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Honorary graduates

A Polish resistance fighter, an Auschwitz survivor and a civil rights activist

Campus and Community

By Nora Daly

Some individuals live lives so extraordinary, we honour them for their courage, tenacity and words of hope, and what they can teach us about ourselves.

The following are three of those people.

While some may have lay down and died, they fought. They survived. Ultimately, they brought light out of the darkness by sharing their stories. And what stories they told.

Grunia Ferman

Grunia Ferman fought the incredible sense of moral loss inflicted by the Nazis.

In attempting to flee a ghetto in 1941 German-occupied Poland, Ms. Ferman’s brother was shot and her father and brother were taken to the Nazi death camps. She found refuge in the Naliboki Forest with one of the great family camps of the resistance leader, Tuvia Bieski, (who actor Daniel Craig portrayed in the movie Defiance).

She worked as a nurse and married Lewis Ferman, a fellow partisan who used his knowledge as an electrician to sabotage German supply lines and rescue people from the ghetto. In total, 1,200 Jews would ultimately live in the forest throughout the war where they built a hospital, a nursery and a school. The descendants of those people now number in the tens of thousands.

Philip Riteman

Philip Riteman set out to speak the unspeakable.

Mr. Riteman was 13 years old when he and his family were captured by Nazis along with other Jews from his home in a small Polish town.

Philip Riteman
Philip Riteman received an honorary doctor of laws degree in spring 2006.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Luckily, he was able to pass as an 18-year-old because of his large build, saving his life. He arrived at Auschwitz in 1943. His personal identification number was 98706. A year-and-a half later he began his macabre “grand tour” of the death camps — Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg, Landsburg — forced to undertake soul-searing duties: cutting up the dead for Nazi doctors and bringing bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria.

Mr. Riteman lost 30 family members to the Nazis, including his parents, five brothers and two sisters. He arrived in Newfoundland in August 1946 and, even though he did not initially speak English, he was able to establish a successful business.

Forty years later he set out on another journey, in the words of the Eleh Ezkerah from the service at Yom Kippur, a journey on behalf of, “These whom we shall remember and for whom we will pour out our souls.”

He set out to speak of the unspeakable, to bring it to the world that it might never happen again, lecturing on his experiences in public and private schools, community centres and universities in North America.

Lanier Phillips

Lanier Phillips — from angry young man to a follower of Martin Luther King.

As a Washington Post story put it, “The woman cradled Lanier W. Phillips’s head in her arm as if he were a baby, gently feeding the shipwrecked sailor hot soup she had brewed to help save his life.”

“Swallow,” she said gently. “Swallow.”

The son of share-croppers and a great-grandson of slaves, at the age of 18 young Mr. Phillips saw enlistment in the armed forces as way to improve his prospects, but on board the USS Truxton, he was essentially a servant. When the ship went down off the coast of Newfoundland, he was saved, literally and figuratively.

Lanier Phillips receive an honorary doctor of laws degree in spring 2008.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Profoundly touched and forever changed by the kindness of the residents of St. Lawrence, Mr. Phillips went on to become the Navy’s first black sonar technician and vowed to do everything in his power to repay the kindness he had experienced.

After retirement, Mr. Phillips worked as a civil engineer. He also joined the civil rights movement and marched with Martin Luther King.

“I just had to join up with Dr. King and that’s because of the change they did for me in St. Lawrence,” he said.

Recalling King’s words, Mr. Phillips said that a child exposed to racism was “wounded in mind and soul. But the people of St. Lawrence healed that wound and I have hatred for no one.”

Through the years he continued to speak out against discrimination with audiences from school children to military men. He led a life as an exemplar of determination, compassion and hope.

Messages of survival

These three individuals experienced the trauma of the Second World War in vastly different ways.

But they have three things in common.

They are survivors. They brought a message of peace and hope to later generations.

And they are honorary graduates from Memorial University.

Nominate a survivor as an honorary graduate of Memorial.

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