Speaking to change minds
The OHRC Speaker’s Bureau is a group of about 20 dedicated survivors, liberators, and other experts on the Holocaust who speak to school groups, churches, and correctional facilities.
Evelyn Banko, a survivor, former Portland teacher and co-chair of the group, estimates they reached 30,000 students just last year. That works out to about two or three requests a week during the busy months of October to May, she said, with March to May the busiest months when many schools teach about World War II. She said high school is the largest focus of the group, though they receive many requests from middle schools. One of the speakers, Alice Kern, also speaks to grade school children.
“As I tell them what happened to me and to my family, I can see the dawning of comprehension in the students as their eyes widen in shock and disbelief. I know I reach them. Students have approached me long after I spoke to tell me that from that day on they looked at others differently, that it changed their lives.”
Miriam Greenstein Motola, a member of the group and former OHRC president, said,“I had a wake up call,” which caused her to get involved. She watched the rise of neo-Nazism in the United States and the world with growing alarm, including the painting of swastikas and the race-related murder of an immigrant in southeast Portland several years ago.
“Holocaust education is extremely important because of what is happening out there,” she said. “The racial hatred, prejudice, and murder have to stop.”
Alter Wiener is also a camp survivor who recently shared his remarkable story for the 200th time to a group in Portland.
While in a Nazi labor camp, a German woman risked her life to hide a sandwich for the then 16-year-old boy each day for 30 days. He doesn’t know why the woman made this gesture, but it left Wiener with the powerful knowledge that even in the midst of hate and depravation, a light can shine. “This really affected the way I look at life,” he said. “It taught me a lesson: I can never judge anyone by race or creed.”
Wiener, who lost 123 extended family members and his entire immediate family to the Holocaust, is a relative newcomer to the group, having joined four years ago after seeing an OHRC table at a Portland festival. However, letters from students and personal experiences from his talks tell him his story has literally changed lives. One young girl wrote to tell him she had been struggling with her life and was contemplating suicide. After hearing Wiener’s story, she wrote, her troubles seemed much smaller. Another hardened juvenile offender broke down and cried after listening to his story, the first time the young man had shown any compassion since his incarceration.
Then there was the German exchange student. She was surprised that he agreed to meet with her, particularly after she told him that her grandfather had been a Nazi. She was even more surprised that Wiener was not bitter and told her not to feel guilty about her grandfather. “She thought I would be bitter and not want to talk,” he said, “but I told her that I was not bitter and that I had no right to hate all the German people.”
Wiener said he keeps speaking because of those letters and experiences and the fact that evil and hate seem ever ready to arise again. “The tyrants learn from each other,” he noted. Hitler and the Nazis were emboldened by the world’s non-reaction to the 1915 genocide in Armenia. And like the Nazis, Saddam Hussein freed common criminals and gave them positions of authority over the citizenry.
“I make all those long trips (to speak) because I feel I make a contribution to society,” said Wiener.
Greenstein Motola said time is taking its inevitable toll on this World War II era group. “Many of our original group is dying or too sick to talk. But we now have a second generation of children of survivors coming forward, some other survivors have moved to town and we have added a couple of Holocaust rescuers (soldiers),” she said. “We get calls from all over Oregon and Washington to all kinds of little burgs way out. It’s really quite amazing.”
For information on booking a speaker, visiting the OHRC or Oregon Holocaust Memorial, call 503-352-2930 or go to ohrc.pacificu.edu .