'Hatred is self-destructive'
There are few remaining Holocaust survivors in the world, let alone the Portland area.
Last week, one such survivor — 92-year-old Alter Wiener — visited Lakeridge High School, and the Lake Oswego education community flocked to the school's auditorium to listen to his story. ( You can listen, too: watch the video at tinyurl.com/AlterWienerLO. )
Weiner was joined by Lakeridge freshman Claire Sarnowski and Rob Wagner, an Oregon state senator and Lake Oswego School Board member, who have been working with Wiener to spread his story and the need for Holocaust education throughout the state. The trio is working on a bill to mandate Holocaust education in Oregon, an idea they presented to the Senate Education Committee in an informal hearing in September.
The formal bill will be presented to the legislature in January.
At Lakeridge, the audience listened in silence and awe as Wiener told his story. He was born in Poland, where his father was murdered by German invaders when he was only 13 years old. Wiener himself was taken to a forced labor camp at 15.
He eventually spent time in five different concentration camps; when his last camp was liberated in 1945, he was 18 years old and weighed just 80 pounds. He was one of only two surviving members of his entire extended family.
"We spend time learning about history so we don't repeat it," Lakeridge Principal Desiree Fisher told students. "You are tasked with that as our future leaders."
Wiener said that he didn't always feel compelled to share his story, but after seeing the impact it had, he began to hold talks at schools, churches, synagogues and more. He has now shared his story with nearly 1,000 live audiences.
However, at his advanced age, he has become limited in his ability to do so. Fortunately for the Lake Oswego community, Sarnowski and Wiener have become very close, and he said he felt compelled to come out of "speaking retirement" to visit her school.
Students of all ages from other Lake Oswego schools joined the Lakeridge students to hear Wiener's incredible testimony. Wiener was introduced by Wagner, who described him as "an exceptionally incredible man," who has changed Wagner's life.
Wagner asked students who are also impacted by Wiener's story to help support their bill by writing letters and emails to the Legislature, and he invited anyone who felt compelled to come to the Capitol when the bill is presented.
Sarnowski, who first met Wiener when she was in fourth grade, told students that her work with him and Wagner has shown her that young people can make a difference.
"You can make change. You can initiate change. And you can follow through with it," she said.
When Wiener took the stage, he told the audience that it is not easy for him to share his history, emotionally or physically, but he is not one to give up. When he was liberated from his final concentration camp, he said, he was told that he would not live long. In fact, he said, many Holocaust survivors died after the war was over because their bodies could not digest normal food — they had spent years living on bread that was mostly sawdust and soup that was mostly water.
But despite being tortured mentally and physically throughout the Holocaust, Wiener said he does not hold hate in his heart. "Hatred is self-destructive," he said.
In one work camp, Wiener saw a glimpse of hope that made a lasting impact on him. He was working in a factory with German women who were instructed not to acknowledge or interact with the prisoners working beside them. "One day, a middle-age German woman did acknowledge me," he said.
The woman gestured slightly, and after waiting for his chance, Wiener went to look where she had pointed. The woman had left him a cheese sandwich.
"Why did this woman risk her life for me?" Wiener still wonders to this day. "She did not do this once, but every day for 30 days. She risked her life for me, not once, but 30 times. Why did she do this? I don't know. But I do know that she gave me hope."
Wiener says that he now knows that there are good and bad people in every group. "We are all responsible for our own actions," he said. "You have to judge each individual on his own merits."
He said he hopes students learn from his experiences.
"It's so relevant to know history," said Wiener. "A wise person learns from their experiences, but the wisest person is the one who learns from someone else's experiences."
It seemed that his words reached audience members, who gave him an enthusiastic standing ovation at the end of his presentation.
For more information on Wiener, visit www.alterwiener.com.
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