I’m generally not one for getting terribly invested in celebrating holidays. I’m really into Halloween and Christmas, but when it comes to Canada Day, Natal Day or New Year’s Eve, I’m generally found in the house, avoiding the crowds and not taking part. It’s not that I don’t support Canada, Halifax, or calendars flipping over; I’m just not interested in spending hours rubbing sweaty elbows out in a crowd.
Remembrance Day is different, though. I take it quite seriously. I buy a poppy every year like my grandparents taught me, and I try to do what I can to honor the veterans and those who are currently serving.
Remembrance Day is important to me for a number of reasons. One is that one of my great-uncles served in the Second World War: he still lives, and I love him very much. I know that my grandfather wanted to serve but couldn’t due to his poor eyesight, and that he always regretted not being able to fight alongside his brother.
The other major reason I treat the day so seriously is a man who survived perhaps the darkest chapter of that bleak stretch of human history – a man who reminds me what our veterans were fighting for, and why it is so important that we as members of the human race remember the hardest-learned lessons of the 20th century. I am referring to a man named Philip Riteman.
Philip Riteman is a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. When he was 14 the Nazis captured him and his family. Due to his large build, he was able to pass as an 18-year-old. This ruse ended up saving his life, and he worked hard labor from 1939 until May 2, 1945.
After 40 years of silence, Philip Riteman began speaking of his experiences in schools, community centres, and universities across North America. I was able to hear him speak a few years ago and it is an experience I have never forgotten.
I watched him tell his story to a crowd of enthralled listeners, myself being one of them. His voice rose and fell as he alternated between horror and grief. He told of small children and infants being murdered in front of their captive communities, the Nazis throwing their little bodies into the back of a truck like broken furniture. They were unwanted because they would have been a drain on camp resources. Riteman spoke of losing his entire immediate family in Auschwitz. As he cried while he told these stories, we all cried with him.
He spoke for an hour, and it felt like I was holding my breath the entire time. It was an experience I will never forget. I met him and got him to sign a copy of his book Millions of Souls: The Philip Riteman Story. As we spoke, I saw his tattoo. The numbers stamped on his arm took me aback. For years, I had heard about them, but to actually see that lingering remnant of the Holocaust in person brought it all home.
I’m glad I got to meet Philip Riteman. For years, the Second World War was something that I had heard about, read about, and watched films about, and while I was always affected, it remained a distant tragedy. It happened too long ago for it to be truly real to me. Philip Riteman yanked it out of the black and white movie in my mind and suddenly it seemed real, or at least as real as it could be for me.
If you have the chance to see Philip Riteman speak, I would highly recommend it. As the years go by, we are losing more of our veterans and our survivors. Our link to that tragic period in history is fading, but I can still hear Philip’s voice clearly in my head, reminding me of how important it is that we fight for our freedoms, stand against genocide, and never turn a blind eye to evil, even if it isn’t happening in our country. He reminds me to never forget.