SOUTH BEND -- More than 60 years ago, Philip Bialowitz acted as a messenger for a group of 40 Jewish slave laborers who organized a mass revolt at a death camp in Poland.
Today, a glint in his eyes continues to signal to those who meet him, "I am a survivor."
What is just as clear during his talks at Temple Beth-El on Nov. 11, in commemoration of the anniversary of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), is his desire to see that glint in the eyes of others.
He is talking about something more significant than sheer survival. Sobibor represents for him not only the place where the Nazis attempted to carry out the "Final Solution" by gassing 250,000 Jews in an 18-month period, but also a scene of triumph. It was there that a band of Jews resisted those efforts by engineering the escape of 300 Jewish slave laborers. It was there that, against terrible odds, they first tasted the power of resistance.
During his morning talk to some local Jewish children, Philip tells them how important resistance is to maintaining hope, and hope to fueling resistance, especially when every week, terrorist attacks keep producing "new Kristallnachts."
What it comes down to, he says, is the crucial recognition that "our approach to life is one of the only things we can control." To illustrate that easy-to-forget piece of the wisdom puzzle, which his experience and faith have taught him, he tells his young audience a brief story about a middle-age man named Chaim. It goes something like this:
"Chaim was walking down the sidewalk one day when he encountered the rabbi who had taught him years ago as a schoolboy. By now the rabbi was a very old man, but they were still able to recognize each other.
"The rabbi asked, 'Chaim, what have you done with your life?' Chaim answered, 'I have a lovely wife, two beautiful children and an excellent job.' When the rabbi repeated his question, Chaim assumed the rabbi was a little deaf and loudly repeated his answer.
"Then the rabbi said, 'Chaim, I heard you the first time. I asked you again because you did not answer my question. You told me what God had done with your life. Now, tell me what you have done.' "
At both his morning and evening talks, Philip tells his story of survival frankly. He includes the dark details without which it would not be truthful.
At 16, he had already been an orphan for two years, his parents killed by the Germans. He had escaped death several times. Then, in April 1943, he and his brother Simcha, his two sisters, his niece and other Jews from his hometown were loaded on trucks and driven to Sobibor, where the terrifying rumors they had heard about the camp proved true.
There was only one line at Sobibor. It was a "pure extermination camp," Philip says. Only one-tenth of 1 percent of the Jews who arrived there were not immediately sent to the gas chambers. And even if they had tried, their resistance would have been futile: They were extremely weak in body and mind after years of hard labor in Jewish ghettos.
He and his brother said goodbye to his sisters and niece with tears in their eyes, Philip says. Even his 7-year-old niece knew, as she hugged him, that she was going to die.
When a German SS officer called out, asking if anyone in line had a trade or profession, Simcha quickly grabbed Philip's hand and stepped forward. He told the officer that he was a pharmacist and Philip was his assistant. The officer, Philip says, told them to stand to the side.
At any one time, the camp that killed thousands each day kept about 600 Jews to work as slave laborers. The day before, about 40 had been killed. Such prisoners were sent to the gas chambers after a few months' labor.
During the six months that Philip was at Sobibor, one of the tasks he was assigned was to cut women's hair before they entered the gas chambers. Some who came from far away and thought they were being resettled, offered to tip him, not realizing they had entered a death camp.
His heart bled for them, Philip says, because he knew that in a mere half-hour, they would be "reduced to ashes."
This memory and so many others, of men and women carrying babies and their luggage, with other children following closely behind, have stayed with him. Especially their mass scream when the heavy engine that pumped the poison gas cranked into life.
Fifteen minutes later, all was silent again, until the next group arrived -- and this went on, Philip says, "day after day."
He remembers seeing people he knew die. He remembers being beaten. But that is not all that Philip remembers.
Knowing his labor was helping the Germans weakened his will to live, Philip tells his audience, so he executed small acts of sabotage. Instead of putting the jewels he found in a large safe, he sneaked off to the outhouse, where he "threw them away."
"A seed of resistance grew among a small group of prisoners that included my brother and me," Philip says. "We knew the Germans planned to kill us and that our only chance of escape was to risk our lives in a revolt."
Leon Fendhendler, a rabbi's son, was their leader. It was his idea that their plan must include the entire camp. Any Jews left behind would suffer severe reprisals.
