Stories of Dachau survivors

Philip Riteman (Fischel Reitman)

A Facebook page has been set up in honor of Philip Riteman

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:
Seven days later, after being crammed in alongside 100 people in a rail car with no food, no water or bathrooms, the train finally stopped . . . at Auschwitz-Birkenau. As Riteman's eyes adjusted to the sunlight, he saw something that still haunts him to this day.  There was a woman in her 20s, pretty, who got off the train," he said "I'll never forget her because she wore high-heeled shoes."

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.

With emotion etched on his face and looks of shock on the young faces surrounding him, Holocaust survivor Philip Riteman interpreted photos, following his presentation at Horton High in Greenwich, Nov. 22, 2006

Photo Credit: Kirk Starratt

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
-Early on in the war it was seen as a fight against evil
-In 1939 Poland was invaded
-His father had ties to the Russian Gov't and so they traveled to live under Russia and still it was not a good country to live in
-The Germans' journey to Minsk took them through Reitman's small town. For months they drove tanks through town
-They killed those in their way or caught watching them

-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 returned and surrounded the town before asking for more. This time the town could not pay.
-Days later, at 3 AM, the Nazis came to the houses and took people from their homes. They separated children from parents and marched the 3000 residents 60 km. Others (about 5000) were driven.
-During the march they killed roughly 200 residents.
-Before releasing the residents the Nazis took 14 people aside, striped them and shot them dead, letting their bodies drop into 7 graves already dug.
-The residents were then freed and reunited with the others.

-They were left in a small town that was entirely vacant.
-The village had been purged and the people were culled into a mass grave 50 x 100 and 7 feet deep
-En route they came upon a town and they were collected into a ghetto of 40,000.
-After Reitman's group joined the ghetto, any person approaching the ghetto was shot.
The ghetto had no food.

-Nine months later the ghetto was liquidated
-The residents were told they were being taken to a farm.
-They were all collected into 120 freight cars with all they could carry.
-The trains traveled for hours - all day
-A baby starved to death on the journey
-A man dropped dead and was pushed to the wall
-The train kept going
-The train traveled for 6 nights and 7 days.
-No food, No water
-People were soiling themselves where they stood
-One man was using a spoon to catch snow drops falling outside for water
-Reitman and the others were taken to Auschwitz

-The doors were opened and everyone jumped out
-Reitman grabbed his little sister. Also in the car were his two brothers, his big sister and his parents
-The Nazis beat and pushed them onto a platform
-A woman chasing her baby was stabbed to death with a bayonet
-Reitman was told to pretend that he was 18 when the Nazis were dividing the Jews by age and gender.
-If you were 18-45 you had a chance of surviving
-Parents with their young children were taken straight to the gas chambers.

-The Nazis began to divide the men by occupation
-Reitman pretended to be a locksmith
-The intellectuals were collected (about 300 of them) and machine gunned to death. The Nazis only needed workers.
-They were ordered to strip naked and shot if they moved too slowly.
-The Jews were shaved from head to toe.
-Body searches were conducted. Those caught hiding anything, even their gold teeth were executed.

-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.
-They were given a bowl, no utensils.
-They were then tattooed.
-Over 2 million died at Auschwitz.
-They were made to march. If you refused, your legs were broken.
-The Jews marched better than the Nazis.
-The Nazis would lock them into their barracks each night.
-They fit 7 into each bunk.
-There were 125,000 men at Auschwitz at this time.
-Only 20,000 were Jewish. The others were Russians, Gypsies, Blacks and so on.

-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
-Smaller camps would kill their population and then call on larger camps to replenish their numbers. This is why Reitman moved around so much.

-Reitman says he had to close his mind to survive. He was like a zombie.
-He learned to never be first or last in line. Always be in the middle.
-He lost five brothers, his parents, his grandparents. He lost nine uncles and nine aunts and many cousins.
-He was the only survivor in his whole European family.
-He could not talk about the camps or his family for forty years.

"What kept you going?"
-If there is a God somewhere he will help me.
-He would have liked to have eaten one big meal and then died
-They ate one bowl of soup a day.
-If they had lost their bowl they were accused of sabotaging the Nazi Gov't and beaten to death with sticks
-They wouldn't waste the bullet.
-By comparison, the homeless today live in heaven. The Nazis burned them.
-If you limped, you were shot.
-Those who escaped got only 100-1000 feet and they starved to death.
-When they returned they were shot and burned by their fellow prisoners at the start of their day (5 AM)

-After 6 months in the camp Reitman found an old class mate who was in the camps because he was a Baptist.
-The boy recognized Reitman and called out to him.
-The Nazis had wanted his family's cattle but the boy's father would not give it to them. He was shot.
-His mother attacked the Nazis and she was hung in the town center.
-His sisters were cut and raped and shot in the heart.
-His little brother was chased into the woods and shot.
-The boy joined Reitman's work group on a farm and was instantly hated by the Nazis.
-One day he was stripped and put into a water trough. The Nazis took steel wool and tried to take his freckles off.
-The boy died in the trough which was full of his own blood.
-Reitman and the others had to take the boy back to camp to be burned.
-He was Reitman's best friend.

-Reitman was sent to another camp. When he arrived the barrack was full of all the dead.
-He and the others were forced to bury the bodies, but they were forbidden to pray.
-At another camp he spent a month in an airplane hanger.
-At Dachau the barracks were filled with bodies piled 7 ft high.
-When they tried to remove them the bodies came apart in their hands.
-These barracks were sunken into the ground

-They were marched for 2-3 weeks in the winter with only the snow to eat.
-Reitman estimates that 50,000 were killed for their weakness.
-They marched with tanks so that American planes would not bomb the convoys. The Jews wished they would though, just to kill the Germans.
-One night the camp was empty, not a German in sight. In the distance he could see the Americans coming, calling "You're free!"
-This was May 2, 1945. Reitman was 18 years old and 75 lbs.

-The Americans brought food and medicine.
-Reitman had never seen bananas before, or a coloured person.
-A coloured soldier taught him to peel bananas.
-He would drink 3-4 cans of milk a day

-Reitman says he will never go back to the camps, but urges young people to visit them.
-He says he sees the camp every time he closes his eyes, even when he lived in Newfoundland.
-It would take Reitman 5 years to tell the story of his 5 years in the camps.

-He cannot forgive or forget what happened. Only God can forgive.
-Reitman says he does not hate the Germans he met after the war. He only hates the Nazis

-"I am speaking for millions who cannot speak"

-When he saw Americans he applied to go to the USA.
-The Red Cross took care of him in Europe and asked him about his history which they compared to his records held by the Nazis
-A month later he received a letter from Newfoundland from his mother's sister.
-Then he got another letter from Newfoundland with 20 US $ in it.
-And then another from Montreal with 10 US $
-Then New York from his father's sister and an uncle who had left Europe in 1890 and another in 1905.
-They were all relatives that he had never known to exist.
-In 1946 he was to come to Canada but the Canadian Gov't would not allow Jews into the country.
-Newfoundland was not part of Canada at the time and they brought him right over.
-He traveled from Munich to Paris to New York to Newfoundland.
-He had never been on a boat before and he was very sea sick.
-The Newfoundland Gov't said he was a free man. He was a Newfoundlander.

Back to Dachau Liberation


This page was last updated on April 13, 2010