HALIFAX — Holocaust survivor Philip Riteman, who spent 30 years speaking to young people about his experience in concentration camps and ardently urging love over hate, has died.
Riteman’s obituary said he passed away peacefully on Wednesday morning in Halifax at the age of 96.
Riteman was born in Poland and as a teenager, his family was captured by the Nazis.
He was held in numerous camps including Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau until being liberated in May 1945.
Riteman then made his way to surviving relatives in Newfoundland in 1946, where he built an import trading company and eventually expanded his operations to Halifax in 1979, and later moved there.
But it wasn’t until 1988 that he started speaking about his experience in the concentration camps, to counter claims that what the Nazis had done was exaggerated.
He spent the last three decades speaking to students, churches and other organizations around the world, spreading the message: “It is better to love than to hate.”
Hundreds of people attended his funeral Thursday in Halifax, mourning the loss of what one of his sons called “a beacon of light.”
“My father was a very great man,” Larry Riteman said during an emotional service. “He valued the life we have here more than most.”
“He came through a storm of inhumanity, barbarism and cruelty, and he rose far above it trying to educate people.”
Riteman’s other son, Robert, added that his father was “a simple, ordinary man who did extraordinary things.”
“One of the extraordinary things he did in the later part of his life was to embrace and be involved with public education.”
Dorota Glowacka, a University of King’s College professor who teaches Holocaust studies, said Riteman had a profound impact on people through his public talks.
“He was such a direct, simple man and he had a way of connecting with every person,” she said after the funeral. “That’s why people would come to his talks a hundred times … he just electrified people.”
Glowacka said Riteman emanated a ”joie de vivre” and had a “beautiful soul.”
“I really think he just loved people and loved life, and there was not a grain of bitterness in his heart.”
Riteman was a recipient of the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, and held several honorary university doctorates.
During a tearful TED Talk several years ago in St. John’s, N.L., he showed the audience his prison number tattoo on his arm: 98706.
“Don’t you ever hate anybody,” Riteman said. “By love, you conquer the world. By hate, you’ll only destroy the world and you destroy yourself.”
“I want you to remember, you should make sure it doesn’t happen to you guys or your children or grandchildren. Stand up against evil, and don’t you ever give away your values, your laws and order.”
He also wrote “Millions of Souls,” which tells his story from the Second World War to his life in Newfoundland, where he says he found “humanity.”
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil described Riteman as “extraordinary.”
“Here’s a man who saw horrors that none of us could even imagine, spent 40 years never talking about but having that horror internally, and then he begins to spread the message to audiences in this province and across the world,” said McNeil on Thursday.
“A great tribute to him would be that we continue to spread his message.”
Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, tweeted that Riteman’s presence and his work changed many lives for the better.
“Philip Riteman was a courageous survivor whose goal in life was to ensure that never again would other communities and individuals be forced to suffer because of who they were, what they believed or the colour of their skin,” wrote Farber.
“His victory over the Hitlerites is that he survived. He raised a family and he signalled the warning, one we must continue to heed today.”
Riteman was a teenager when the Germans arrived in Shershev, Poland, in 1941, according to a profile of Riteman prepared by Memorial University of Newfoundland when he received an honorary doctorate of laws degree in 2006.
Riteman said the Nazis drove his family and others out of their town and into the ghettos before taking them to Auschwitz. He lost his parents and five brothers and two sisters, along with aunts, uncles and cousins.
He was liberated in May 1945 at 17, weighing just 75 pounds. He thought he had no family, and nowhere to go. In his 2006 address to Memorial, he recounted how his American liberators tracked down relatives in Canada and what was then the separate dominion of Newfoundland.
The Mackenzie King government in Ottawa refused him entry, but Newfoundland, where he had an aunt, welcomed him with open arms.
“I found humanity in Newfoundland. People were so kind to me. People helped me, people kept me in boarding houses, wouldn’t charge me a penny. They fed me. And I’m very happy I came to Newfoundland,” Riteman told Newfoundland’s VOCM radio in 2016.
Most of his wide network of friends, colleagues and customers knew he was Jewish, and came from Poland. But almost no one knew he’d survived the Holocaust.
Four decades passed before he felt he could speak about it, even as he suffered regular nightmares hauling him back to the concentration camps.
“I’m the only survivor. Many times I wish I didn’t survive — why me?” he told VOCM.
Riteman is survived by his wife of 68 years, Dorothy Fay Riteman, and his two sons.