Alter Wiener was a Holocaust survivor who spent his later life sharing his story and educating people about his experience. Tragically, he was killed earlier this month while crossing a street in Hillsboro. He was 92.
Wiener grew up up in a small town in Poland. Nazis abducted him from his family home as a teenager and sent him to a series of concentration camps, where he was imprisoned for three years. After being freed, he emigrated first to New York, then moved to Oregon in 2000.
While in Oregon, he began giving speeches about his life and wrote the book “From A Name To A Number: A Holocaust Survivor’s Autobiography.”
Lake Oswego teenager Claire Sarnowski first saw Wiener speak in Salem when she was 9 years old.
“I missed a day from school so I could go and hear him in Salem,” Sarnowski said. “Once I got down there and heard him, it was truly inspirational.”
She told OPB “Weekend Edition” host John Notarianni that she was so moved by his story that she and her mother visited Wiener at home. The two developed a close friendship.
Sarnowski acknowledges the unlikely pairing of a 10-year-old girl and a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, but says their friendship never felt unnatural to her.
“It was almost like we were old friends every time we talked. The age difference was never something we looked at,” she said.
They became so close that, at age 14, Sarnowski took the lead on realizing Wiener’s lifelong dream: implementing mandatory statewide curriculum standards for teaching students about the Holocaust and genocide.
She contacted state Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Tualatin, giving him Wiener’s book and sharing their vision. Sarnowski said the ball was rolling within two weeks.
“I have no idea how it happened so fast, but we’re hoping to get this introduced in the 2019 legislative session,” she said.
Sarnowski said she was in marketing class when she first learned about Wiener’s death. She received a note directing her to go to the office immediately.
“I thought I was in trouble, even though I never get into trouble,” Sarnowski said.
Instead, she was met by both her parents, who were crying. They broke the news to her.
When asked what she remembers most about Alter Wiener, Claire Sarnowski said there was so much more to Alter Wiener than just his speeches and stories. She said that he had a rich and occasionally mischievous sense of humor.
“If someone offered him something to eat or drink, he’d say, ‘I wish you were around in 1945!’”
Listen to Claire Sarnowski’s full conversation on OPB’s “Weekend Edition” in the audio player above.