HALIFAX – It took 43 years from the time he was liberated in 1945 for Philip Riteman to speak publicly of the atrocities he suffered during the Holocaust. But once he started, he was unstoppable – right up until he died in Halifax on Aug. 8, at the age of 96.
Riteman, who was awarded three honorary doctorates for his work in education, spoke to thousands of students and adults about his experiences, always ending his tear-inducing speeches with the message: “It is better to love than to hate.”
He was invited to speak to schools, universities, churches and groups across Canada and the United States, rarely denying a request to tell his story as a young man in Poland who lost his parents, seven siblings and aunts, uncles and cousins in Nazi concentration camps. He related how he survived the humiliating experiences and torturous suffering in the camps.
After the war, he came to Newfoundland and built a successful import business. The Mackenzie King government in Ottawa refused him entry to Canada, but the separate dominion of Newfoundland, where his aunt lived, welcomed him with open arms.
In his book, Millions of Souls, he wrote: “I found humanity in Newfoundland. People were so kind to me. People helped me, kept me in boarding houses, wouldn’t charge me a penny. They fed me and cared for me, as a person.”
His business expanded to Halifax in 1979, and he later set up residence in suburban Bedford, N.S.
By 1988, he recognized the need to verbally combat Holocaust deniers. He started to speak to junior high and high school students about how people can be overcome by hate.
“For 40 years, I never spoke about it,” Riteman once said. “Now I’m speaking out. I worry for the young generation. I want people to know about what did happen, what human beings could do and how low the human beings could go and do this, to men and women and children – innocents.”
He also pleaded for understanding, stating that he didn’t hate the people who perpetrated the acts, but only wanted people to love their fellow human beings.
“Don’t you ever hate anybody,” Riteman said in his talks, during which he’d show the prisoner number tattooed on his arm. “By love, you conquer the world. By hate, you’ll only destroy the world and you destroy yourself. I want you to remember. You should make sure it doesn’t happen to you guys, or your children, or grandchildren. Stand up against evil and don’t you ever give away your values, your laws and order.”
His son, Larry Riteman, remembered him fondly at his emotional funeral service in Halifax. “My father was a very great man,” Larry Riteman said. “He valued the life we have here more than most. He came through a storm of inhumanity, barbarism and cruelty, and he rose far above it, trying to educate people.”
Dorota Glowacka, a University of King’s College professor who teaches Holocaust studies, said that Riteman had a profound impact on people through his public speaking.
I want people to know about what did happen, what human beings could do and how low the human beings could go.
– Philip Riteman
“He was such a direct, simple man and he had a way of connecting with every person,” she said. “That’s why people would come to his talks a hundred times … he just electrified people. He emanated a joie de vivre and had a beautiful soul. I really think he just loved people and loved life, and there was not a grain of bitterness in his heart.”
Riteman was a recipient of the Order of Nova Scotia, the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador and was an honorary citizen of the state of New Hampshire. He received honorary degrees from Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. Thomas University in Fredericton and Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
Rabbi Yakov Kerzner of Beth Israel Synagogue in Halifax presided over the funeral service. He said that while many leave a legacy of material things, Riteman’s legacy goes beyond his success in business. “Philip leaves not just a story, but a message, one that he never tired of telling,” he said, referring to Riteman’s axiom that it is better to love than to hate.
Riteman is survived by his wife of 68 years, Dorothy, and sons Larry and Robert. He was buried was in the Beth Israel Synagogue Cemetery in Halifax.