Still running daily at the age of 84 is not the only remarkable thing about Sylvia Weiner. Nor is the fact that she was the first woman winner of the Boston Marathon masters division in 1975.
What's truly remarkable is that three decades before she won the marathon Weiner was in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with Anne Frank and was with the now-famous diarist on the day that she died.
“Running saved my life,” Weiner told the Runners World website. “God first, through the miracle of my concentration camp survival. And then running. Without running, my life would have slipped into some bad times.”
She still runs between eight and 11 kilometers (five and seven miles) every morning, though she has cut her racing down to one or two races a year. “I never take a morning off unless it’s literally impossible for me to run,” she said.
Born in Poland, Weiner was only 12 when she was separated from her parents and seven siblings in 1942. Her family was taken to Treblinka camp, never to return, while Weiner was shuttled from Majdanek to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen.
It was in the last camp that she befriended a young Dutch girl named Anna. Weiner was recovering from her second bout with typhoid, but Anna was much sicker. “The conditions were horrendous,” she recalled. “We slept on the ground with no mattress or blanket, and lice were everywhere. We had almost no food — just this terrible watery soup.”
Anna's death was one of many and Weiner didn’t think much of it at the time. Years later, when living in Montreal, she heard about Anne Frank’s "The Diary of a Young Girl," and saw Frank’s photo. “Oh my gosh,” she realized. “That’s Anna.”
Married and with three children, Weiner struggled to shake off the concentration camp memories. Her doctors prescribed sleeping pills and then tranquilizers for her frequent nightmares and episodes of depression. “I had days when I felt I was going down-down-down,” she said.
Her life changed when she joined the Montreal YMHA and began running. “We did a quarter-mile the first day, and I thought I couldn’t make it, but I did,” she said. “No one else in the class came back the second day, but I returned, and kept going.”
Weiner found that running lifted her spirits to the point that she could stop taking the tranquilizers. She joined a small, all-male running group and graduated into running marathons.
Forty years ago, in 1975, when the Boston Marathon first recognized men and women master’s division winners, Weiner claimed the female title in 3:21:38. She was 44 at the time, standing 4 feet, 11 inches tall and weighing 98 pounds.