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Vol 38  No 15
June 8, 2006


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Oration honouring Philip Riteman

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.

Shane O’Dea
Public orator

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