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.
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:
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.