Holocaust talk resonates with students
But nothing compared to hearing directly from Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener, who visited McMinnville last week.
Wiener was 13 when Germany invaded his hometown in Poland in September 1939. He still has nightmares about finding the decomposing body of his father, who was shot along with 37 other Jewish men and pushed into a mass grave.
Captured the next year, Weiner spent 1,050 days in work camps, where he was beaten regularly, denied food or medical care, and kept under constant threat. He saw hundreds of people die of beatings, starvation or trips to the gas chamber. After the war, he searched for his family, only to find all 123 members had been killed.
“I couldn’t believe some of the things that happened to him,” said Lindsey VanDyke, an eighth grader. “It meant a lot that we could hear that from a real person.”
Jordan Burgess added, “It’s one thing to hear about it from a story. It’s a lot more real coming from him.”
Emily DeYoung agreed.
Like many of her fellow students, she had read Wiener’s autobiography, “From a Name to a Number,” one of the most-reviewed books on Amazon.com. “When I heard him, it was so different ... so much more real,” she said.
The presentation made student Josh Bond wonder, again, “How can people think this didn’t happen?”
Eighth-graders said they were especially struck by Wiener’s descriptions of the way prisoners, who had committed no crime, were treated in the camps. He described how 24 men were housed in a 9x12 room and kept alive on watery soup and bits of bread made from as much sawdust as flour.
Starvation was constant, and Wiener’s weight had dropped to 80 pounds by the time he was liberated at age 18. Prisoners who became too weak to work, along with those who were too young, too old or otherwise considered useless, were sent to a death camp.
The most remarkable part of the story, eighth-graders said, was about a German woman who sneaked sandwiches to him. Every day for 30 days, Wiener said, a middle-aged woman risked her life to give him a bread and cheese sandwich. If she had been caught helping a Jew, whom the Nazis termed subhuman, she would have been killed.
He called it “the most interesting and dramatic thing to happen in my life.” It showed him what kindness was, he said, and it taught him an important lesson: There were good Germans and bad Germans, just as there are good and bad people in every group.
Wiener said he does not hate the Germans.
“That’s incredible,” Emily DeYoung said. “He doesn’t feel hate. But he says he was raised to hate hate.”
Eighth-grader Brianna Thomas said she particularly appreciated the part of his message, “that prejudice is absurd.” She also liked that he emphasized that today’s generation is not at fault for the decisions its leaders made decades ago.
Students also appreciated Wiener’s message about never giving up hope. Dreaming of someday having as much bread as he wanted, teenage Weiner never gave up hope of surviving the camps, even when he finally lost his strength and was placed on the list for a death camp.
“A German guard told me to get back into line for work,” he said. “I was saved. And two weeks later, we were liberated.”
Wiener, 87, has been speaking to McMinnville middle school students for years. It’s always a highlight, because it really makes the subject meaningful, according to Casey Rich, Mary Lukehart and other teachers.
He has been visiting schools, churches, synagogues and other venues for more than a decade as a speaker for the Oregon Holocaust Project. When he spoke Wednesday in McMinnville, it was the 799th time he’d told his story.
“I’m tired, but it energizes me to speak to young people,” he said.
He said he plans to keep telling the story of his suffering as long as he can because he knows students — and adults — can learn from it.
Shortly after his first speaking engagement, Wiener received a bundle of letters from students saying thank you, how they were moved by his story and promising to improve their lives. “Those letters changed my life,” he said.
He since has received more than 52,000 letters, including many McMinnville residents who’ve heard him speak. Among them was one from a local teen who said she had been contemplating suicide, but decided against it after learning how small her problems seemed in comparison to Wiener’s experiences.
“It’s very gratifying to save a young child’s life, very gratifying,” he said.
While students are eager to say they learn from Wiener’s presentations, he’s equally clear that he learns from them. “You’d be surprised how much,” he said.
For instance, he said, they are teaching them about the challenges they face and how the persevere. And a recent group of exchange students from China taught him that Chinese students now are learning about the Holocaust — something that really pleases him.
Wiener said he’s always interested, and sometimes surprised, by the questions people ask him. During a recent TV appearance, he was asked if he felt guilt about being a survivor.
“No, I don’t feel guilt,” he said. “But I always wonder, why me?
“I’m grateful every day that I’m alive. But why? Plain luck? Faith, since I was brought up in a religious home? Because I was so young and surviving was all I wanted, all I hoped for?”