“Why can’t people get along”
Saluting the life of Philip Riteman
Ihad read about Philip Riteman and his life in the media before, but only met him for the first time when he came as guest speaker that day.
As part of the staff diversity committee at NSCC’S Kingstec Campus in Kentville on Nov. 30, 2010, I had the privilege of inviting Philip Riteman and his wife Dorothy to the college. Mr. Riteman graciously accepted the invitation to speak to the students and staff on his life before, during and after the Second World War.
We have been good friends since then.
The gymnasium began to fill up as students and staff began to come in.
The general public were also invited to come. People weren’t sure what to expect.
I had the honour of introducing Mr. Riteman and so his talk started in the crowded room.
“You people don’t know how lucky you are,” he began. “You’re living in a paradise here on earth.”
He often questioned, “Why can’t people get along with each other? Why do people have to fight so much?” From time to time Mr. Riteman would pause and gather his thoughts and carry on. Other times he would pull out his handkerchief and try to stop the tears from coming and cry for a few seconds.
There were boxes of Kleenex placed throughout the room. The audience was very much engaged in his words and his story touched many that afternoon as they also shed tears.
Mr. Riteman had survived several concentration camps during the war, including Auschwitz, and still had nightmares from those dark and evil chapters of his life after all these years.
Philip spent 28 years in the later part of his life speaking to thousands of people through his travels to schools, universities, military bases, the RCMP and churches telling folks to respect and love each other. He spoke at Horton High School 14 years in a row. The teachers and students loved him.
In his younger years Mr. Riteman travelled to Israel many times and took his company’s employees along with him.
Once I told him that I also took groups to Israel each year, we began exchanging news about that nation. I remember him saying, “Little Israel is always surprising the world.”
I would drop in to the Ritemans for a visit whenever in Halifax and was always greeted with a warm welcome. They were the perfect hosts and usually put the teakettle on and out came a cake that Dorothy had made.
As you came in the front door Philip would proudly show me his Newfoundland Constabulary cap sitting on the table, which he was given while speaking at Memorial University in St. John’s.
He loved the Newfoundland people and what they did for him when he first arrived there. He said they showed him what love was all about and restored his faith in humanity.
Jews were refused entry to Halifax Harbour in 1939 by the then Liberal prime minister Mackenzie King. The MS St. Louis was carrying over 900 German Jews on board and were eventually sent back to Europe.
Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada then, so Mr. Riteman was offered a home there.
Philip told me that Canada wouldn’t even have allowed Jesus to enter the country if he had wanted to at that time. Jesus was Jewish.
Five years ago I was in Halifax attending a Jewish/christian event in February and we had a snowstorm that evening and the Ritemans invited me to stay at their home that night rather than see me driving home to the Valley.
Next morning I shoveled their walk and driveway and we all went out for breakfast.
Philip liked to eat croissants with peanut butter for breakfast, so the next time I went to visit them I took a jar of peanut butter and a bag of croissants. You should have seen the expression on his face.
He always had a sense of humour, despite the hell he experienced during those nightmare years of his life.
I’m truly amazed at this man and the resiliency he lived in his 96 years. Many Holocaust survivors live long lives even though they have suffered for many years. It is a mystery how, through so much suffering, these Jewish men and women have still somehow lived to an old age.
In late June I took seven of the people from our group who had gone to Israel for the first time last November to visit Mr. Riteman as he was not well at all. He had lost 70 pounds by now and was bedridden, but still welcomed friends and visitors.
His wife Dorothy slowly walked all of us into their bedroom so we could have a visit. We stood solemnly there for a moment and then said hello as he acknowledged us. We gathered around the bed and he started talking to us, despite the weak state he was in.
I noticed a beautiful wedding picture on the wall of Philip and Dorothy. They had been married for 68 years.
The group of us that Sunday afternoon stayed longer than we should have, but there was no suggestion or indication that we should leave. Just before we left he gave each person his book, Millions of Souls. In the last part of his life he was still giving of himself.
On July 24 I drove in to Bedford to visit for what would be the last time. There was a friend there and we prayed over him that his health would be restored and that he would anticipate and accept the Jewish Messiah, the chosen one of Israel.
Thank you, Philip Riteman, for your life and your years of service to the public in educating students young and old in promoting love.
The photo I enclosed is one I took of Mr. Riteman after he spoke in November 2010. (Photo is included in the Holocaust feature on our website). He had taped pictures of the masses of Jews suffering and being murdered by Hitler’s Nazis.
A group of students had crowded around listening to what he was saying. He was crying out, “Listen to me and what I’m saying.” They were spellbound.
At the time the college had a photo contest and people were encouraged to submit their photos in an open human interest photo competition. This photo was chosen as the winning entry and awarded first prize. You know what they say, a picture is worth 1,000 words. On our next trip to the holy land of Israel we will do it in honour and memory of Philip Riteman.
Holocaust survivor Philip Riteman at his Bedford home holds a family photo taken as a child growing up in Poland in this file photo. Riteman had spent the last 25 years visiting North American schools to teach students about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.
Bob Watson, left, with Philip Riteman.