Holocaust survivor Philip Riteman recounts horrors of Auschwitz to students

John Brannen
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Holocaust survivor Philip Riteman shows students at Thorburn Consolidated School his tattoo, ‘98706,’ on his arm. It was the number he was given as he entered Auschwitz Concentration Camp in 1941. He spoke with students about the holocaust, the Second World War and the need to stand up to evil and never compromise our freedoms. JOHN BRANNEN – THE NEWS

THORBURN – As holocaust survivor Philip Riteman took off his suit jacket in the Thorburn Consolidated School cafeteria, the room was silent. Students and teachers, some visibly emotional, stared at the tattoo on his forearm.

‘98706’ was the number he was given as he passed through the gates of Auschwitz Concentration Camp in 1941. Riteman’s only crime in the eyes of the Nazis, indicated by the small triangle tattooed under his number, was that he is a Jew.

Today, the number serves as a constant reminder of the horrors of the Nazi regime during the Second World War and reason to tell his story.

Riteman was invited to speak at the school by Gr. 8 social studies teacher Lacey Morrell, who is currently teaching a section on the war. Despite his busy speaking schedule, Riteman was able to spend the afternoon speaking to students.

“What I am going to tell you, tell your children. You make sure you stand up against evil and never give up your values or freedoms.

“Through hate, people destroy the world. Remember evil is always around.”

Born in Poland in 1928, Riteman and his family were caught in the Nazi blitzkrieg of 1939 and sent to the Pruzhany Ghetto in then eastern Poland.

“You don’t know what hunger is and I hope you never do,” Riteman said, struggling to hold back tears. “Men, women, children and babies were lying dead on the streets with no one to bury them.”

The next year, his family and 10,000 others from the ghetto were sent to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. “We were told that we’d be taken by train to farms until the end of the war. It was all a big lie.”

When they arrived after six days with no food or water, he hugged his parents and sister. Riteman received his prisoner number but his parents, five brothers, two sisters, nine aunts and uncles and aunts received none. Those not deemed fit for labour were given no number and sent to their death in the gas chambers.

“I lost my family, everyone that day.”

There were some days Riteman wished that he had been sent to his death rather than experience the daily work, beatings and horrors of Auschwitz. To this day, he expresses dismay and anger for what the Nazis did to the people all around him. “How can human beings do this to one another when they hadn’t done a thing wrong?”

In 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by the American Army and a year later Riteman made his way to his aunt in Newfoundland, at that time still a British colony. He would have been barred from entering Canada because the country enforced anti-Semitic immigration policies even before the war started.

Riteman later moved to Nova Scotia and never spoke of his experience with the Holocaust for 40 years until 1989. He has said he believes he survived to tell the story of what people endured. “I believe I’ve spoken to around 10 million people so far,” said Riteman. “I never thought anything like this could happen to me and it did. It could happen even today.

“We all owe our lives to the veterans who, thank God, defeated evil and saved us all.”

 

john.brannen@ngnews.ca

On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn

Organizations: Thorburn Consolidated School, American Army

Geographic location: Auschwitz, Poland, Newfoundland Canada Nova Scotia

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  • Kat Downing
    November 06, 2014 - 19:55

    Dear Sir, My daughter was honored to meet you today at Plymouth Regional High School.. You may remember a crying girl with very long, very curly hair, who hugged you and apparently thought your dear wife smelled of nutmeg. We her parent's want to thank you for sharing of your deepest self. She was very honored to even hear you speak, but for you to take a moment to hug her thereby sharing even more of yourself with her was so very kind of you. She was amazed that you manage to find words for things that there are simply not and should never be words for. We would like to thank you for both your talk, kindness and empathy for a child who though she feels things so deeply felt and took strength from you hug. You are a true gift to all the kids but to my dear Riley you are an example of strength and grace. Bless you. With deepest respect, Kat and Dick Downing Proud parents of Riley-Jo Downing, the crying mop head. May you find much laughter and blessings in the present and future. I can tell you one young mop headed girl will never forget you.....EVER.

  • Red saviors
    October 16, 2013 - 18:05

    I thought the Red Army were the ones who liberated Auschwitz.

  • Susan Schurman
    June 06, 2013 - 17:22

    Mr. Riteman, I have taught grade 9 students about the Holocaust for many years. I was born in 1954 and my father told me as a young child that the governments knew what was happening in Nazi occupied Europe and did nothing. I sat with him as a young child and watched videos that were horrific. He told me that if people forgot what had happened, we were doomed to repeat history. Because of him and you, I will never forget, and as long as I can speak, I will continue to teach children that it's always better "to love than to hate". Sincerely, and with infinite respect, Susan Schurman English 9 South Colchester Academy

  • Laura J. Smith
    June 01, 2013 - 00:37

    .......Bless YOU Mr Riteman......there are still so mant fools out there who deny this happened. My heart and soul goes out to you. Please keep this going for the sake of all of us.

  • Rob
    May 29, 2013 - 09:45

    I am so very happy that Mr. Riteman was not only invited, but able to attend and to relay his story (as horrible as it is). So many years have passed since these atrocities, yet they seem to continue in some form all over the globe even today. It is so very important that this is remembered, and the condemnation of such acts is kept fresh in the minds of youth in the hopes that they will never have to experience or bear witness to similar acts. Youth are the future, but failure to learn from the past will make it destined to be repeated. Thank-you Mr. Riteman for sharing your story.

  • Thank you for speaking
    May 29, 2013 - 06:12

    Riteman's book, "Millions of Souls" is still in print and is a poignant story, simply and straightforwardly written. One shameful sidebar is that Riteman did not come to Canada after the war - we rejected him and thousands of other refugees (as we did many Jewish refugees before the war - google the 1939 story of the ship St. Louis, for example). He came to pre-Confederate Newfoundland with the help of distant relatives there, and the Chief Justice.