Here to help; ready to serve;

There to help; ready this is not the story of one man or woman. In fact, it does not concern a singular act of heroism. What it represents is really an account of what being an American means. It speaks to the nature of our people’s character, their sense of justice and human decency. It is a story as old as our nations founding and as recent as what may be found in the actions of our people in any of our communities, towns or cities to this day. Its heroism is to be found in the actions of our people, who throughout history have always answered this nation’s call, be it for our own purposes or to aid and assist others.  It is found in our people’s sense of sacrifice and, as in this account, with one simple, yet meaningful phrase, ‘We are Americans, we are here to help you.”

The story begins in a small village in Poland, at the outbreak of World War 2. There, in that village, populated by both Christian and Jewish families, were a family named Rittman. They were a Jewish family and, like so many other of their Faith, they were soon to experience a horror too difficult to contemplate, much less understand.

The Rittman’s were a family of some size, though not overly large by the standards of that day. There were six children, made up of each three boys and girls. The parents were still then young, being only in their late 30’s.

The Rittman’s were subsistence farmers. Mrs. Rittman also did sewing and other type work outside the home.

Their farm was located outside the village but close enough nearby so that they had several neighbours, some being, like them, Jewish, but others Roman Catholic. Everyone got along.

After the German invasion (in 1939) things began to quickly change. Soon the family land and farm were confiscated and the Rittman’s were packed off to Warsaw. There they were confined to a narrow part of the city with thousands of other Jews. The apartment they were given was small to begin with but made all the more so by the fact they were forced to share it with two other families. Life was tough. People struggled each day to get food. Every other privation one could think of was placed upon them.

Then, one day, a year or so later, without notice the entire family and many others were placed in the back of a truck. Soon they were off to a railyard where they were loaded on to a waiting train.

The story is a familiar one, with the people being placed in cattle cars and not given food, water or access to bathroom facilities.

Like so many others the Rittmans were on their way to Auschwitz.

The journey was arduous and stressful. One can only imagine the thoughts that would rush across one’s mind. What is happening? Where are we going? Will we be alright?

Fear and foreboding were constant companions.

The train arrived and the family were herded off it. All that the story-teller we are about to meet can remember hearing was the incessant barking of angry dogs, orders be yelled out in German, bright search lights crossing over him and the others and then, the separation of his mother and sisters into what was one group and he and his father and brothers into another.

Next came a further selection and amidst the hollering and confusion he could see his mother and sisters being led away and then, later, his brothers and father. He did not know it then but he would never see any of them again. Theirs was to be a fate soon made evident in the plumes of smoke pouring out of tall chimneys.

For our storyteller, Saul Rittman, a new ordeal was about to begin.

Although then only 13-year sofa age, he was talented and served as a plumber’s helper. He hurriedly went about his assigned tasks, never slackening in his efforts, least he gives his captors an easier excuse to have him murdered.

For the next year, then the next and well into the following one he managed to stay alive.

Each day life, as he later explained, was a challenge until finally facing death on a daily basis, it became a way of life.

One day he noticed a friend of his from better times. The friend, a Catholic boy, lived on a nearby farm with his family. On meeting him there he asked, “You’re not Jewish. Why are you here?” The boy explained that the Germans had come to his father and demanded that he turn over all of his cattle to them. The father explained that he should keep the breeders and thereby have a continuing supply, for which the Germans could come for some each year. The boy said the German officer pulled out his revolver and shot and killed his father for merely speaking back to him in such a manner. His sisters were then raped by several of the German soldiers and all of the family carted off to Auschwitz.

His friend had thick red hair and a face covered in freckles.

On one hot day he saw the German guards making fun of the boys’ freckles, suggesting he wash them off his face. When the boy said he could not do so a German grabbed him. Next, he and another guard held him down while a third grabbed a wire brush, with all three saying, “fine, then, we’ll scape them off. For the next while, it seeming much longer than it actually was, the soldiers took turns digging into the young boys face with the iron brush. Finally, after he died, they threw him into a nearby water trough for horses. The water was soon red and the boy’s lifeless body laying limp inside.

The guards grabbed Saul and took him to the trough, yelling,’ get your friend out and carry him back to the camp.” Saul proceeded to do so, placing the young boy across his back, following the German soldiers, as they had directed, but crying each step of the way.

This was the new Order bringing forth a new level of civilization to Europe, its methods displayed in all too graphic detail.

Soon, Saul and the other inmates could sense all was not well with the Germans. In the distance could be heard what later was determined to be the sounds of Russian artillery.

Saul and a group of several hundred were ordered into line and taken outside the camp’s boundaries. There they were instructed to walk alongside retreating German vehicles, carrying soldiers westward.

They walked for days, not being provided rations and forced to sleep in nearby ditches at night.

Finally, the German transports ran out of fuel. Ropes were dispatched to the prisoners so that they might tow the heavy vehicles. It was an arduous task.

Many inmates could not endure it and for those who collapsed and many did, they were soon dispatched with a shot to the head, their bodies tossed into the nearby ditches.

One morning Saul recalls waking up and looking about only to see vehicles but, as he later described, ‘no Germans.’

Then, in the distance he and the surviving others, could see approaching soldiers. The uniforms on these soldiers were different looking. Still, soldiers meant Germans to these unfortunate souls. They were about to run when, as Saul would often say, ‘I heard, for the first time, the English language, not understanding a word of it, though a nearby prisoner served as translator.

Those first words of English he heard were, “Don’t run, we’re Americans. We’re hear to help you.”

Soon, he said, there were dozens of them. They provided food and blankets. Stretchers were dispatched with young GI’s carrying the wounded and ill, those too sick and weak to walk.

Prisoners were crying.

Saul said he ate a banana for the first time ever. After being shown how to open a can of milk he began drinking it. He still loves bananas and canned milk.

He has told this story many times and each time  when he reaches the part where he quotes that unknown young soldier who invitingly hollered, “Don’t run we’re Americans; we’re here to help you,” he breaks down. Once I witnessed him sob uncontrollably as he quoted the reference. It was as if he were back there on that day many years ago.

Amidst the tears he managed to say, ‘God Bless the United States. I know what this country is all about. God Bless her people.”

We may have our problems. We make our share of mistakes. But we are the same people who answer the call. That is who we are and what we are about. As that young soldier said many years ago, “Don’t run, we are Americans. We are here to help you.”

When called upon to do so we fed a hungry world; we housed its homeless; defended those who were suffering and liberated those enslaved. That’s our country, Be proud of her. Stand up for her. Defend her.

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