PORTLAND, Ore. – Alter Wiener lost everyone he loved and everything he owned as a Jewish child in Poland.
“They took us away naked, gave us a uniform and a number – 64735 – and they never called me by my name again,” he said.
Wiener is Oregon’s oldest Holocaust survivor. He survived 35 months in camps under the Nazi occupation.
After German invaders murdered his father, Wiener said he lived in ghettos with his stepmother and siblings, until his older brother was taken.
At age 15, he was taken to a labor camp in Germany called Blechhammer.
“I didn’t see my own face,” he said. “There were no mirrors in that camp.”
It was the first of five labor camps Wiener was forced to work in. He said he was almost worked to death. By age 18, he weighed 80 pounds.
“Skin and bones, I could hardly walk,” he said.
When Wiener and his fellow prisoners were finally liberated, he said what should have been a celebration was instead terrifying.
“When they told us we are free, the first thought that came to mind is ‘what am I going to do? Where am I going to go? Who’s going to take care of me?’”
Wiener said sympathetic Germans from nearby towns came to the camps and offered him a place to stay.
He started a new life and started a family.
In 1960, Wiener came to the U.S. and started sharing his story with the public. He has spoken to more than 300 audiences in schools, churches and prisons across the Northwest.
One day, a World War II veteran, who was one of the American soldiers who helped liberate the camps, approached Wiener after one of his speeches.
“[He said] I remember what we found in those camps. I have nightmares to this very day. Please promise me that you’re going to put your story in print. Do it for my children and for my grandchildren,” said Wiener.
Wiener’s autobiography, “From a Name to a Number,” was published in 2007. He said telling his story feels like a moral obligation. He recently sold the rights to turn his book into a movie.
“The impact it has, especially [on] the young people. The young person realizes, all of this happened to me when I was their age,” said Wiener.
In his book, Wiener included a letter written to him by a McMinnville, Ore. student. She planned to commit suicide, but decided her life was worth living after listening to his story.
Wiener says he wants to inspire an appreciation of life in everyone, and perhaps even prevent another Holocaust.
“My point is to learn, learn from my experience and try to avoid it. Try to see that prejudice, stereotyping is completely senseless. It doesn’t make any sense.”