HALFAX — For 40 years, Philip Riteman remained silent. Then, the Halifax man was convinced to tell his story as a Holocaust survivor. For 60 years, Philip Riteman refused to write his memoirs.
Philip Riteman [Joel Jacobson photo]
Then, he made the decision that his story should be told and remembered, even when he and the other Holocaust survivors are gone.
On Oct. 26, Riteman launched his book, Millions of Souls, as told to author Mireille Baulu-MacWillie, and published by Flanker Press of Newfoundland.
In front of a class of 30 Dalhousie University students and about 40 members of the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, Riteman verbally abridged his story, one he has told hundreds of times to junior high, high school and university students and community audiences across Canada and into New England. He has received two honorary degrees from Atlantic Canadian universities for his dedication to history.
He has always preached the same message: “It is better to love than to hate. Be aware of evil. Think for yourself. Don’t be brainwashed.”
He stresses that he has accepted the obligation to speak about the horrors of Nazi Germany “so it won’t happen again. I’m booked [to speak] for the next year. I’d like to give up, but I can’t.”
Riteman is 85 years old. He was incarcerated in concentration camps from 1941 to 1945, from the time he was 16 years old and in good health, until he was almost 21 and liberated, weighing a scrawny 75 pounds.
In Millions of Souls, Riteman describes the meagre portions of “food” the camp inmates received, the thousands of killings he witnessed, the work he did in the camps, including carting the dead to mass graves, the feeling when he knew he had seen his parents, brothers, sisters, cousins and other relatives for the last time and the constant cold and hunger.
He praises the American soldiers who liberated him, and about 1,000 survivors, who were on a death march through the Tyrol Mountains. He writes about discovering he had aunts living in Canada and the United States and being reunited with them in Newfoundland, the only country willing to take him in in 1946.
He concludes with stories of gratitude for Newfoundlanders who supported him as a pedlar who knew little English, who took him into their homes for food and lodging in the small fishing villages on the island.
Baulu-MacWillie, a university professor for 20 years at College Ste. Anne in Nova Scotia, knew of the Holocaust from reading the Diary of Anne Frank at age 13 and many other books on the history of the period.
“I met Philip three years ago at a Holocaust Education Week session in Halifax on teaching the Holocaust in the classroom,” she recalls. “I looked on the Net to see if his story had been told and it hadn’t, so I asked him if I could. He refused, but invited me to visit him at his home. We talked some more and finally he said ‘Let’s do it!’ It took hours of interviews with this marvellous man, who at times had emotional difficulty telling the story, and I know there are still things he didn’t reveal.”
Most of the students attending had never heard Riteman speak, nor did they know a lot about the Holocaust.
“This gave us so much more insight into what happened,” said Rachel Murphy, a first-year commerce student who is taking an eastern European film course as an elective.
“We saw one movie about a 17-year-old in the camps, like Mr. Riteman. That made it a bit easier to relate to what Mr. Riteman was saying. Because he went through it, he shouldn’t be responsible to tell everyone, but he’s a great person who wants to do this. He relives it every time. It’s awesome he survived it.”
Nora Bercovici, a third-year English student from Toronto, said she’s heard so much and read so much about the Holocaust, “but to hear it from someone who was there, to look into his eyes which are so intense, I just want to thank him for being so strong to talk about it.”
The Riteman book launch was the start of a busy Holocaust Education Week in Halifax. There were film showings, an education program for teachers on how to teach the Holocaust in their classrooms, and an art exhibit of ceramic works by an artist and professor from the Studio of Sculpture in Ceramics at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland.
The week concluded with Dignity Day, a remembrance of Kristallnacht, on Nov. 7.