“My cousin says, ‘don’t talk, don’t say nothing, because they put you in the mental’ — that’s why I didn’t speak about it for 40 years,” Philip Riteman told a room full of students at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law last week.
Dalhousie Law Hour collaborated with the Dalhousie Jewish Law Student Association to host Riteman, a Polish Holocaust survivor. The event was held in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp on Jan. 27, 1945.
“Are you all visitors here?” Riteman asked those in attendance.
Audience members murmured timid replies, the only words spoken by anyone other than Riteman throughout the talk.
“You’re visiting the planet Earth. Your forefathers came, they visited, and they left and left you here, ” said Riteman, explaining it’s everyone’s duty to make sure their visit on earth is a good one.
It was only in 1989 that he began speaking about the horror he witnessed at Auschwitz after immigrating to Newfoundland in the 1940s.
Riteman, now in his 90s, published Millions of Souls: The Philip Riteman Story in 2010, which developed from a series of interviews conducted at his home in Halifax by Mireille Baulu-MacWillie, a retired professor from Université Sainte-Anne.
He has travelled across the country and talked to more than 150,000 people about the inhuman events of the Holocaust, speaking out against Holocaust deniers and promoting the need for peace and acceptance.
“You’re living in heaven, you don’t know,” said Riteman, the sole survivor of his family; his parents and seven siblings were killed in concentration camps during the Second World War.
He endured horrendous treatment in five camps, including Auschwitz, before he was freed by the American 7th Army in May 1945 at Feldafing, 30 km southwest of Munich.
Throughout the lecture, Riteman used the phrase “I’ll never forget that,” or “I’ll never forget when …” over and over again.
After more than 70 years, he remained visibly emotional when talking about his experiences.
The audience sat, silent and attentive, as he recounted vivid memories of his family, but was hesitant to speak of their experiencesa in the Pruzhany ghetto.
“I’m not going to talk about the ghetto…” he said, trailing off.
He also discussed the atrocities he witnessed throughout his time at the camps.
“The truck came, a dump truck, and they had pitchforks, like you pick up hay and put the babies like that, into the truck, and get to the ovens to burn the bodies,” said Riteman, referring to an incident at Auschwitz.
The talk ended with a standing ovation.
There was no time for the audience to ask questions, as Riteman used every minute of the hour to talk about his experiences.
“Let me speak for a day,” he said.