When Philip Riteman thinks about International Holocaust Remembrance Day, he thinks about how lucky he is to be alive.
Riteman lost his entire family to the Holocaust – his parents, five brothers and two sisters.
After surviving several Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Riteman says the memories still haunt him.
“When Holocaust survivors first started telling people what happened, they didn’t believe it,” says Riteman. “It was so horrify- ing that they thought it couldn’t be true.”
The 88-year-old lives with his wife, Dorothy, in Bedford. On Jan. 29, two days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, they celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary.
She says it’s difficult to watch her husband relive the memories, especially at night when he dreams.
“Sometimes, he wakes up from a dream about his family,” she says. “You never forget the people you love. They’re still there.”
Riteman arrived in Newfoundland in 1946 and worked as a businessman selling clothes door-to-door before settling in Nova Scotia in 1980.
In honour of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Atlantic Jewish Council screened My Italian Secret at the University of King’s College.
The film tells the story of Italian athlete Gino Bartali and other Italians who risked their lives to save Jews, refugees and partisans in Nazi-occupied Italy.
Edna LeVine, the director of community engagement at the council, says it’s important for people to be educated about the Holocaust to prevent future genocides.
“The more knowledge you have, the more power you have,” says LeVine. “We can’t allow history to repeat itself.”
Riteman says this is why he broke his silence 40 years after he was liberated by the Americans in 1945.
His book Millions of Souls: The Philip Riteman Story was published in 2010. He was just 13 when his family and him were taken away from their small town in southern Poland in 1939.
Because of his larger build, Riteman was able to pass as an 18-year-old and performed hard labour for the Nazis for six years.
A fellow prisoner told a guard that Riteman was a locksmith, which Riteman says saved his life – the Nazis needed adult prisoners who had practical skills for labour.
He says he hopes having a dedicated day to remembering what happened to him and his family will help prevent genocides from happening in the future.
“I’m happy to see the young generation learn about my history,” he says. “If you forget history, it can happen again. If you don’t learn it now, you might learn the hard way.”