Stories of Dachau survivors
Philip Riteman (Fischel Reitman)
Philip Riteman was one of eight children born to a Jewish family in Szereszow, a town of about 25,000 people in the Brest-Litovsk region of Poland. He is the only surviving member of his family in Europe. His parents, grandparents, 5 brothers, 2 sisters, 9 aunts and uncles, and numerous cousins were all sent to the gas chamber.
Riteman says that he does not know the exact date of his birth, but it was either in 1922 or 1925, not in 1927 as has been reported in some news articles.
After Poland was invaded by Germany in 1939, Riteman's family was forced to live in a 10 by 12 foot room with two other families in the Pruzhany ghetto, 18 kilometers from Szereszow. After 9 months in the ghetto, Riteman's family was sent on a train with about 10,000 people to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1941.
In 1989, after more than 40 years of silence, Philip began to speak to audiences about his Holocaust experience, giving testimony as a survivor.
In a talk that he gave to students, as reported by Lacey Sheppy in The Moose Jaw Times Herald on May 23, 2008, Riteman told of the horror that he experienced.
The following quote is from the article
in the Moose Jaw Times:
The woman was carrying an infant in her arms. A Nazi soldier ripped the baby from her and smashed its head onto the pavement. As the mother lunged for the child, screaming and crying, the soldier shoved a bayonet into her stomach. "There was just blood, all over, blood," said Riteman.
With no time to process what he just witnessed, Riteman was put in a line to be separated. Although only 14, Riteman lied about his age and told the Nazis he was 17. Riteman - along with other men and young, fit boys - were separated into one group, while women, children, the elderly and infirm went into another.
Labourers were sent into the camp for processing, while the rest - including Riteman's parents, grandparents, five brothers, two sisters, nine aunts and uncles and numerous cousins - were sent to the gas chambers.
"I'm the only one that survived," he said. "Many times, I wished I wouldn't have."
The tattooed number 98,706 on Riteman's arm is a constant reminder of the atrocities that followed. Starving, living in lice-infested barracks, urinating in the same bowl he used to eat, Riteman spent the next five years shuttling back and forth between Auschwitz and other camps such as Dachau, Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, Bunalager and Landsberg. He worked whatever jobs he was given, including transporting dead bodies to the crematoriums and burying bodies in mass graves after drenching them in quick-lime to suppress the smell. "You just block out your mind like a little zombie," said Riteman. "You just do what they ask you to do."
Riteman, a formerly healthy, husky young boy, weighed only 75 pounds when he was liberated by U.S. forces May 2, 1945.
On November 22, 2006, Philip Riteman gave a presentation to students at Horton High School in Greenwich, Nova Scotia, as reported by Kirk Starratt in the Kings County Register newspaper.
The following quote is from the article by Kirk Starratt:
Riteman said he was a Grade 5 student when the Second World War started. The propaganda on the radio was unbelievable, evil lies, and some people were brainwashed quickly. He tells young people not to ever buy into propaganda, don't be brainwashed and always think for yourself. Don't hate anyone. Go out and do good things for people. If you want respect, give respect, and you'll get lots in return.
Riteman said one million German soldiers marched through his town. They went through for one month, day and night. When they came in and found people in the streets, they were grabbed and shot for nothing.
After the army went through, another group of Germans came to the town. They beat the mayor and councillors and demanded 10 kilos of gold and 20 kilos of silver. One councillor came to their home black and blue and asked if they had anything to give. Riteman said his parents gave jewelry and other items. The group left, but did this to every town.
He said all the Jews had to wear the Star of David. He recalls being driven out of his home in the middle of the night with a gun pointed at him. He and his family had to walk 60 kilometres. He never saw his home again.
The children and older people were divided from the others, put in vehicles and taken away. Those people ranging in age from 12 to 40 were forced to march. Riteman said about 500 of them were killed randomly over the 60-km stretch.
He said 14 men were chosen, one was his neighbour, and small graves were dug. He said seven were shot at a time and buried. You could see the earth still moving as the Nazis pumped bullets into the ground and jumped on the graves. Riteman found his family and was told about 30 in their group had been shot, including boys and girls, women and the disabled.
Riteman said they then spent about nine months in a ghetto with a Jewish population of about 45,000. They ate boiled grass or whatever they could find. "You don't know what hunger means. You don't know what fear is," he said. "I hope you never know."
About 120 freight train cars were brought in and everyone had to walk to the station to be loaded onto the cars, which were about eight by 20 feet. "They packed you in like sardines," he said.
Although they were told their train trip would last only an hour, it went on for six or seven days.
There was no food, water or toilets. A man dropped dead at Riteman's feet and he had to push the body to the wall. A mother was holding a baby that didn't stop crying day and night. The baby died in the mother's arms and was placed on top of the man's body.
Sometimes when he drives his car, Riteman can still hear babies crying and the women screaming.
