Dr. Philip Riteman was honoured for his role as a witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust and for keeping alive the memories of its victims. He received an honorary doctor of laws degree at the 10 a.m. session of spring convocation on May 24.
When the Nazis came to Szereszow, Poland, in 1940, the Riteman family was, with the rest of the Jews in the area, herded into the Pruzhany ghetto. When the trains began to move, in 1941, the Ritemans were taken to Auschwitz. Within a week at the infamous concentration camp, Mr. Riteman's parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters were all dead. By the end of the war, he had been shifted through five camps; forced to build crematoriums, to transport bodies, to act as a human shield. When he was liberated in 1945, the 17-year old weighed just 75 pounds. In 1946 he came to Newfoundland to live with an aunt to become a businessman. After 40 years of pained silence, in 1989 Mr. Riteman began to share his story. He now emphasizes the importance of educating youth about the Holocaust.
Oration honouring Philip Riteman, given by Shane O'Dea, Public orator
We here know the grim nature of the sea – its force and its power. The sea takes, breaks, destroys but also gives nourishment. The state stands in similar relation to us. We expect it to nourish but, in some of its manifestations, it can be unforgiving, powerful, destructive. But the sea is a natural force, the state a creation of our own, something we have made to improve our lives. And when it perverts its power to become, to steal Oppenheimer's stolen phrase, "destroyer of worlds," when the state nourishes only destruction, then something hideous has happened –the world has gone dark and all that gave hope has been drained from its face; the earth has been turned to an astonishing emptiness.
Philip Riteman was one of those whose world was destroyed with the arrival of the Nazis in Shershev on June 24, 1941. Three days later they began shooting the citizens. Both Christians and Jews were victims; Philip Riteman was not among them. For three weeks tanks, trucks, troops shook the streets of that small Polish town at the edge of the vast Pripet Marsh as the German army tramped through to the Eastern Front. And then, in August, he, his family, his schoolmates, his fellow citizens – the Jews – were taken on a circuitous route to the Pruzhany ghetto where they were held. On the way 1,000 were killed. Philip Riteman was not among them. A year of pressure and persecution followed and, more insidious than death itself, a sense that a long painful torture of European Jewry was beginning to unfold. Then, as winter sharpened in January 1943, the long journey began into the pit of darkness. The Nazis emptied the Pruzhany ghetto and moved the people by freight car via Bireknau to Auschwitz. Packed tight for efficiency's sake, in unspeakable conditions, their journey took six days and infinitely more lives. Philip Riteman's not among them. But then he must have wished he was among them for, on arrival at Auschwitz, the full horror fell upon him: babies torn from their mother's arms and smashed upon the stones; families separated – fit from unfit, old from young, children from parents, wives from husbands and, for Philip Riteman, the death of 30 members of his immediate family: parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles. He was not amongst them. He was not among the great number of those who died in the first months of the camp but became a number himself: Prisoner 98706. A year and a half later he began his macabre Grand Tour of the death camps – Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg, Landsburg – forced to undertake soul-searing duties: cutting up the dead for Nazi doctors, bringing bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria. And then as the Allied forces got closer to the camps the Nazis began to empty them. Many of those who remained behind were rescued as early as January. Philip Riteman was not among them. He was one of a group of prisoners forced on the long Death March down into the Tyrolean Alps, on May 2, 1945, where they were met by US forces and liberated.
That litany of places and of crimes, those terrible four years of constant brutalization and staggering loss meant that liberation was merely a freedom to encounter emptiness. From all that he had gone through Philip Riteman had not been freed – there is no freedom from such darkness. It can be a drowning in despair. But he did recover, and, with the help of an aunt, came to Newfoundland where, like many of his fellow Holocaust survivors here, he started out as a pedlar, eventually establishing his own business. Forty years later he set out on another journey, in the words of the "Eleh Ezkerah" from the service at Yom Kippur, a journey on behalf of "These whom we shall remember and for whom we will pour out our souls." He set out to speak of the unspeakable, to bring it to the world that it might never happen again. And now we all are among them. Vice-Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, survivor of the darkness, Prisoner 98706, Philip Riteman.
Address to convocation
Vice-Chancellor, your honour, graduates, ladies and gentlemen. I am deeply honoured that you give me this honour. I want to thank you very much. I spent two years in Auschwitz and two years in Dachau. I seen what no man should ever seen – no another human being. I speak in schools and universities. I speak for millions and millions who cannot speak. I would like to speak to you for a couple of hours, but I can't.
I came to Newfoundland in 1946. Newfoundland was not Canada. How did I come to Newfoundland? After I was liberated by the Americans, I was liberated by 7th Army, the American Embassy and the Red Cross goes to every prisoner who survived and asked them your name, town, where you came from, your parent's name, and you grandparent's name, and that was published all around the world. After when the Americans liberated us, it was god bless America. They didn't know what to do for us. They kept in hospitals and places and fed us and washed us. I can't even imagine how good they were to us. And then after I was in a DP [displaced persons' camp] in Feldafing, the Red Cross came to me after a few months and said: 'We have a letter for you.' A letter for me who? Who is going to write me a letter? On one condition as your assignment and receipt and if I want to write a note back they will take this from me. And there was a bunch of fellows and girls there sitting down – survivors – and I said 'who's going to write me a letter? I got nobody.' I thought maybe somebody fooling around. I open up the letter and the first thing [it] said is: 'I am your mother's sister.' I almost fainted. I couldn't read it. I started to cry. I couldn't read the letter. And friend of mine read the letter. And, they ask in the letter is anybody else living besides me? They replied the letter and they took the letter away from me. After a month later, I get another letter and the letter came and I seen it stamped Newfoundland. Oh, Newfoundland, I never heard of Newfoundland. The other letter comes, I open up the letter and there is $20 in the letter, so all my friends start to yell: 'maybe she could be my aunt.' I said: 'She says she is my aunt but really I don't know for sure.' A month later I get another letter from Montréal, Canada. I open the letter, it says the same thing: 'I am you mother's younger sister.' I said what happened there, I don't know. I knew my mother had sisters but I didn't know where they were. I was little baby. I don't remember, but my mother used to correspond with them. And I tell you, if you knew Silver's Jewelry on Water Street, Mrs. Silver was my mother's sister, and my other mother's sister lived in Montréal. Her name was Wilansky – Freda Wilansky – but I didn't know nothing about this. Anyway after a while they decide to bring me to Canada, and my mother's sister in Montréal hired a lawyer and went to the Canadian Government – the Mackenzie King Government – and they refused me to come to Canada, that's 1945. My mother's sister from Montréal called my mother's sister here in Newfoundland and said: 'maybe we will bring him to Newfoundland.' My mother's sister went to the Newfoundland Government and they said: 'by all means, sure bring him in.' I'll never forget when they told me this, a fella was Chief Justice Browne was his name, he went, took the papers and went to my mother's sisters house and filled out the papers and they took and sent away to the British Embassy in Paris and now I'll make the story short: I end up in Newfoundland, St. John's. When I came into the airport they all came to visit me. I never met them. I didn't even know who they were. And this fella Browne, he had a little black mustache that's all I remember, and he says: 'if there is anything else you want we can help you, anything you want.' I look to them to interpret this to me and I looked at him and I was just very emotional and people when a human being offers me something, I can't believe. So I said to him I don't nothing, I don't want anything. I just want to be a free man and that's how I end up in Newfoundland.
Now I want to say something to the graduates. You are our next generation. You will rule the country, what every your generation. You make sure don't let yourself brain wash. Make sure you teach your children to love not hate anybody. Maybe we make a better world to live. Thank you very much.