NEW GLASGOW – Dr. Philip Riteman remained silent for 40 years after he was freed from Nazi concentration camps because he thought if he spoke of his experiences, people would think he was insane.
After being persuaded in 1989 to share his story with schoolchildren, the Bedford man is now spreading his message of love, not hate across the country, including a stop in Pictou County Sunday in honour of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“You are fortunate people, living in heaven,” he said as he spoke to those attending a special ceremony at First United Baptist Church in New Glasgow. “You are lucky your veterans fought evil and thank God you won.”
Born in Poland in 1928, Riteman and his Jewish family were caught in the Nazi blitzkrieg of 1939 and sent to the Pruzhany ghetto in then eastern Poland. The next year, his family and 10,000 others from the ghetto were sent to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
Despite being 85 years old, it is evident Riteman relives his story every time he speaks to school children or other groups, wiping tears from his eyes, controlling his trembling voice and telling listeners that there are some aspects of his life that are too painful to speak about.
He said he remembers the day the Germans marched into his Polish town and shot people in a marketplace and then rounded up the town folk, forcing them to march for days.
“The Germans came and shot half of the marketplace up and my brother came home and was crying. He said, ‘the Germans… they shoot people on the street.’ My father said, ‘no, they can’t do that.’ He didn’t believe it.”
Next, he said, the German soldiers made all of the village councillors and mayor go door to door demanding people hand them over 10 kilos of gold and 20 kilos of silver.
“One of the councillors came to my house with a towel wrapped around his head. My mother took off her earrings, rings and gave him my father’s old coins and said, ‘just leave us alone.’”
But that was only the beginning, Riteman said. Everyone was made to walk for days from village to village, passing by vacant farms that once housed families and animals.
“They were randomly shooting people as we were walking,” he said, recalling on one particular day 17 men in his group were singled out and shot in the head.
After days of walking, he said they reached a village and the soldiers made them make a ghetto where they were kept without food or water. Finally, he said, the starvation got so bad, that he and a few other men crawled under the fence and scoured the field for anything to eat.
“I got a frog and tore it apart and lots of grass and another fellow got a mouse,” he said. “We were going to make a soup. You people don’t know what hunger is. A soup made out of grass… we boiled it and ate it.”
Riteman said in 1941 the Germans eventually loaded him and thousands of others onto freight trains telling them they would be at a farm in just a few hours.
“Every freight car had 80 to 100 people in it. You were like sardines. They said in just a few hours we would be on farms and you believed them. You believed the soldiers because you had no choice.”
By the third day on the train, Riteman said people were crying, wetting themselves and even dying because they were starving and standing on their feet for so long.
“A young girl was holding a baby and the baby was starving,” he said. “I heard the baby crying day and night and the baby died in her hands.”
On the seventh day, the train stopped at Auschwitz and Riteman walked onto a concrete platform with his family. He said 50 to 100 babies were taken from their mothers and laid on the concrete block while men were separated into different groups based on their profession.
He said someone told him to say he was 18 years old and that he was a locksmith. Some men, with other professions, were shot on the spot while others, like Riteman, were marched into a building and told to take off their clothing.
“They shaved you,” he said. “It was 10 below zero in the building and you were standing naked and they shaved any hair off of you. Then they had a big bucket with solution and they would dump it on your arms and legs. They told you to run to the next building and they would run cold water over you. I don’t know how I didn’t have a heart attack at that moment.”
Next, he said, they were given clothing, an enamel bowl and a tattoo.
“My number is 98706. I was in the first 100,000 people,” he said.
Riteman said he eventually was part of a large group of men who would travel from concentration camp to concentration camp, often made to clean up dead bodies.
“The smell,” he said, shaking his head and wiping his eyes.
His group was also tasked with construction buildings for the Germans that involved heavy labour with 20-foot rods and cement that would survive any American bomb attack.
Finally, he said, 150,000 prisoners were taken to the countryside, “starving to death, walking day and night and eating icicles from the trees to keep alive” when gunfire broke out between the Germans and American soldiers.
“It was early one morning and I was looking down and I see far away a river and I see people that look like birds,” he said. “It was the American army crossing the river and then the German soldiers disappeared.”
Riteman, who weighed 75 pounds at the time, said he started to cry when an American soldier approached him and told him he was safe.
Months after being rescued, Riteman connected with family he didn’t know existed and made his way to Newfoundland in 1946 to live with his aunt.
He said he eventually told his aunt his story and she became hysterical, demanding he get psychiatric help. After seeing a doctor for a month, he never spoke of his experience again for another 40 years because the details were so horrific, he thought no one was going to believe him.
But after opening up again in 1989, Riteman said he has learned that by telling his story, he can urge others to stand up against evil and never let such a tragedy happen again.
“I want the world to know this did happen,” he said. “Don’t be brainwashed. Think for yourself. Don't hate anyone and make sure you stand up to evil. You can’t shake hands with evil.”