Interview with a Holocaust Survivor: On Tragedy, Love, and Compassion
interview with a holocaust survivor
i had the unique privilege of talking with 88 year old alter wiener, a holocaust survivor from poland. my husband set up this interview and did a powerful recap of his biggest take aways that you can read about HERE.
my mind truly cannot comprehend the atrocities he went through like seeing his own father’s partially decomposed body exhumed from a mass grave after he was murdered by the germans months before on september 11, 1939. alter was 13. from this time on, he wasn’t allowed to attend school, the synagogues were chained closed, he suffered beatings for not removing his hat or forgetting to wear the armband with the yellow star of david signaling he was jewish.
alter was deported to a concentration camp at the age of 15 and survived 5 different camps in germany. he was liberated by the russian army on may 9, 1945, after almost 3 years of imprisonment and torture.
he never saw a fresh fruit or vegetable for three years. he was beaten so badly multiple times to the point where he asked the guards just to kill him but they would rather keep him alive suffering. more than 6 million jews, including over 1.5 million children were murdered by the nazis. all of alter’s immediate family was murdered and years later he discovered that only 4 distant cousins remained of his entire family of 128.
“i still question why my life was spared and not my brother’s. my survival is both an exalted privilege and a painful burden.”
i was unsure what to expect as we arrived at his home. i did know that it’s a rare honor to learn and listen to someone that has experienced so much torture and experienced firsthand how terrible this world can be. i was greeted with a smile and an invitation to sit down.
he not only welcomed us into his home but even had snacks out for us. i am not sure why but seeing this tupperware containing pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and a chocolate assortment set out for us was quite emotional to me. here is a man that has gone through so much and could very reasonably be filled with hatred, but instead he has chosen kindness. for someone who almost died from starvation and witnessed many around him suffer this horrible death, it was powerful to have him share his food with us.
when he stopped mid-sentence to offer us anything else to eat or drink, we said no thank you and when i asked if i could get him a glass of water, he said with a smile on his face, “if you wanted to offer me something, you should have done it in 1945!” ha! well-played, alter.
my biggest takeaways from him:
NEVER GIVE UP HOPE
in his book, alter writes that “in march 1945, i became so emaciated that i could no longer work. i became a candidate for liquidation…i was standing in line for the doomed, waiting to be gassed and cremated. i sniffed the offensive odor of burning flesh. i felt downright scared.” a german civilian entrepreneur approached him and said ‘get out of line, young boy’ you can still work and expire at work,” and sent him back to his camp at waldenburg, where he was expected to work until it killed him.
he went on to share with us that you need to hold on. today may be hard, but what if you wake up tomorrow and feel just a little bit better? you would miss all that if you gave up hope. alter says he will never understand how god would let this happen but he never lost faith. he then told us he received a letter from an 8th grader who was contemplating suicide but after hearing his story, it filled her with hope and she chose to live.
the last 1/3 of his book is filled with people sharing with alter how powerful of an effect it has had on their lives. he has literally saved lives by relieving and sharing his tragic past and by sharing his positive outlook on life now.
BE PATIENT AND UNDERSTANDING WITH YOUR SPOUSE
when i asked him about his own relationship and marriage, he said it was very hard and his advice would be to be patient. he told me that 98% of holocaust survivors marry other survivors because they are the only ones that could be an empathetic spouse. he married esther in 1952, a non-holocaust survivor.
alter is very honest in his book about his relationship with his wife, esther, and how difficult it was to marry a non-survivor. in his book he writes “when my inner voice asked me whether i wanted to be married, my answer was no. i felt an aching gap. post-traumatic stress of the holocaust lingered on within me. i was very reluctant to get married but i did. i did not make the right decision but tried for years to make the decision right.”
he went on to tell me that when she would raise her voice or yell at their children when they were misbehaving, it would “reawaken traumatic memories from the concentration camp.” he tried explaining this to her butshe never understood and became insensitive to this. in 1982 she was diagnosed with parkinson’s disease and is in a nursing home.
while you can never fully understand what your spouse has been through or what they are feeling deeply, you can provide a safe harbor for them and be empathetic.
KEEP THE HUMOR COMING
when asked about his vices, he responds with “well, i like chocolate and women.”
when asked about his current health, alter says he is a strict vegetarian and eats a lot of fruit. he had colon surgery because of cancer in 2005 but “otherwise, i have been content with all parts of my body and so are my female friends.”
alter asked if i had read is book yet and at the time my husband just finished it and was passing it on to me. i told him that i would be starting it soon and he said “well, i can’t wait for you to take me to bed!” he’s awfully lucky he’s a sweet old man and that i have a soft spot for the elderly…so i let him get away with it.
as we were heading out, my husband (always the hugger) asked if alter was more of a handshake or hugging type of guy. alter responded with “a handshake from you but a close hug for her (me).”
TODAY, THERE IS A REASON TO SMILE
“my smiling face does not indicate that my heart stopped bleeding. in fact, it has indeed been bleeding for the last 75 years. i am just sending a message to hitler and to those who had been following his racist ideology that the nazi’s plan to stop me breathing at the age of 13 did not materialize…i am breathing and smiling.” there is so much to smile about. a refrigerator, the sunshine, a flower but most of all, personal freedom. he went on to say how much people of my generation take that for granted because we’ve never experienced it being taken from us (very true).
“living with a clean conscience and free of a guilty feeling is the best prescription for a happy life. happiness can be achieved, villains can be defeated and the means of success can be learned if you have a positive approach. by contrast, a negative approach may make us wonder why we should risk getting out of bed in the morning, never mind why we should excel in our tasks.”
“a smile, which is usually so easy to pass along. never did surface (in the labor camps).”
alter told us that it is very hard to talk about his past and all of the torture he went through but he does it because he wants to bring hope to others. he also wants the world to never forget the atrocities that occurred.
“when i was incarcerated in concentration camps during the holocaust, i made a vow to myself that if i would ever become a free man, i would be compassionate. i would walk in the path of love, not of hate.”
1) how are you walking the path of love and what is making you smile today?
2) what is a way you can show more compassion and empathy to your spouse and to others in the world?
3) think of the other older adults who have experienced so much in their lives. take time to interact, listen and learn from them.
ps. please share this article and let’s help alter’s story stay alive and learn from his life lessons.