The train finally came to a platform and stopped. There were German soldiers with guns and prisoners with signs that said, "Work makes you free". They had arrived in Auschwitz. Riteman said his family was beaten. Babies were being taken from their mothers and tossed aside in a pile.
If you were 18 to 45 you maybe had a chance of survival. Otherwise, Riteman said you were sent straight to the gas chambers. "People didn't know where they were going," he said. About 8,000 people went to the gas chambers that day.
Even though he was only 14-and-a-half, Riteman was told by someone to say he was 18. He told one of the Germans he was 17 but would turn 18 the next month. Asked what profession he had, someone else yelled out that he was a locksmith, although he knew nothing about being one. The people were trying to save him.
The Germans didn't need the young, old or white-collar professionals to work. They wanted those people used to physical work.
He said if the Germans liked the young women, they would use them for sex and discard them, as there were more being brought in by train every day.
Everyone had to remove their clothing and they were shaved. Even though it was February and -10 C, they were showered with cold water. Everyone was given a bundle of clothes and tattooed with a number.
Riteman's number was 98,706.
An estimated more than two million people ended up dying in the camp and the staff burned up to 20,000 bodies a day.
Riteman was the only member of his family to survive.
The prisoners were given wooden shoes and a bright red bowl to be fed in, if you could call what was provided food. They were fed boiled leaves they called coffee and soups with rats and frogs. "You'd eat anything, you were so hungry," he said.
They were marched to barracks and had to sleep in their clothes on rough lumber. If you weren't outside at 5 a.m., you were killed automatically. He said you got through the daily routine by letting your mind go blank. You were like a zombie. You were 90 years old every minute because you were going to die soon.
Riteman said he was taken to Auschwitz in 1942, and the American forces didn't liberate him until May 2, 1945. He had been taken to the mountains to the west by the German army with a group of others. They were there for about a month with no food and thousands of them died. He said if he had been there another two or three weeks, he wouldn't be here today.
One night they heard nothing but quiet. When daylight broke, Riteman said he thought he could see ducks in the distance crossing the river. It was the American soldiers coming toward them. As they got closer, the Americans were yelling, "You're free, you're free."
Riteman didn't speak English but one of the soldiers was a Jewish boy from Chicago who spoke to him in Yiddish.
Philip Riteman is featured in a documentary called "The Auschwitz Connection," by John Versteege. The documentary shows events that happened in 1994 and 1995 as Riteman returned to Auschwitz to participate in the "March of the Living."
The following quote is from this web site:
The Auschwitz Connection follows Riteman to several places, mostly schools, as the survivor tells about his experiences. The camera also accompanies three young Nova Scotians to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland, for the March of the Living. Interviews with war veterans, reactions to the movie Schindler's List and a candlelight remembrance of Crystal Nacht (Night of the Broken Glass), one of Hitler's vicious attacks on Jewish shop owners in Germany, round out the documentary.
Riteman is the documentary's highlight. He easily captures a viewer's heart and attention. His presentations to junior and high school students are very personal and emotional. He was only 14 when he arrived at Auschwitz. He tells of the atrocities of the camp, and never fails to get a reaction from the crowd. The camera often pans to the audience, where all eyes are fixed on Riteman and sometimes show expressions of sadness, shock, or revulsion when he tells his anecdotes. He often cries.
One story he tells is about how he worked in a garden in the camp, and one day saw Nazis take little children, hang them up in trees and shoot them for target practice.
"You should hear the screams of the children. You should see the blood on the fence," says Riteman, barely able to keep his composure. " I can see it right now."
On November 10, 2005, Riteman gave a talk to College students in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; Keith Adolph took the following notes which he posted on his blog:
-Reitman went to school as a normal
child in 1938
-The Nazis approached the mayor and
demanded 10 kilos of gold and 20 kilos of silver or they would
level the town. They took the money and left after a time.
-They were left in a small town that
was entirely vacant.
-Nine months later the ghetto was
-The doors were opened and everyone
-The Nazis began to divide the men
-If you spoke German in the camps, the Nazis would bring out 'interpreters' who beat you with sticks so that you would never speak German again.
-Hundreds of men were put into cold
showers and then given striped clothes.
-Reitman spent 2 years at Auschwitz
and then 2 years at Dachau. In between he spent 6 months in Birkenau
where there were 2000 men to a barrack
-Reitman says he had to close his
mind to survive. He was like a zombie.
"What kept you going?"
-After 6 months in the camp Reitman
found an old class mate who was in the camps because he was a
-Reitman was sent to another camp.
When he arrived the barrack was full of all the dead.
-They were marched for 2-3 weeks in
the winter with only the snow to eat.
-The Americans brought food and medicine.
-Reitman says he will never go back
to the camps, but urges young people to visit them.
-He cannot forgive or forget what
happened. Only God can forgive.
-"I am speaking for millions who cannot speak"
-When he saw Americans he applied
to go to the USA.
This page was last updated on April 13, 2010