Philip Bialowitz can still remember the bullets flying all around him and the barbed wire slicing his hands during his escape from the Sobibor death camp in Poland.
The 16-year-old prisoner had been among 40 Jewish resistance fighters in the camp who carried out the 1943 escape in which 200 of the 600-plus prisoners interned at the camp got out. During the revolt, many Ukrainian guards and 11 of the SS elite running the camp were killed with handmade knives, axes, or guns taken off the dead SS men or stolen beforehand.
“I still have the scars on my fingers,” he told the audience at the Monroe Township Senior Center on Oct. 29 in a talk sponsored by the Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe. “We rushed to the fences. We were shooting back as the men in the guard towers were shooting at us with machine guns.”
Bialowitz’s talk followed the screening of Escape from Sobibor; afterward, he autographed copies of his book, Promise at Sobibor: A Jewish Boy’s Story of Revolt and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland.
Bialowitz testified at war crimes trials around the world and speaks internationally, not only for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but for the victims of Rwanda, Kosovo, and other genocides.
The teenage Bialowitz arrived in Sobibor after his parents and a sister had already been killed. He watched as two other sisters and his seven-year-old niece were sent to die. His brother Symcha saved both of them by lying that he was a pharmacist and Philip was his assistant.
Bialowitz is among only eight living survivors of Sobibor, where 250,000 lost their lives. One of the others is his brother, who also participated in the revolt and at age 102, is living in Israel.
As the revolt unfolded, Bialowitz was sent to tell an SS man the leather coat and boots he had ordered were ready. When the man came to pick them up, he was killed with an axe.
“I watched him be killed,” said Bialowitz. The uprising took shape as phone lines were cut to prevent the Nazis from calling for reinforcements. However, before the plan could be fully executed, a guard caught on, and the prisoners broke for the fences.
“There was smoke and exploding mines,” recalled Bialowitz, who later met up with his brother in the forest. However, dozens were killed in the minefield surrounding the camp, while more were hunted down in the following months and killed. Others joined the partisans, where they died fighting, and still others was murdered by anti-Semites.
Only 42 of the prisoners survived the war. Bialowitz’s life was saved by a Polish Catholic family who hid him and is now listed at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
A retired jeweler and longtime New York resident, Bialowitz said he feels an obligation to travel the world speaking about the atrocities he witnessed at Sobibor, where “99 percent of the Jews were sent to the gas chambers immediately. It wasn’t like a ghetto or a concentration camp,” he said. “There you had a chance of survival. Sobibor was a place of death.”
The uprising was hatched by Leon Feldhendler and Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky, a Red Army officer who later fought with the partisans. He rejoined the Red Army and was decorated for bravery. Later, he was imprisoned in Stalin’s gulag as a Jew, although he was later released. He died in 1990.
Feldhendler survived the war in hiding in Lublin, Poland, only to be shot and killed there a year later by right-wing anti-Semites.
“They gave me a second chance at life,” said Bialowitz. “They led us to freedom. I’m here to bear witness for Sasha. I’m here to bear witness for Leon. I am here to tell the world.”