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.”
On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn