I have never felt so conflicted and rarely had such a clash of emotions upon hearing of the death of a familiar public figure.
But last week’s passing of Phillip Riteman, a Holocaust survivor who found a new life in Atlantic Canada and bravely spent the last three decades sharing his own horrific story, has me reacting in waves of sadness and joy.
The sadness makes sense, partly because of the news that Mr. Riteman had been ill for awhile and mostly because of the powerful role he has served in ensuring that we never forget that the Nazis’ campaign of genocide truly happened.
In the hours after the news of his death reached us, I was awash in the sobriety that normally comes when we lose a World War veteran – the brutal realty that we need to hear this history from our victims as much as we hear it from our soldiers. With the ugly rise of neo-Nazism in pockets around the world, particularly in the United States – and even in the White House, treated with kid gloves by the current Oval Office occupant – I am heartbroken to think that we have lost a truth-teller of Mr. Riteman’s calibre at this point in our history.
But I also feel incredible happiness for Mr. Riteman, for one simple reason:
He didn’t fall prey to the violence that claimed every member of his immediate family and wiped out most of his small town on the Russia-Poland border in the six years following his capture in 1939. He survived.
Not only did he survive, he lived for over seven more decades and, after 30 years of shining a harsh light of truth to counter the Holocaust deniers he angrily described as “imbeciles,” he died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 96.
Mr. Riteman’s family was at his bedside when he left this world for a new, more peaceful home. Had he perished as a child in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, it would have been a far more inhumane, violent death, and he wouldn’t have had his immediate family at his side when it happened.
But it didn’t happen. He won.
I imagine he had many days when he felt he was running an unwinnable race. When he turned 13, he was advised to tell the Nazis he was 17 for his own safety. Thinking he was a young man useful to their purposes, they gave him inconceivably awful tasks – carrying wheelbarrows full of corpses to crematoriums, carving up cadavers on hospital tables. He had to carry the body of his closest childhood friend back to Auschwitz with him, after the Nazis bludgeoned the boy to death while taunting him about “wiping off his freckles.”
On May 2, 1945, the German soldiers that had made his life a living hell suddenly disappeared, replaced by hundreds of American soldiers. I still recall the smile and the enthusiasm on Mr. Riteman’s face as, decades later, he remembered those soldiers’ arrival:
“They were yelling, ‘You’re free! You’re free!’”
And Phillip Riteman also won by refusing to let the tragedy of the Holocaust keep him from being a successful businessman, a loving husband and father, and a diverse human being capable of feeling, and expressing, many different emotions.
I got to see him deliver his powerful message on multiple occasions when I worked full-time for The Reporter, beginning in late 1999, when he visited Isle Madame District High School (now Ecole Beau-Port) in Arichat. Sitting in the auditorium and listening to Mr. Riteman’s heartbreaking, mind-numbing memories, I could hear several teenagers bursting into tears around me.
He shed his own tears, too. “When I look out at you guys, I don’t see your faces,” he cried out to the IMDH student body before shrieking: “I see Auschwitz!”
And yet, when he smiled, it was always genuine. I don’t think Phillip Riteman was the kind of person who would simply stage a show for anyone or use an emotional appeal to push an agenda. Every time I saw him speak, and every time I had the privilege of shaking his hand and thanking him for his work, I saw one of the warmest, kindest smiles any man or woman has ever had, and enjoyed the laughter of one who has laid his burdens down.
He ended every speech with the simple truth: “It is better to love than to hate.” And today, he is enjoying a happy reunion with his family, his school friends, and countless others that he felt he would never see again, in the ultimate victory march.
Thank you, Mr. Riteman. And congratulations: You won.