so relevant to know history," said Wiener, who received a standing ovation at what would be his final public appearance on Dec. 5, 2018. "A wise person learns from their experiences, but the wisest person is the one who learns from someone else's experiences."
Although Wiener didn't live to see it, his bill became law in 2019. Starting in the 2020-21 school year, all public school systems in Oregon will teach students about the Holocaust.
"As we lose our lived history from that era, it becomes even more important to have Holocaust and genocide education in our classrooms. This bill is about keeping history alive," said state Rep. Janeen Sollman of Hillsboro, testifying to Wiener's bill in May 2019. "This legislation is about ensuring that our students learn about our true history, learn to appreciate and understand our survivors' stories, and continue to tell those stories to prevent such actions again."
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