Holocaust Survivor Visits Ascension Collegiate
By: Sarah King, SNN Senior Editor, Ascension Collegiate, Bay Roberts, NF
(Note: this article was also published in the Remembrance Day edition (Editors Page) of The Telegram, St. John's, NF)
"Babies crying . . . old men crying . . . you lost even the will to live."
So Philip Riteman, Holocaust survivor, describes the conditions at Auschwitz, one of the most notorious death camps of World War II.
On November 5th, Mr. Riteman addressed history students at Ascension Collegiate, Bay Roberts, NF. He spoke of his life before, during and after the war, as well as what led him to share his stories with the next generation. Riteman's story is remarkable. The most remarkable thing of all is that he survived it, and is now able to share it with today's young people.
Born and raised in a small village near the Poland/Russia border, Riteman was in 6th grade when the war began. The son of well-to-do parents, he lacked for nothing growing up. Then, early one morning, Nazis surrounded his town with over 10 000 soldiers. They rounded everyone up and separated the people into two groups, those between the ages of 12 and 45, and the others. The lucky ones were made to march 90 kilometers to the nearest ghetto. Along the way, over 1000 people were killed. Riteman said, "Anyone wears glasses... anyone too dark, too blonde... you got no chance to live."
Once they reached the ghetto, life as he knew it ceased to exist. 500 people lived in one room with no water, electricity or sewage systems in place. "We were treated worse than animals", he said. They left the ghetto, after being told they were being taken to nearby farms. "We believed everything they said, the Nazis. They packed us into freight cars, 8 000 in each car." They spent 7 days in those cars with no food, no water, not even basic needs were met. After 7 days of travelling, they could see a camp with the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work will make you free) on a sign above the entrance. Even though it was between 3 and 4 in the morning, the cars were opened and everyone jumped out. Babies were ripped from their mother's arms and thrown against a concrete platform. "Blood flew everywhere". Prisoners along the way told them "Make yourself older... make yourself older" so when questioned about his age, Riteman told the Nazis he was almost 17, when in actuality, he was only 13. He says "I was big for my age, so they believed me." Later he found out this lie saved his life. The over 17-year-olds were taken for work, while the others were sent directly to the infamous gas chambers.
Those deemed of ‘sufficient age' were taken to a big barracks where they were stripped and shaved. "They take all your dignity away from you... And you can say nothing." While they were stripped, their arms were belted down, and a number was tattooed on. Riteman was number 98 706, meaning he was the 98 706th person to enter Auschwitz. The prisoners were given striped clothes and wooden shoes. They were given red enamel bowls that would serve as both latrine and dish for the remainder of their stay. During his time at Auschwitz, Riteman was made to walk "like soldiers" for hours a day, as well as hard physical labour in the surrounding fields. Riteman says there were 20 000 people executed per day at Auschwitz. When he arrived there were 2 crematoriums, and when he left, there were four. "We built the other two ourselves. They told us they were bakeries for us. And we believed them."
After a year and a half at Auschwitz, Riteman was transferred to another camp, where he worked in an airplane "factory". Here, airplanes were demolished for salvageable parts and the stripped carcasses were melted. The Nazis then moved him to another job in a hospital, slicing open dead bodies for inspection. After 4 months here, he was moved to Saxon-Hausen, another camp, where he was given the horrific duty of taking dead bodies to crematoriums and burning them. Here, an emotional Riteman says, "I can smell it even now... I don't know how I survived." Following his stay at Saxon-Hausen, he became a "soldier" in the German army. The Nazis would force prisoners, in their striped prison garb to walk with the German army to save them from air bombardments. If an American plane flew over a group of ‘prisoners' they wouldn't bomb.
One morning, Riteman and the other prisoners woke up in a trench and "there wasn't a German to be seen, not nowhere." They saw American soldiers crawling towards them. When they were within range, the Americans called out "You're free, you're free!" Even with his limited English at the time, Riteman understood them and so May 2nd, 1945, became "the happiest day of my life".
Riteman broke down in tears as he told us "I lost 5 brothers, 2 sisters, a mother and a father (I loved them dearly), 9 uncles, 9 aunts and a ton of cousins.... I'm the only one left... another couple of weeks and I wouldn't have survived either."
At this point, students asked Riteman what he thought of the terrorist attacks of September 11th. He says "It's evil, very evil... stand up against it... they're sick and we have to fight evil... they don't care for the lives."
Riteman's speech was so moving, many students shared his tears as he took us on a journey through hell. Many times in classes, we've learned about the horrors of the Holocaust, the pain and suffering endured by the Jews, but from Riteman we learned more than any textbook can teach. Many students had seen Schindler's List, and when asked how accurate it was, Riteman answered "Schindler's List is 99% accurate, but Auschwitz was 1 000 times worse." We can only imagine the agony of Riteman's experiences but now we have a better understanding of what life was actually like during that time. We have a new respect for those who lived through it.
When asked why he spoke of his experiences, Riteman replied, "For a long time, I didn't talk to nobody about it, but now I do. You are the next generation and the same thing could happen to you. You have to know what happened so it won't happen again."