“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Elie Wiesel

Holocaust survivor’s story continues to resonate

Students, families in Battle Ground hear one man’s tale of German occupation of Poland in WWII

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

Published: November 7, 2015, 6:05 AM


Alter Wiener tells a Battle Ground audience Thursday night about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. He has written about his life in “From a Name to a Number,” which refers to the identity number he was issued by the Germans: 64735. (Natalie Behring/The Columbian)

BATTLE GROUND — More than 76 years after he looked into the decomposing face of his dead father … more than 73 years after he was hauled off to a slave labor camp … more than 70 years after he staved off hunger by eating snow …

Alter Wiener’s story continues to resonate.

The Holocaust survivor shared that story again Thursday evening with students and their families at the River HomeLink school campus in Battle Ground.

Terree Marvin, who teaches middle-school writing and history, has been inviting Wiener to speak at River HomeLink for about the last eight years. And each year, “his message has been so powerful and so impactful,” Marvin said.

After all, many of those students are in their early teens — just about the age the Polish boy was when his life took a horrible turn in September 1939.

“The Germans invaded Poland, and our town was close to the border. They took 38 people, mostly Jews, and shot them and threw them into a pit,” Wiener said.

About three months later, the families of the victims “opened the pit to give them a proper burial. I was 13; I was looking into my father’s partially decomposed face.

“I have nightmares to this day, images of my father’s body,” he told the group.

In 1941, his older brother was seized and shipped to a labor camp. A year later, it was Wiener’s turn, one of 80 people packed in a boxcar, without food or water, for 1 1/2 days.

At the camp, a fellow prisoner from his hometown recognized Wiener. “He took me to meet my older brother. I had not seen him in a year; he had aged 10 years. I could not recognize my own brother.”

That was the first of five camps where Wiener was a slave laborer. But there were other camps, places where his stepmother and his little brother were shipped.

“The very young and the elderly were taken to killing centers.”

Wiener was transferred to a series of other places that needed laborers, and he never saw his older brother again. One of his work sites was a textile factory, where German workers also were employed. It was another transformational experience.

The German workers were under strict orders: Don’t give anything to the prisoners. Don’t talk to them. Don’t make eye contact with them.

Then one day, a woman on her way to the toilet made eye contact with Wiener.

“She caught my eye and signaled. I had no idea what she meant. I was very curious, and at the right moment, I approached that spot and found a sandwich: two slices of bread and a piece of cheese.”

If someone had discovered her generosity, “she would have been executed,” Wiener, 89, said.

That blessing was repeated for 30 days, until Wiener was transferred to another job, where had another memorable meal. Wiener was digging anti-tank trenches when his shovel unearthed a potato.

“I ate it raw, dirty, unpeeled.” A new arrival from Belgium wondered how the boy could gobble down a dirty potato, and Wiener told him: “It’s better than eating snow.”

And in a follow-up conversation, Wiener noted: “I ate snow.”

Wiener was at his fifth camp in 1945 when it was liberated by the Soviet army.

“I was in a refugee camp for a long time. It was a tough time. I was uneducated,” said Wiener, whose schooling ended when he was 13.

He eventually came to the United States, where he was able to resume his education as an adult — much of it in evening classes. He earned his high school equivalency diploma, then went to college and became an accountant.

Wiener wrote a book about his life, “From a Name to a Number.” He started making public presentations about 15 years ago, including talks at Northwest schools. Some students in those audiences have had an interesting reaction to his story, Wiener said.

He’s gotten letters from 125 teens who had wanted to kill themselves, he said. They hear what Wiener endured, starting at age 13. Then they re-evaluate what’s going on in their lives, and, Wiener said, they know they can tolerate it.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; www.twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com

Reposted from The Columbian

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