One who Speaks for the Millions of Souls

Eric sends me the finalized list of questions and I relay them to the printer. He’s already forwarded the list to Jonathan Richler for approval. Ken Penney comes to the door. “You about ready?”

“Jeez, Ken, you clean up pretty good!” Normally dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, today he’s dressed more formally. Long coat too.

“Give me a minute to change into my suit.”

A few minutes later we have the three cameras, the mikes and the stands loaded in the MUN van and are on the way. “When are we meeting Jonathan at the Sheraton?”

“Around one. We’ve got lots of time. It’s only 12:15. Let’s check out the ballroom.”

Inside the ballroom some staff are arranging the tables. Is it for Sunday evening’s event? Probably not. It’s only Friday and the Sheraton tends to be pretty busy, regardless of the time of the year. Eastern Audio’s control panel is clearly visible. Ken figures we’ll get an audio feed from their board instead of setting up a second set of mikes. We’ll probably leave one of our own shotgun mikes on and live, just in case, though. He looks back away from the podium. “That looks like a camera booth up there.” We check with the staff. It’s mostly used for lighting but they figure we could use it. We decide to get Jonathan to check on it for us if he will.

We move out to the lobby, sit down and watch for Jonathan. Neither of us has met him but we figure it won’t be hard to find him as he’ll likely e also looking for us. We’re right and we don’t have long to wait.

Jonathan Richler could easily pass for being in his mid thirties but in reality he’s in his forties. He’s president of NL’s Jewish community and is not hard to spot. His accent is a cross between St. John’s and Montreal. No wonder, he’s spent most of his life between both places. He has a gentle easy way with people and creating a rapport is easy and pleasant. He’s the kind of person that makes me feel a bit more at ease when I think about Canada’s future. “You guys want some lunch?” he asks. We follow him to the restaurant and continue talking. Ken strikes his forehead. “You’re Dr. Richler’s son!” Jonathan smiles. “Yeah, Dad’s eighty-seven now but still in good health. Oh—Hi Dorothy! You’re here too. Would you join us for lunch?”

Dorothy Riteman has been married for over sixty years to Philip Riteman. Her grace and charm are immediately apparent. “Oh I couldn’t bother you like this.”

“We would love for you to join us,” Ken and I both say. Dorothy sits opposite me and Jonathan introduces us. Her eyes! Twinkling, young, loving and … is that just a touch of mischief lurking there around the edges? Suddenly it feels like Ken and I have just joined a whole new family. Dorothy tells us of how she and Philip met when he visited Montreal in 1948, how they quickly fell in love, and how she married him and moved to St. John’s in 1950. She speaks of the time spent on the road with him when he was just starting out from his humble re-birth here in Newfoundland and Labrador, how they built it into a thriving business, how they raised and educated a family and about their current life in Bedford.

Age and experience has not diminished her spirit in any way. There’s an overriding sense of hope and of joy.

The conversation drifts back to the upcoming interview. Jonathan notes that he’ll seat me on Philip’s left side as the hearing in his right ear is not too good anymore. “He should be wearing a hearing aid.”

“I did get him a hearing aid,” says Dorothy. “He got it, put in in, took it right back out and said he didn’t need a hearing aid. That was that. I’ll kill him!”

Yes, that was mischief I saw in those eyes.

“I’m getting out of the way while you do the interview,” says Dorothy. “Maybe do a little shopping.” We say good bye and head out to the van to fetch the gear. When we meet up again with Jonathan, Dorothy has gone.

Jonathan shows us to Philip’s room and knocks on the door. Twice. After a minute the door opens.

“Hello, hello!” says a soft voice.

Philip Riteman is not a tall man. Today he’s dressed much the same as always: dress pants and a blue short-sleeved dress shirt. The tie matches. His hair is combed and he could pass for a man several years younger than his approximately ninety years. He’s not entirely sure whether he was born in 1922 or 1925.

The tattoo on his forearm is clearly visible.

98706

Auschwitz. It was put there in 1942.

