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Epilogue | Mendel 'Manny' Riba

'Schindler's List' helped Holocaust survivor Manny Riba open up

TAMPA — Manny Riba survived four concentration camps aided by wits and guile, a strong constitution and a little bit of luck. He endured a 150-mile death march as guards ruthlessly shot stragglers.

After the war, he became a slaughterhouse owner in Wisconsin and Florida. Mr. Riba had seldom talked about what he had witnessed.

Nearly 50 years after the war, he saw the movie Schindler's List. Mr. Riba was an inmate at Plaszow, scene of the movie, at the time the depicted events took place. He began talking more about his experiences. He also set up a fund to send teenagers to the grounds of concentration camps.

Mr. Riba, who owned Bay Food Distributors in Tampa, died July 14 of an aneurism. He was 85.

"If you go through his life and see the obstacles he had to overcome, he overcame every single one of them," said his son, Dave Riba.

Mr. Riba grew up in Dzialoszyce, Poland. His father, David, supplied kosher meat to the region. In 1942, the occupying German forces rounded up Jewish residents. Mr. Riba and his father went to Plaszow, near Krakow, where he broke rocks. That was where Oskar Schindler ran a munitions factory and later developed a list of indispensable workers who were spared by the Nazis.

Mr. Riba was not on the list, but two of his cousins were. He did catch a few lucky breaks, among them: An engineer assigned Mr. Riba the daily duty of lighting the stove — a brief respite from the aching cold. Once, the engineer found Mr. Riba's father huddled next to the stove, doing morning prayers.

"There is no god," the engineer said. "Money is the only god."

Mr. Riba was transferred to two other camps, Skarszysk and Buchenwald, where he made explosives and loaded rail cars. He was then ordered to march 150 miles to Theresienstadt. When a fellow inmate leaned on Mr. Riba for support, a guard shot the man in the head. Mr. Riba later learned that his father had been shot on a separate march — just two weeks before the camps were liberated.

Upon Theresienstadt's liberation in 1945, Mr. Riba scaled the fence and returned with sausages and bread to share with the newly released people.

Back in Poland, he met and later married Sally Tolub, who was working in a bakery run by Mr. Riba's aunt. They emigrated to Manhattan in 1950. Though he spoke no English at first, Mr. Riba worked his way up from a butcher's job to buying cattle throughout New England.

He spoke in a scratchy voice, with a thick accent.

"He would get people to think he was much less intelligent than he really was," said his grandson, Joshua Riba. "Then he would use that to his advantage."

In 1957, he bought a Wisconsin meatpacking plant. He turned Whitehall packing into one of the largest kosher slaughterhouses east of the Mississippi.

"He would buy 10,000 pounds of meat, keep what he wanted, and sell the rest," his grandson said. "He was the epitome of buy low, sell high."

He surprised his family with gifts of food, including huge slabs of meat and blocks of cheese.

He moved to Tampa in 1983 and started Bay Food Distributors. In 1989, Mr. Riba returned to Dzialoszyce with his family. "His reaction was highly emotional," said Dave Riba, 62.

He later saw the 1993 movie, Schindler's List. Gradually, he began to ease his long silence about his own experiences.

"The less busy he got, the more time he had to reflect on the past," his son said.

He started a local fund to help a Tampa Bay-area teenager participate in March of the Living, a yearly trip to concentration camps and then to Israel.

At Passover, he began to talk about his father's death. He began to understand that remembering the past was a way to protect the future.

"Each child, grandchild, and especially great-grandchild is a triumph over those that tried to destroy him," his granddaughter, Elisabeth Riba, said at his eulogy last week. "Those that killed his family … we're here. They're not. He won."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

BIOGRAPHY

Mendel Riba

Born: Sept. 15, 1923.

Died: July 14, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Sally; sons, Dave S. Riba and his wife, Abby, Eli Riba; sister Susan Schneiderman and her husband, Steven; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

'Schindler's List' helped Holocaust survivor Manny Riba open up 07/20/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 20, 2009 9:26pm]
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