Holocaust survivor pushing for mandatory genocide education in Oregon schools

Photo of Alter Wiener alongside a photo of him the day he was liberated from the Waldenburg concentration camp (subcamp of Gross-Rosen) in Poland in 1945.

A Holocaust survivor is spending what's left of his life making sure Oregon students know about the horrors of that dark period in history.

At 92, the painful memories from Alter Wiener's tragic past haven't aged a bit.

"When my father was murdered by the Germans, I was 13 years old," Alter says. "When I was taken to a concentration camp, I was 15 years old."

Alter has just one picture of himself as a young Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied Poland, before he was forced into slave labor. The Nazis murdered almost everyone he loved at Auschwitz.

"Every day when I take a shower, and I'm telling you exactly what I feel. And I look at the shower, and I ask myself: 'What did my little brother feel when they pushed him into a gas chamber at the age of 10? Instead of water, Zyklon B has choked him to death. How much did that little boy suffer?'" Alter asks, his eyes searching.

Alter was all of 80 pounds when allied forces liberated his camp. Much later in life, he started telling his story -- and wrote it down in his book -- "From a Name to a Number".

"He's living history and there's nothing like talking to him," says Claire Sarnowski, who along with her Mom, Carol, became friends with Alter after hearing him speak at a school.

He has a binder filled with thank you letters from students; strong reactions to the powerful lessons he shares.

"Stereotypeing, prejudice, respect, compassion, not taking things for granted," Claire says of those lessons.

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Now Claire and Carol are helping Alter push for a new law that would require Oregon schools to teach about the Holocaust.

A recent survey suggests 11 percent of adults in America and 22 percent of Millennials don't know what the Holocaust is. Of those surveyed by the Claims Conference, 4 in 10 didn't know what Auschwitz was and 66 percent of Millennials never heard of the death camp.

"I think there are plenty of places where this gets surface attention," says Senator Rob Wagner, who represents parts of SW Portland, West Linn, Tualatin and Lake Oswego.

"I'm a father with four children in our public schools and the reason I decided to run for school board and the state senate was in response to racism and anti-semitism that I saw in our schools," Sen. Wagner says.

Alter's story is driving the bill, which will first get introduced to the Education Committee on September 25, 2018 at 2 PM.

"It's about providing an opportunity for all students to make sure that we don't lose that history. Especially now in our country, I think these conversations need to be happening."

"Fanaticism, extremism, It might happen again. My point is, educate," Alter implores. "Show the world what did the Holocaust accomplish? What did Hitler accomplish?"

Despite all his suffering, hate's never found its way into Alter's heart. Only love.

"We are all equal," Alter says. "Give everybody a chance."

If you're interested in learning more about the bill, you can contact: claire.oregonholocaustmandate@gmail.com

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