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Commentary: Remembering Philip Riteman

Wednesday morning, Holocaust survivor Philip Riteman's distinctive voice was stilled by the passage of time
Philip Riteman-2-edit
Holocaust survivor Philip Riteman, who spent the last 30 years speaking to young people about his experience in concentration camps, has died. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Communications Nova Scotia

He was prisoner 98706, and, decades after his liberation from a Nazi concentration camp, Philip Riteman spoke for scores of others who couldn’t. It was a responsibility he did not take lightly.

Wednesday morning, Riteman’s distinctive voice was stilled by the passage of time. The married father of two sons – a man who’d been haunted by his Holocaust past – died peacefully in the Halifax region at age 96.

A survivor who declined to talk about his cruel and horrific ordeal for more than 40 years, then opened up after feeling that maybe he made it out of the death camps to provide frank testimony about man’s inhumanity to man, Riteman had lived in Bedford.

He was married to his wife, Dorothy, for 69 years. She and sons Larry and Robert survive him.

Riteman’s funeral was Thursday in Halifax. Sincere condolences to his family are offered here.

Born to a large family in a Polish town not far from the Russian border, Riteman moved to Newfoundland following the end of the Second World War. After more than three decades there, he resettled in Nova Scotia where he ran a successful importing business.

How did Riteman, who struggled with survivor’s guilt during adulthood, survive Auschwitz and other camps when millions of the Third Reich’s victims didn’t? 

“By a string of a hair,” he once told this reporter during an interview in his kitchen.

In other words, luck helped immeasurably as did the fact Riteman was a strong teenager who had youthful vitality on his side. His whole family (including siblings, parents and grandparents) was wiped out by the Nazis.

When he was finally freed in 1945, Riteman weighed just 34 kilograms.

Man’s inhumanity to man.

That’s what Riteman spoke about, time and again, to teach students and others that Nazi-like genocide – this sadistic, state-sanctioned mass murder – must never happen again. When he spoke, wherever he gave his talks, the room was silent.

Riteman’s message, among other things, was “that it is better to love than to hate,” his family’s death notice says.

Late in life, he went from anonymous prisoner 98706 to well-known survivor Philip Riteman – a man whose painful life story has been chronicled in many newspaper articles, radio reports and on TV newscasts.

His postwar contributions in the fields of race relations and Holocaust education have not gone unnoticed.

Among the honours: In 2006, Riteman received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Memorial University. Two years later, he got one from St. Thomas University, in Fredericton. He received another from Saint Mary’s University in 2012.

Riteman was also the subject of an Eastlink documentary now broadcast on or around Remembrance Day.

He was a 2009 recipient of the Order of Nova Scotia. Riteman’s memoir, Millions of Souls, was published in 2010.

In 2016, Riteman received the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, that province's highest honour. (Riteman after the war started out in Newfoundland as a peddler who didn’t speak English.)

The news of his death made headlines across the Atlantic region, and beyond. And that’s as it should be, because this was someone who was victimized by war and homicidal Nazis but survived to become a warrior for tolerance and understanding.

Riteman had the courage to withstand Nazi atrocities, and then confront his demons by talking about them with young people so they’d know what really happened. He did so despite knowing that every time his fresh-faced audience would be presented with a person fighting back tears while sharing his story.

Those who knew him, though, knew Philip Riteman was much more than a Holocaust survivor and a witness to horror.

Mr. Riteman was a brave, decent person and an inspiring teacher of many. He was a mensch.

He was a good husband and a family man.

A righteous man.

Michael Lightstone is a freelance reporter who lives in Dartmouth


About the Author: Michael Lightstone

During a general-news career lasting close to 30 years, Michael LIghtstone has covered such things as politics, health matters, courts, labour issues and jazz concerts
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