It is no surprise that he is not sure when, exactly he was born. Inventing his own birth date likely saved his life. When he finally got off that train, after being locked up in it for over six days along with others like cattle…no, not cattle. Those who put cattle on a train see it as a good thing when they survive the trip. Sardines. Perhaps that would be more like it. The man who fell; he didn’t make it. The baby in the woman’s arms cried for days. Her tiny body could not withstand six days with no food and water. No way to be changed. Her little voice was silenced too. The train stopped and the people crowded off. The girl. She had high heels on. She, too, had a baby but he was still alive—barely. The soldiers took her baby and threw him on the ground. She ran toward the soldier. He fixed his bayonet and ended her life too. Bullets were too valuable to waste.

“What do you do?” they demanded.  Some said, “teacher” or “engineer” or “doctor” or “lawyer” or “policeman” or “judge” thinking it might make them more valuable. “Go over there to the wall.” Dut-dut-dut-dut-dut went the guns and the bodies fell right there in front of the crowd.

“I’m seventeen and will be eighteen next month. I am a locksmith. Now, I know about as much about locksmithing as I did about flying to the moon. But that was what they wanted to hear. I was old enough. I could work and I was not educated.”

By then Ken has the camera and mikes ready and we start the interview. Philip shows me pictures he has and gets me to read the captions. People shot, hanged burned. And why? They were not all Jews. He shows me one group—farmers. Another group—priests. Others. All “undesirables.”

For the next hour Philip and I talk while the camera runs. Neither Ken, nor Jonathan nor I can take our eyes off Philip for even a second. He may have been the prisoner then but today, it is us who are captured.

I say the names of the places:

“Auschwitz.”

“Sachsenhausen.”

“Oranienburg.”

“Dachau.”

“Landsberg.”

To each name, Philip replies with what he saw and what he had to do. By the time I reach the third place his eyes are filled with tears. He is standing, turned away from the camera, facing me. He was one of those assigned to removing the bodies from the places of death and it’s clearly visible to me that he’s reliving each hellish moment right now. He demonstrates how he had to tie up each body, put the rope over his shoulder and drag each person over to the ovens.

I can no longer hold back tears. His eyes are burning into mine and I can almost feel what it must have been like. He continues speaking through his tears and now turns facing Ken and Jonathan with his hands out. “It was so awful. And the smell…always the smell.”

He sits back down. For a time, the only sound is the quiet purring of the tape motor.

We continue and Philip tells us more of what he saw and experienced.

I show him a picture of my four children and he looks at me quizzically. I point to the oldest two and say, “You made my two oldest sons cry.” He nods. He knows why. Philip Riteman has, since 1989, spoken on perhaps as many as seven hundred occasions to students in schools all though eastern Canada. My two oldest sons were in one of his audiences and were deeply moved, as were everyone else I know who has seen and heard him.

On Sunday, April 7, at the holocaust memorial in St. John’s Philip will do his last speaking engagement and has generously allowed Ken and I permission to record it so we can provide it to schools.

I continue with the photo and point to the remaining two people. “That’s my youngest son and daughter. They wanted me to ask you some questions.”

“What kept you going while you were imprisoned?” (He says he shut down…felt like a zombie.)

“Did any of the guards show compassion?” (No.)

“What did you do when you were first freed?” (He speaks of his time in the camp afterwards…he was told that, even though he was by then eighteen he weighed only 75 pounds.)

“Did you have nightmares, and, if so, do you still have them?”

The answers all went to the tape. We will merge the whole interview with the talk.

He tells of how he was finally liberated in May 1945, how he was taken to hospital camp where we was cared for. How, in time, he discovered an aunt in St. John’s and how she arranged for him to come over. The USA and Canada would not take in any European Jews but Newfoundland would. He arrived in 1946 and was met at the airport by the chief justice and some people carrying a banner. He was afraid. Did the banner say, “Go home you dirty Jew?” He spoke not a word of English. Someone translated it for him, though. The banner said, “Welcome to Newfoundland. Now you are a Newfoundlander!” He said in reply, “I don’t want anything. I just want to be a free man.” And the justice cried too. Philip and Dorothy went on to build a life, a life filled with hope and love.

And, yes, Philip Riteman still has nightmares. Every night.

“I don’t know why I survived. I ask ‘why me?’ and sometimes I wish it hadn’t been me. I think I survived so I could tell this story. Millions of souls died and I feel them looking down at me so I have to speak for them.”

