By Jay Levinson
Millions of Souls: A Holocaust Memoire
by Philip Riteman
St. John's, Newfoundland: Flankers Press (2010)
Today many Holocaust survivors have published their memoires, each telling a story that the world should never forget. Philip Riteman is another survivor who has set down his experiences for the sake of history. He asks why he survived Nazi terror and torture --- the only one from his entire family in Poland to live through World War II. He suggests that perhaps the reason is that he should tell others how church-going men with families turned into sadistic killers whose systematic murder of innocents the world never knew previously. Entire towns were wiped out, not even leaving the names of the residents.
The story is not new. In broad terms it has been told again and again by survivors, but each author adds his own personal perspective, and this is what Philip Riteman has done. Today he talks to individuals and groups, telling all listeners what he endured, but this was not always the case. For forty years he spoke to no one about the six years he endured Nazi tyranny in Poland.
Riteman was a teenager when the Germans took over his town in Poland. As he explained in a telephone interview, all of the Jews in the area would go to shul on Shabbos, make Kiddush at home, and lead typical Jewish lives. Then came Nazi hell, in which many Jewish prisoners could not even keep track of the days of the week.
In 1945 Riteman was liberated from a concentration camp by U.S. troops to whom he writes that he will be forever thankful for literally bringing him back to life. But after recuperation he had to decide where he should go. Where should he try to establish new roots? Relatives in North America found him and sent letters. Entry to the United States was not possible. As Riteman explains, the Canadian prime minister wanted absolutely no Jewish immigrants. After successful application, Riteman set out for Newfoundland, until 1949 an independent country.
Perhaps the biggest contribution of this book to Holocaust literature is Riteman's explanation of why he did not speak about the Holocaust for forty years. As he describes, his family in Newfoundland welcomed him warmly. He was dubious about their relationship until he saw pictures of relatives whom he remembered from Europe. They did everything possible for him --- nothing was too much. And, he began to tell his story of the years from 1939 through 1945. It was a recollection of random murders, of German soldiers approaching a Jew and for no reason shooting him. It was the story of babies wrenched from their mothers' arms and brutally killed. Rations in the concentration camps were some 200 calories per day. Prisoner clothing was skimpy even in the cold of winter, and at times the inmates were forced to stand or run naked in the cold for no reason other than sadistic German pleasure. Death by starvation, disease or outright murder was common, and cadavers were the day's norm.
In retelling what happened Riteman would cry. He still cries today, often in public as he recounts his experiences or in private as he just thinks back to what happened. His family in Newfoundland truly loved him, and thought that he was hallucinating! The stories that he was telling could not possibly be true! They even brought him to a psychiatrist who was tasked with treating his fantasies. Philip's reaction was straightforward --- if people thought he was crazy, he would simply not talk. He hid his Holocaust experiences for forty years.
Riteman found a new life in Newfoundland, and afterwards in Nova Scotia. He discovered people with respect for their fellow man. He quickly realized that not everyone nurtured the hate synonymous with the philosophies of the Third Reich. Eventually he wrote this book as a step toward silencing Holocaust deniers, spreading the message of what occurred, and hoping it will never happen again.
This is a very personal story. It recounts the horrors of Nazi occupied Poland and rebuilding life in Newfoundland. The writing is simple, and there is no attempt to theorize why Germans were turned into barbarians. Riteman is right. People should read the book to learn what happened. No matter how many personal exploits are written, the story can never be told too often. Every survivor should be heard. Each one has his own story and his own perspective.
from the January 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine