Holocaust survivor to speak at memorial service

Published on April 3, 2013

One of the last Holocaust survivors connected to Newfoundland and Labrador will speak at the Holocaust Memorial Service on April 7. Philip Riteman was born in Shershev in the Brest-Litvosk region of Poland, and now lives in Nova Scotia. But he came to St. John’s after the Second World War, and lived and worked here for 30 years. It is also where his two sons were born.

What will he talk about? “My life,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Nova Scotia.

In 1941, the Germans forced the Riteman family from their town, deporting them to the Pruzhany ghetto. In 1942 they were sent to Auschwitz. Riteman was only 13, but he was big for his age, and, during selection, told the guard he was 18. Another prisoner said Riteman was a locksmith. Riteman didn’t have that trade, but the Germans needed able-bodied males for slave labour and he was sent to Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg, Dachau and Landsberg. With the American Seventh Army advancing, he and the other prisoners were marched across the Tyrolean Alps, for defence purposes. Then, one day in May, 1945, they woke to find the German guards gone, and to see the American soldiers approaching. Riteman was saved, but his whole family — mother, father, five brothers and two sisters — was lost.

Soon after his liberation, he got letters from three of his aunts. One lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., one in Montreal, and one in Newfoundland. He wanted to leave Europe and Newfoundland was the most welcoming destination for him (as it was not then part of Canada its policies for Jewish immigrants were much less restrictive).  

So Riteman came to Newfoundland in 1946, when the population of St. John’s was about 30,000, and people still drove on the left side of the road. “I remember that. And I remember Confederation.”

While visiting his aunt in Montreal, he met and married Dorothy Smilestein, who came back to St. John’s with him. He started selling clothes door-to-door, and this grew into a successful wholesale dry goods business and later an import trading company. His friends knew he was from Poland — when he first arrived he didn’t speak English — but not what he had endured. For 40 years he did not speak of his experiences. But then he felt he had to. In 1989 he described them for the first time to an audience of students in St. Stephen, N.B.

“I wanted to warn the younger generation that evil is always around. I wanted them to know what I did.” At the same time, he doesn’t expect them to adopt any specific agenda of action. “They can do whatever they want. This is their generation.”

But it is important to tell the story of what happened, “because it is history and you have to know your history. I never in my life thought it was going to happen to me. And it could come again.”

Riteman has also published a book abut his life. “Millions of Souls: The Philip Riteman Story” (Flanker, 2010) is a memoir divided into three sections: his life before and during Second World War; his time in Newfoundland; and his new commitment to sharing his story.

“I didn’t intend to write a book. I did not even talk about it for so long.” And it was difficult to write: harrowing though the account is, there are things he still left out.

But completing the book was another part of his message. “You’re lucky. You’re lucky. You won. You wouldn’t be here today. I would be dead, but you would take my place. All of you are lucky.”

He won’t read from his book at the memorial service. He will “just talk.” And he is looking forward to being back in St. John’s again. “I love Newfoundland. All Newfoundlanders are my sisters and brothers. When I came to Newfoundland I found humanity. Nobody had much, but they shared. Of course there were some bad apples, but that’s everywhere.”

The Holocaust Memorial Service begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Sheraton Newfoundland Hotel in St. John’s.