I ask, “What would be your message you would like to pass on.”

Philip’s answer is too heartfelt to be repeated by anyone else so I can only paraphrase. He says that hate destroys but love can bind us together. People should learn to think about what is right and, more importantly, do what is right. Young people in particular should not let others do their thinking for them. Over and over, throughout the interview he reminds me that the holocaust can happen again and he ends with this simple, chilling message. We have to remember this or it will happen again.

I nod to Ken and he stops recording. Shortly thereafter Dorothy returns. Philip visibly brightens. “Here in Newfoundland (and Labrador) I regained my humanity,” he says. I wish we hadn’t stopped the camera.

Yes, Ken and I now have new family. As we turn to leave Dorothy reminds us they they live in Bedford and we are to look them up the next time we are nearby. I say goodbye and shake Philip’s hand one last time. Ken and I stash the equipment at the hotel—we’ll need it Sunday night. It’s Friday and we head back out. Ken and I have to bring the van back to MUN; Jonathan has to return to work as well. The work day’s almost over, though.

Strange. I feel I have touched the hand of God today.

Philip Riteman was around eighteen when he was finally freed from the Landsberg work camp. He says it was the best day of his life; a life he started over here in his new country. His father and mother, two brothers, five sisters, his grandparents, nine uncles and aunts and, as he puts it “a tonne of cousins.” None of them lived. But Philip and Dorothy have a new family and they all live on.

Tomorrow my youngest son turns eighteen too.

Philip Riteman has co-authored a book, published by Flanker Press.

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About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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40 Responses to One who Speaks for the Millions of Souls

  1. jennypellett says:

    Beautifully written and very, very touching. Thank you Maurice, for sharing.

  2. John Burke says:

    One who speaks to souls, as well.
    A great read; thank you, Maurice.

  3. Very moving. Should act as a constant reminder of the depths to which mankind can sink.

  4. Mary says:

    So great to be able to interview and share Dr. Rietman’s strory.
    Very moving.

  5. Nicely done Maurice. Thanks for taking the time to reflect on the event and the important issue … one about which we need to be reminded – lest we forget. Unfortunately the Jewish Holocaust is but one event which reveals this darkest side of our humanity. D

    • Yes, and that constant reminder is so very important. The struggle against the evil we can inflict upon one another when we fail to follow our moral compass is one that should never end. The world is still filled with so many who would turn us the wrong way if we accepted their invitation to blindly trust them.

  6. Not entirely sure ‘like’ is the right button for this post. But it’s a story that needs to be told. On my mum’s mum’s side, a whole swathe of family disappeared in the 2nd world war. Not Jewish, but Romany. The undesirables. It’s speculated that over 90% of the Romany and Gypsy populations were swallowed up in the various concentration camps. No-one really knows. Few written records of births or marriages in Romany populations. A primarily oral culture. And without the people left to pass down that culture and those stories… We know of those missing from the silence where there was speech. Timing. If I had been there then….. we must remember, because the dangers of forgetting are unimaginable. Thank you for sharing.

    • As long as there are those among us who decide that their judgement of right and wrong supersedes the rights of whole classes of people we will have a struggle before us. In my judgement that will always be the case. That’s why we so desperately need people like Philip Riteman who can remind us of the need for constant vigilance.

  7. You got it. I wonder about this side of human nature. Interestingly, I heard an interview with an animal behaviorist on NPR just yesterday … he was comparing the social structures and behavioral characteristics of Chimpanzees and Bonobos. The parallels between us and the former were remarkable. He pointed out that the genetic distance between us and chimps and between us and Bonobos was the same. Isn’t history an interesting thing … if not for one, or a hundred, relatively minor genetic changes we could have ‘turned out’ more like the Bonobos – and perhaps the world would have been a very different, and very much better, place. D

  8. Jane Fritz says:

    Oh, Maurice, such an emotionally painful topic; so powerfully written. Bravo to Dr. Riteman for continuing to share these unfathomably horrific experiences – it’s SO important for people born after the fact to
    know and to understand that such things can happen. And bravo to you for writing about this so well. I grew up in the post-war suburbs of NYC and several of my friends’ parents or relatives had lived through similar experiences. I don’t forget.