The members of the camp's underground "were blessed by a miracle" in September. Jewish Russian Army POWs arrived, and because the workload at the camp had grown so heavy, about 80 were chosen to be slave laborers. The group of Jewish slave laborers they joined now had not only detailed knowledge of the camp to help them but the military know-how of the Jewish soldiers.
Leon and a young Russian lieutenant, Alexander (Sasha) Pechersky, then put their heads together.
On Oct. 14, 1943, about 40 conspirators, including Philip and Simcha, staged a revolt. Acting as a messenger, Philip sent SS officers singly to a workroom where they expected to try on valuable clothing, but other conspirators were waiting.
The men used knives and axes to kill 11 SS officers. When one body was discovered, Leon and Sasha yelled for everyone to run for the forest. Philip remembers running past the officers' quarters because, as he correctly concluded, they wouldn't have laid mines there, then climbing a barbed-wire fence. He sliced a finger, which still bears the scar today.
The sound of bullets and of mines exploding filled the air. In the end, 300 of the camp's 600 slave laborers were killed trying to escape or after being recaptured. Innumerable dangers also lurked in the countryside. By the end of the war, only 48 of the 300 who escaped Sobibor were still alive. (One of those survivors is Philip's 95-year-old brother, who immigrated to Israel, where he still goes to the park each day to exercise, Philip says. Philip lived in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany for several years, until immigrating to the States in 1950.)
He also owes his life, Philip says, to a Polish Roman Catholic farmer, Jan Mazurek, and his wife. While roaming the countryside, he found this family, he says, who "risked their lives to hide me in their barn." (During a phone conversation, Joseph revealed that the family suffered after the war; other Poles were upset that they had hidden Jews. When his father visits Poland, Joseph says, he brings the family food and clothing because they "are very poor.")
In the end, all "the stories of suffering and triumph (he has told) are also stories of gratitude," Philip says. The Jewish resisters not only fought for their lives, inspired by their two leaders and their faith in God, but for the lives of fellow human beings. They had all agreed that anyone fortunate enough to escape had a duty to tell the world what had happened at Sobibor.
On this night, Philip Bialowitz again grasps that duty in his hands. "At Sobibor, we did not only fight for our lives," he says, "(but also) for a world without racism, without genocide."
With passion, the 78-year-old Holocaust survivor urges his audience to grab onto his message: to never lose hope, never relinquish their fighting spirit, and never underestimate the power of resistance.
"Holocaust survivor and son reach out to new generation through talks"
Tribune Staff Writer
SOUTH BEND -- In the small chapel at Temple Beth-El on a recent Sunday morning, Joseph Bialowitz urges a group of middle school students to move closer to their heritage so they can better represent the Jewish people, their history and tradition in a world where "Jews are still misunderstood."
The students, who attend religious classes at Beth-El, and about a dozen adults listen attentively to the 33-year-old son of a Holocaust survivor.
Joe's remarks are intended to help the younger members of his audience prepare for the world beyond their family, friends and local community. In college, he says, he met people who had never met a Jew before.
Joe, who because of the Holocaust grew up without paternal grandparents, was in fifth or sixth grade when he first became aware of the special nature of his father's experience and story. He learned of his father's history when their synagogue invited the elder Bialowitz to speak to its members.Joe asks the youngest members of his audience to imagine finding a box full of letters and other old items in the attic of their home. He asks them to imagine interrupting their busy parents with their "find," who might tell them, "(We) don't have time to read all those letters!"
But Joe urges the students to make a different choice -- to save the letters and read them slowly. Those who died in the Holocaust would want to be remembered for their lives, not only their deaths, he says. And they "would love for you to know them."
Joe has visited Poland. He encourages the members of his audience to go back "to where your family came from," to eat from the gardens in their ancestors' hometown, to go to the local cemetery, to learn firsthand what the weather feels like at a particular time of the year -- all in an effort to feel closer to them.
Then, by way of introducing his father, Philip Bialowitz, Joe emphasizes how important it is to see and hear a living survivor in the flesh because some people still deny the Holocaust happened. Today, he says, they have the chance to become "an eyewitness of an eyewitness."Joe's 78-year-old father begins his talk by affirming that the Jews who died in the Holocaust did, in fact, try to resist in many ways. Philip goes on to make the purpose of his talk clear: He intends to educate them about the uprising at Sobibor.
After all, he says, Jewish tradition teaches that "The world is sustained by the breath of schoolchildren."
