Holocaust Survivor's Last Year at South – but Possibly the Most Memorable
This morning, starting at 9:30 a.m., Alter Weiner came to speak at South Salem High for his 14th, and last, time. In order to commemorate this event, at the end of his lecture, Lara Tiffin presented the “Alter Wiener Tree of Righteousness,” a sapling planted in South’s courtyard with a stone bearing an inscription dedicated to an anonymous German woman who left him sandwiches during his imprisonment.
A photo of the plaque at the base of the tree that was planted in South’s courtyard in memory of Wiener and the woman who left him sandwiches.
He began his speech by introducing his backstory, talking about his homeland of Poland and the small town he came from, his family, including his father’s death on Sept. 11, 1939, and the last few photographs he had from his childhood. One was from when he was 15, with the armband decorated with the Star of David on his upper arm.
Weiner also took the time to touch on all the different types of badges the Nazis handed out.
“There were thirty or forty different groups,” Weiner said. “All Jews were a victim, but not all victims were Jews. Remember that. All Jews were a victim, but not all victims were Jews.”
Weiner in the middle of his speech at South Salem High on April 6.
Weiner also delved into his experience in the camps. He was imprisoned for over 2000 days, and while he was stuck in one camp, working in a textile mill, he encountered a generous German woman. The factory was divided into two sides, the German workers on the left, the internment prisoners on the right. One day, she caught his eye and pointed. Intrigued, and feeling that it was important, Weiner followed her finger. It led him to a sandwich, two slices of white bread with a slice of cheese, a godsend compared to the sawdust bread they were fed in camp. She proceeded to do this all thirty days he was there.
After being liberated, and gaining his strength, Weiner tells the tale of how he tried to find the woman, but was scorned after he said that he did not have her name or address. To this day, he has not been able to credit her. This remains his one regret. His picture book, Gifts from the Enemy, is dedicated to her memory, and focuses its majority on the story.
Today, however, South surprised Weiner with a tree planted in the courtyard in Weiner, and the woman’s honor. It has a stone plaque at the base that details the story he tells in his presentation, to inform all who pass. Tiffin gave a tear-filled speech informing him of the award, and to thank him for all he has done over the years, talking to 10,000 students, and thanking the students for the respect they showed him.
Principal Tiffin, history teacher Beth Waxenfelter, and English teachers Joyanna Forsythe and Kimberly Miller showing Weiner the sapling.
Along with his gratitude towards the woman, Weiner expressed his viewpoint towards the current generation of Germans.
“There is no point in hating the current generation of Germans,” Weiner said. “They should not be blamed for what their fathers did.”
He told the story of a college professor at Massachusetts University who taught German Literature and called him one day, telling Weiner that the cruel warden at one of the camps he stayed at was his father, and apologized. It took Weiner a half an hour to convince the man that he did not hate him for the actions of his father. A German foreign exchange student also hesitated to enter the hall at one of his lectures, worried that he would not want her to be in the audience, what with her grandfather being a Nazi. Once again, Weiner held no grudge against her.
His presentation ended with a question and answer segment, students asking him questions about things such as his faith, and the difference between Russian liberators and other countries.
“I was raised in a very religious household,” Weiner said. “I never lost my faith.”
A photo from the beginning of the Q&A portion with Weiner
He has affected many lives through his presentations. According to him, he has an estimated 120 letters that detail people who decided not to commit suicide after realizing how insignificant their problems were compared to his, and he was strong enough to survive.
At the urging of a man at one of his speeches given to a church, Weiner has written a book detailing his experiences. The man was an American soldier in 1945, and liberated several concentration camps.
“‘Please, write it for my children, write it for my grandchildren,’” that is what he said,” Weiner said.
It is titled From a Name to a Number, and as of Dec. 1, 2014, it was rated #100 overall in all formats, including paperback, hardcover, and kindle [out of 50 million books.] #14 in Biographies and Memoirs [out of 599,953,] #3 Historical [out of 69,799,] and #1 in the Holocaust Survivors’ Book category [out of 356.]
The cover of Weiner’s book projected on the screen behind him during today’s presentation.
More information can be found at his website.