  9. littlerhody says:

    Well written……sadly, today I can turn on the news and see that 70,000 are now dead in Syria……or I can remember Rwanda with over 500,000 people dead…..and on and on…..

    Could it happen again? I just wonder if it ever stopped….

    Hate really is a hateful thing 😦

    http://justbeingmary.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/butter/

  10. I wonder if Australia has holocaust survivors visiting our schools. As Dr. Riteman says, it is very important that people remember what happened. My son studied WWII as a secondary school history student.

  11. Thanks for posting this. It is all too easy to forget the lessons of the past in the course of everyday life, but people like Dr. Riteman and you make sure we don’t forget.

    I have visited Dachau — twice. They did the best they could to give people an impression of what it was like there, with signs, photographs, displays, etc., but it is the survivors such as Dr. R who bring that horrific experience to life. I am so glad that the Newfoundlanders were kind to him (the welcome banner) and that he ended up having a good life.

  12. Tracy says:

    An excellent post Maurice lest we forget what humankind can be capable of when thoughts turn to power, dominion over others and the ‘final solution’ for anyone who happens to be different in some way. I’ve read Viktor Frankl and Anne Frank of course, I’ve watched film of the holocaust (original footage from the war rather than Schindler’s List) and I cannot understand how one group of humans did this to other humans with little hint of remorse, shame or guilt. I was not there and have not visited the sites of the concentration camps. I know I would be brought to tears because all acts of inhumanity break my heart. Such a needless waste of life and so much cruelty… I hope we will never sink this low again but I worry that its a vain hope. Thank you for making sure we all realise this must never happen again.

    • Dr. Riteman finds comfort in the understanding that he survived to tell others so this is not repeated. I think we all, each on her or his own way have to find our own way to make peace. For some, including me, that quest continues.

  13. I have an elderly friend, who has spoken, but very rarely because even so many years on it is sinful to recall his memories, of Auschwitz. His time in the army bought him there to help at the end of the war to help survivors, still in the camp, to bury the dead etc. Another friend Hannah has her own memories she was in those days a very young German teenager and her memories have also been difficult to cope with…. It is right that such atrocities should never be forgotten and better that humankind learns that love for all is the first and final solution, regardless of creed, colour or race.

  14. Lee Ellen says:

    How wonderful! I heard Philip Riteman speak about 7 years ago when he was at UNB Fredericton. I have not forgotten his talk. It’s nice to know that he’s still on the go.

  15. tkmorin says:

    So touching … I feel as though I was given the gift of listening and feeling a great man’s heart. Thank you for sharing that with us!
    I wonder, would you mind if I reblogged this? I’d like my “readers” to experience this.
    Thanks again! 🙂

  16. tkmorin says:

    Reblogged this on Bite Size Canada and commented:
    I was so moved reading this post that I wanted to share it! Thanks, Maurice!?

  17. hickson1 says:

    Very moving – mostly because of the understatement of both Dr. Riteman and the way you’ve told the story – true dignity is precious and rare –

  18. TamrahJo says:

    I always think of the phrase,
    “Those who do not know their history, are doomed to repeat it.”
    What a testament to the human spirit – that Philip revisits his nightmares during the day, in order for the lesson to not be forgotten –
    That you do your part to make sure the message moves on, when he no longer speaks…
    Absolutely Awe-Inspiring.
    Kudos!

    • In a few days I hope to put the two videos online at my server at work. They’re done and ready–have been for a while. As I work for the DOE sometimes it takes time to get the necessary permissions. Once posted I’ll put the link on the blog. Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

  19. Ronnie Ann says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful encounter, Maurice. And for visiting my blog so I could find you. My parents, now deceased, were both survivors, and I smiled (joined by a few tears) to recognize some of the story as well as the strength of spirit I knew so well.

  20. Pingback: ILFB Award | Welcome to Pairodox Farm

  21. seeker says:

    Maurice, Thank you so much for sharing this story to me. What courage and love he passed on to us for the love of humanity. Yes, this is his destiny to speak and teach us so that history will not repeat again. A heartfelt thanks. Perpetua.

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