Sunday, May 3, 2009

Holocaust survivor speaks at LBCC

Alter Wiener, Holocaust survivor and author of “From a Name to a Number” spoke at LBCC Tuesday, April 28, from 3 to 5 p.m. to an audience of 300. His speech was about his experience of the Holocaust, learning from history’s mistakes, celebrating life, and was followed by a question-and-answer session.

Wiener began his speech by telling us he was not here to entertain, but to tell us his story.

It began when Wiener was 13, after Germany invaded Poland and people were fleeing for their lives. Separated from their father, Wiener’s family tried to leave the country unsuccessfully. They learned three months later that, along with 37 others, Wiener’s father had been shot and left for dead in a ditch on the outskirts of Poland.

Not long after, the Gestapo came for Wiener’s oldest brother and, when Wiener turned 15, he too was sent to a labor camp. That camp was called Blechhammer. Soon after arriving, he discovered his brother had been there for a year.

He described the car that transported him and many others to Blechhammer as hellish.

“People died standing up because there was no room to lay down and die,” Weiner said.

Conditions at Blechhammer weren’t any better. Wiener shared an 8 by 10 foot room with 24 other people. There were no mattresses, pillows, or blankets – only bed frames that were already inhabited by roaches and mice. For breakfast, they were given stale, moldy bread and for dinner a watery soup. One might be considered lucky if their bowl contained a floating potato or onion.

Four months after arriving at Blechhammer, Wiener was transferred to his second labor camp and later transferred to his third, fourth and fifth camp.

He learned that Jews weren’t the only ones being persecuted. It came as a surprise when he saw groups marching into camps wearing different badges and soon learned that 30-40 different groups of people were persecuted, including Soviets, homosexuals, and gypsies.

Wiener described several unfathomable events that took place during the three years he was living in camps. He told of one particular event where a commander entertained himself by having everyone in Wiener’s barracks stand under the cold showers for an entire night. When the sun came up, he sent them to work.

Many actions were criminalized in these camps, including talking to each other while working and bartering for food, as Wiener learned after trying to trade his watch for some bread which he never received. When the commanders learned of the trade, they whipped Wiener 15 times.

Finally, on May 9, 1945 the Russians liberated his camp and Wiener was set free, weighing only 80 pounds. With only four surviving family members left out of 123, Wiener felt his time in Poland had come to an end and decided to move to the United States.

Now Wiener lives in Hillsboro, and speaks regularly at schools, churches and prisons about his experience. Instead of dwelling on atrocities committed against him, Wiener wanted people to learn that he believes that “we should be judged on an individual basis”

Wiener concluded many points in his speech by reiterating his belief that Hitler was a man without a heart, and someone needed to teach him to love.

Wiener was also very quick to point out the ignorance of Holocaust deniers, like the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“How dare he say so,” said Wiener, “there are photographs, and buildings, and graves, and I’m still here carrying my physical and mental scars. If you are tortured once, you are tortured every day.”

Audience members were moved to tears and gave Wiener a standing ovation before the speech was opened up to a question and answer session.

Alter speaking to students individually after the speech.

When I interviewed audience members, most left with mixed feelings of hope, sympathy and curiosity. Bob McCormick, a retired vet and education major at L.B.C.C. said, "my heart is opened more, there is great importance in passing this lesson on to our children."

Another audience member, Zachary Dietrich thought that the story about the watch was most shocking, "how anyone could be punished for trying to eat isn't fathomable."

photos by Becca Martino.


Charles said...

If you enjoy stories about the Shoah, try "Jacob's Courage," by Weinblatt (syllabus at

denezeh said...

Have you watched The Reader? i think you might enjoy that as well. It gives a bit of a different perspective from the other side.

Chris said...

first, let me say that i LOVE the picture you're using for your header! nothing like the feel of saltwater and sand between your toes!!!

secondly, let me say thank you for sharing alter's story on your blog...i just met alter by e-mail through a mutual friend and posted his story this morning on my blog Never Again!

i hope you'll stop by and leave me a comment...and maybe share some more beach you have any sunrise or sunset pics?

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