Alter Wiener was born 1926 in Chrzanów, Poland, to a vibrant and very religious family. He lost his mother when he just four years old. “I do not remember her face,” he says remorsefully. His father remarried and Alter recalls, “My stepmother treated me and my older brother very well. She was as devoted to us as she was to her own child.” Alter’s father had a successful business, which he inherited from his parents. “We had a relatively good life; not lacking anything that was available in those times,” he adds.
Since it was mandatory to attend public school, Alter and his brother got their religious instruction during the afternoon. The Wiener family was Jewish and devout. His father’s motto was always, “Hate hatred and shun violence.” Alter recalls:
In retrospect, it seems to me, that life in those days was very meaningful. There was an abundance of love, and care for each other. The values, such as faith, honesty, righteousness, respect for the elderly, personal responsibilities, to be industrious and eager to learn, that I cherish today, were instilled at home; we were practically sheltered from the outside world’s negative influence.
The normalcy of daily life came to an end in September 1939.
“Since my hometown was close to the German border, we were urged to flee to the interior of Poland. By horse and wagon, we managed to trek about 50 miles till the German invading army caught up with us.” Alter’s father hired the horse and wagon to transport his family, but he did not join in the attempted escape because the Polish retreating army ordered him to stay behind and supply it with provisions stored at his business.
On 9 November 1939, my father was shot, left to bleed, and eventually to expire, and thrown into a pit, together with 36 other victims, by German soldiers. In November, when public transportation was partially restored, my stepmother, two brothers and I trekked back to our home in Chrzanów. The apartment was looted, and the worst of all, we could not find out the whereabouts of our father. In December, that pit was opened, the bodies exhumed, and my father’s partially decomposed body was identified…
“The Wieners showed up to sort through the bodies of the dead, who were so far beyond recognition Wiener’s stepmother was only able to identify her husband by his clothes” (“He decided to be ‘better, not bitter’” by Callie White, The Daily World, 12 Oct 2009). This traumatic experience has haunted Alter, some seventy years later, ever since. “It was such a formative experience, I have nightmares to this day remembering the partially decomposed face of my father,” Alter says. (continued below)
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An orphan at the age of 13, Alter could no longer go to school. He was “subjected to deprivation, persecution, helplessness, and hopelessness.”
“From that day on, Wiener’s life changed. At first he couldn’t go to school. Then he couldn’t go to synagogue. Then he couldn’t associate with non-Jews, then only walk in certain parts of the city. And then, in May of 1941, his older brother was taken from the family’s apartment by the Germans. ‘We couldn’t write, call, we didn’t know if he was alive,’ Wiener said” (The Daily World, 12 Oct 2009).
In June 1942, Alter was just 16 when deported to a forced labor camp. German soldiers told him he had three minutes to pack his things and leave. His stepmother pleaded with the soldiers not to take him, but one of them hit her in the face and knocked her unconscious. Alter didn’t get to say goodbye. Eight months later, in February 1943, his stepmother and nine-year-old stepbrother were deported to Auschwitz and murdered.
“Wiener was one of 80 people crammed into a train car to Blechammer, a forced labor camp. One of the passengers died, Wiener said, but the car was so crammed with standing people that the corpse stayed erect, too. At the camp, Wiener shared a room with 23 other people. For breakfast, he waited in line for two slices of bread ‘that were mostly made of sawdust,’ he said. For dinner, he had watery soup. At Blechammer, Wiener saw some of his neighbors, and they told him his brother was there. When Wiener saw him, he was taken aback. ‘I did not recognize him,’ Wiener said, because his brother was so skinny and weak” (The Daily World, 12 Oct 2009).
Many years later at a Holocaust survivors’ reunion, Alter learned of the fate of his brother whom he never saw after leaving Blechammer labor camp. One of the survivors “told me he had put my brother in one of the ovens with his own hands” at Auschwitz, Alter says. His brother had been gassed.
While being tormented in Gross Masselwitz (one of the camps), a German woman, jeopardized her life to help him by hiding a sandwich every day for 30 days. “Her gesture I will never forget, it fortified my belief that people must be judged by their merits, and not by their ethnicity (in the same vein I aver that not all Germans were active participants in the Holocaust),” Alter asserts.
Incarcerated for nearly three years in five different camps, Alter slaved away under brutal conditions and the ever-watchful eye of the SS. Here’s where he was imprisoned June 1942 – May 1945:
- June – Oct 1942 Forced Labor Camp Blechhammer (Blachownia Slaska);
- Oct – Dec 1942 Forced Labor Camp Brande (Prądy);
- Dec 1942 – Feb 1944 Forced Labor Camp Gross Masselwitz (Dzielnica Maslice Wielke);
- Feb – Sep 1944 Forced Labor Camp Klettendorf (Klecina);
- Sep 1944 – May 9, 1945 Concentration Camp Waldenburg (Wałbrzych).
It was at Waldenburg Concentration Camp, Alter’s last stop before liberation, where he was stripped of the last of his belongings, including his name. Bearing only a number and filthy prison rags for clothing, he worked in the mountains building warehouses for the Nazis.
“I was liberated on May 9, 1945, a day after the official German capitulation, by the Russian Army; a Russian tank approached our gate and the officer said, in halting Yiddish ‘Jews you are liberated, go out to the city of Waldenburg, kill Germans, rape and rob, take vengeance. We know how you feel; we lost 22 millions of our people, tens of thousand of our villages were wiped out.’ I could not take his advice; it would be alien to my character.” Plus, after years of malnutrition and forced labor, Alter was too weak to act even if he had wanted to. He was 19 years old and weighed only 80 pounds.
Instead of exacting revenge in Waldenburg, he traveled back to Poland to see if any other relatives had survived. Alter found only five of his cousins alive and learned that 123 close and distant relatives had died.
“Wiener said he spent his first few nights back in Chrzanow sleeping on his father’s grave. It was there, while seething with anger at his lost youth and family, that he decided to be ‘better, not bitter’” (The Daily World, 12 Oct 2009).
Eventually, Alter married and had two sons, who have since provided six grandchildren. “I came to this country in 1960, did menial work to support a family, and attended evening classes at Brooklyn College to learn accounting and catch up some knowledge that I was deprived of in my teens. I am grateful to the US for giving me a chance of revival,” he says.
He moved to Oregon in 2000 and began working on his memoirs between public appearances and speaking engagements, many in local schools. Alter Wiener’s autobiography From a Name to a Number was published in April 2007. One hundred fifty-eight people have already posted their reviews on Amazon.com.
Never Again! wishes to thank Alter Wiener for permission to share his story, as well as Gabriele Silten who linked us by e-mail just last week. We’d also like to pause in remembrance of the 123 Shoah victims who were Mr. Wiener’s relatives.
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