The Holocaust survivor says he thought it was the end of the line for him when he arrived at Sobibor. Although he lived a hellish life there, he was also a teenager. "I wanted to live," he says simply. Then he shares the violent but amazing details of the revolt, during which he and his older brother escaped.
"The power of resistance is still important today," he tells his audience. That is why they should not neglect their obligation to perpetuate the story of the uprising by telling it to their children and grandchildren.
Philip Bialowitz's words make an impression on 13-year-old Daniel Ebersol. The Grissom Middle School student says he was glad to learn that "A lot of Jews were really brave, and some non-Jews even took them in when they escaped."Sam Rose, 12, who attends Schmucker Middle School, mentions that the talks he heard today reminded him of a question his non-Jewish friends sometimes pose. "They ask did we even fight back," he says.
Another Schmucker student, Rachel Medow, 13, says she's watched movies in which survivors talk about their experiences, but today was different because she could question a Holocaust survivor in person. Rachel feels sad that so many people suffered, and that others probably could have done more to help them.
In Rachel's mind, the Holocaust is, in her words, "a big deal." "Not a lot of people think it is," she adds, "but it really means a lot to us."
The messages of Philip and Joseph Bialowitz obviously have sunk in.
"If we know more about it, maybe we can prevent it in the future from happening," she says, gently standing her ground.
"Philip Bialowitz and the Holocaust"
On the evening of Nov. 11, about 275 people filled the sanctuary at Temple Beth-El in South Bend. They came to hear the story of Holocaust survivor Philip Bialowitz.
Sponsored by the Kurt and Tessye Simon Fund for Holocaust Remembrance, Bialowitz's talk was given in commemoration of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), which began on the night of Nov. 9, 1938. The massive, Nazi-orchestrated attack on Jews -- their homes, synagogues and businesses -- continued into the next day throughout the German Reich. It was the beginning of the Holocaust, when thought progressed to an act of racism, Joseph Bialowitz, Philip's son, says. (Joseph accompanied his father to South Bend and also spoke at Beth-El).
Earlier in the day at the temple, father and son each gave a talk geared to middle school students who attend religious classes there.
In collaboration with his son, Philip Bialowitz is writing a book about his experience at Sobibor, a top-secret extermination camp deep in the forest of eastern Occupied Poland -- encircled by mines and a barbed-wire fence, and guarded by watchtowers. His father's story will not be told in hindsight, Joseph says in a phone interview before his visit, but in the voice of a 16-year-old boy, as he lived it, moment by moment -- including his participation in the mass prisoner uprising in October 1943 that saved him from certain death. He hid for a year in a Polish Catholic family's barn before immigrating to the States in 1950 after living in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany for several years following Poland's liberation by the Russians in July 1944.
The photo to the right was taken shortly after the war ended. During the 18 months that Sobibor was in operation, 250,000 Jews were killed there, most in its gas chambers shortly after their arrival.
"A Teenager's Story of Survival at Sobibor," the Bialowitzes' book's working title, will be published in 2008.
A TV movie based on the revolt at Sobibor, "Escape From Sobibor" (1987), which was shown at Beth-El on Nov. 4, is also available.
To learn more about Philip Bialowitz, visit www. sobiborholocaustsurvivor.org. The site includes photos of Philip Bialowitz, his brother Simcha (who escaped with him) and the two leaders of the revolt at Sobibor, Leon Fendhendler and Alexander (Sasha) Pechersky.
To learn more about Sobibor, visit:
- Philip Bialowitz
- Philip Bialowitz was the last remaining Polish Jewish survivor of the infamous Nazi death camp, Sobibór, where an estimated 250,000 people perished between 1942 and 1943. There, Mr. Bialowitz joined a small group of Jewish prisoners who overpowered their captors and freed approximately 200 of the camp’s 600 slave laborers. Mr. Bialowitz lectured frequently to diverse audiences in North America, Europe and Israel (including members of Israel's Officer Corps and Diplomatic Corps) about both his experiences at Sobibór and the continued importance of mutual respect among people of different beliefs. He testified at several war crimes trials. Mr. Bialowitz’ memoir was published in English (title: A Promise at Sobibór: A Jewish Boy’s Story of Revolt and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland) and in Polish (title: Bunt w Sobibórze). A curriculum based on Mr. Bialowitz’s book was developed for Polish schools by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. After the Holocaust, Mr. Bialowitz trained in Germany to be a dentist but eventually settled in New York City, where he worked as a jeweler. He died peacefully, surrounded by his four surviving children, in 2016.