‘From A Name to a Number: A Holocaust survivor’s tale

Alter Wiener speaks at PSU about horror, forgiveness, struggle against prejudice

“The Germans have a saying: If you lose hope, you lose everything,” said Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener, who endured 35 months in five concentration camps during World War II, fighting starvation and losing 123 extended family members.

Alter Wiener speaks at PSU about horror, forgiveness, struggle against prejudice

“The Germans have a saying: If you lose hope, you lose everything,” said Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener, who endured 35 months in five concentration camps during World War II, fighting starvation and losing 123 extended family members.

Alter Wiener visited PSU on May 24 to share his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.
Miles Sanguinetti / Vanguard Staff
Alter Wiener visited PSU on May 24 to share his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

What he didn’t lose was his sense of hope.

“I was brought up in a very religious home. I was taught from my early childhood that I should always pray. So I didn’t give up. There were people who gave up, and they died. I saw misery. I saw murder. But I never gave up faith,” Wiener said.

Wiener, now 86, lives in Hillsboro and penned his autobiography, From a Name to a Number, which details his experiences during the Holocaust. Speaking to an audience of 80 people at an event organized by Portland State’s School of Social Work on May 24, Wiener described the atrocities he experienced and shared the lessons he learned about hope, appreciation and forgiveness.

“Mr. Wiener’s story of survival/perseverance in the face of oppression, his personal journey to forgiveness and compassion, his fight for honoring human dignity and his unrelenting faith and hope are 100 percent in alignment with social work values,”said Cimone Schwoeffermann, School of Social Work recruitment and retention specialist. “We feel privileged that Mr. Wiener was willing to share history and his life story with us in such a deep and meaningful way,” “It is a very sad story, but it is a very true story,” Wiener said.

Wiener, who was born in Chrzanów, Poland, spoke of his early years with his father, stepmother and two brothers as a time that left an indelible mark on his character.

“Even though we didn’t have any of the conveniences you take for granted today, what we did have were beautiful values,” he said. Among these values was respect for all human beings, ranging from his grandparents to his neighbors to the homeless. “The older I get, the more appreciative I am of the values instilled in me as a child,” he added.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, 13-year-old Wiener lost his father, who was shot by the German army and left to die in a pit with 37 others. Fewer than two years later, his older brother was taken away in the middle of the night.

A year after, in June 1942, the same fate fell upon Wiener. He would never see his stepmother or younger brother again and would later learn that they were murdered at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp.

After being shoved into a cattle car with 80 other people and going without food or drink for nearly two days, Wiener arrived at his first camp to be beaten without reason. He saw his older brother but was permanently separated from him when Wiener transferred camps. For the next 35 months, he endured conditions beyond description: crowded “bunks infested with roaches and lice”; a meager diet of bread, diluted soup and sawdust; whippings when, out of desperate hunger, he agreed to exchange his watch for another inmate’s loaf of bread.

“People were constantly dying of starvation. And to die of starvation is a terrible way to die. You feel it all the time,” Wiener said.

At the final camp, Wiener was stripped of his possessions and his humanity. In return, he was given a shirt, an overcoat, trousers and a number: 64375.

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

Wiener projected an image of himself as an unrecognizable, emaciated young man: He was 18 years old and weighed only 80 pounds. “When I was liberated for the first time, I looked in the mirror and wondered: Who is that person?” he told the audience.

At the event, Wiener displayed a harrowing array of archival Holocaust footage: mountains of shoes belonging to children sent to the gas chambers, faces of survivors who died soon after the war from an inability to digest regular food, piles of dead bodies.

“Nobody can say this didn’t happen,” he said.

Amidst unimaginable atrocities, Wiener said, he was witness to an act of pure righteousness, describing an episode that occurred while he worked at a textile factory. A middle-aged German woman who ran the machinery risked her own life by leaving cheese sandwiches for him; she left sandwiches for him every day for the 30 days he worked at the factory.

“That German woman is my heroine to the last day of my life. Not just because of the practical help of leaving the sandwiches for me, but because she taught me a very important lesson. What did I learn? That you are going to find good people and bad people in every group,” he said.

