Holocaust survivor urges students to appreciate life

SHERIDAN — Portland resident Alter Weiner, one of a dwindling number of remaining Holocaust survivors, has dedicated his life to passing on the Holocaust story to as many people as possible in recent years. He estimates he has told the story 872 times, most recently at the Delphian School in Sheridan.

Weiner said three things fuel his passion for telling the story:

* He has gotten many letters from people he had spoken to, saying his account of the horror he endured had inspired them to make more of their own lives.

* He thinks children and adults alike need to know the degree of prejudice the world is capable of in order to best comprehend, understand and finally fight against it.

* No one could have ever predicted such a horrifying event — and, in fact, a stubborn fringe element continues to deny it ever occurred — adding to the urgency and importance of spreading the truth.

Weiner said the Nazis killed his father when they invaded Poland in 1939, when he was just 13. He said he sat next to his father’s casket asking, “Why did they kill you, daddy? What do I do? I am only 13.”

He said the Nazis first arrested his older brother, then came for him, plucking him from the arms of his stepmother and younger brother.

At the age of 15, he was consigned to a concentration camp, simply for being Jewish. Over the course of the ensuing 35 months, he was shuttled among four different camps.

“There were badges with different symbols and different names,” he told his audience at the Delphian School. “They could have been Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, homosexuals.

“I realized then that every Jew was a victim, but not every victim was a Jew. If Hitler had succeeded and won the war, all of the people in this room could have been enslaved, because if you don’t have blond hair or blue eyes, you are not pure German.”

He described the emaciated condition of every person relegated to the camps. He said it tells a searing truth about what society was and still is capable of.

Weiner said he considers his survival a victory over Hitler.

He said millions died in the camps, and others died within a week, or even a day, of their release. But he said he decided early that he was going to live somehow. He never lost hope and continued to pray throughout his ordeal.

“I survived, and I have kept my sense of humor,” Weiner told Delphian students. “If I hadn’t, I would have given a win to Hitler.

“Hitler wanted to destroy me. I wasn’t going to let him, so now I’m here.”

His story moved many in the audience to tears. It gave them a realization of the terrible tragedies people have to face in the world — tragedies that may be casually dismissed by others.

Weiner quoted the French philosopher Voltaire as saying, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” And he said that’s what happened in Nazi Germany.

He said the terrible experience had given him a deeper appreciation for life, and he does his best to instill that in his listeners. He said he wants them to realize, “Freedom is a precious thing.”

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