At one point during the event, Wiener spoke of his thoughts and beliefs, speaking of himself in third person: “Alter Wiener doesn’t ask penance from anybody for anti-Semitic acts committed in the past. He seeks no vengeance against those who kept him incarcerated in concentration camps during the Holocaust. He had no desire to kill evil Nazis. He is determined not be consumed with hatred for anybody. All he is asking for is to be seen as member of the human race. We are all flesh and bone that live and eventually die. He deserves to be equal to everybody and everybody equal to him. We are all God’s children. We all want to have a roof over our heads, to love and to live in peace and dignity. Alter Wiener suggests despite all his suffering of injustice never to succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter.”

Wiener’s message has resonated widely.

“I heard Mr. Wiener speak at my son’s middle school last year and was very inspired by his talk,” children’s author Trudy Ludwig said. “With Mr. Wiener’s permission, I am writing the children’s story 30 Days of Bread and Cheese to share with young readers the powerful lessons he learned about the dangers of stereotyping and prejudice,” she added.

Wiener, who received an honorary bachelor’s degree from Warner Pacific College and an honorary law degree from Lewis and Clark Law School, has spoken to over 750 audiences, from elementary to graduate schools, at places of worship and at prisons. He has received more than 46,000 letters from people moved by his story.

“He is an extraordinary man who has been one of the most influential people in my life. Hearing him, I found new hope in humanity,” said social work and psychology senior Valéria Jones, who met Wiener at a previous Holocaust survivor event and has received his permission to translate his autobiography into her native Hungarian.

Jones, who approached the School of Social Work with the desire to bring Wiener to PSU, added that “he has a remarkable ability for processing his horrific experiences into powerful humility.”

But for more than four decades, Wiener lived in silence.

After moving to New York in 1960, Wiener earned a high school equivalency degree and attended Brooklyn College to study accounting. In all that time, he was never asked, nor compelled, to share his story.

“Like many other Holocaust survivors, I was focused on adjusting to a new life in a new country,” he wrote in his autobiography. His silence was characteristic of the experience that a number of Holocaust survivors went through.

“Many survivors seem to pass a considerable length of time—often 20 or 30 years—before they are able to speak about what happened,” said English Professor Marcia Klotz, who teaches a class on the film and literature of genocide. “Then, once they start to speak, they feel the need to tell their stories over and over again. A listener who respects and cares for the speaker is crucial to that process. Grieving and healing are thus collective processes,” she added.

“I was pleased when a trauma counselor told me that sharing my true life story might be a healing catharsis for me,” Wiener said.

When Wiener retired from accounting and moved to Hillsboro in 2000, he was approached by the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center and asked to share his story. He was initially hesitant, but after agreeing to speak at a high school he witnessed the enormous impact his story had on the audience.

“A teacher visited me afterward and gave me 100 letters from students. They wrote things like ‘Mr. Wiener, you changed my life, you saved me,’” Wiener said. Some of these students were on the brink of suicide and gained perspective on their own lives from Wiener’s message.

Wiener called upon students at PSU to learn from his suffering. “By listening to me, PSU students became witnesses by becoming aware of their responsibility to the present; it should not happen again. If you see unfairness or prejudice, speak up,” he said.

“Every Jew was a victim, but not every victim was a Jew,” he added, alluding to both the five million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust and the combined six million people from other ostracized groups: gypsies, gay men, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles, Ukrainians, communists and disabled peoples.

“The Holocaust was indeed a Jewish tragedy, but also a tragedy for the entire civilized world to let it happen,” he said.

Wiener concluded his talk by saying that “the idea here is to appreciate what you have. Think of all those little things that you take for granted that I didn’t have. Count your blessings.”

The audience came to its feet and broke into a rousing applause.

“The process of speaking and of listening to a speaker like Alter Wiener helps us all to heal our sense of history and time. It reconstitutes the bonds of community as well,” Klotz said. “We are so lucky to live in Portland,” she continued, “where the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center has made contact with a number of survivors and coordinated them in such a way that they can tell their stories to the general public. The lessons they have to teach us all are invaluable.”