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A Promise at Sobibor

Promises made as a teenager are seldom remembered, but Philip Bialowitz has kept his promise for 67 years. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about what led up to his promise, or of doing everything he can to keep it.

“This is my mission until I don’t have breath in my lungs,” he said. “Time is running out. I am only one of eight survivors left to tell the story.”

Sunday night I was privileged to join more than 100 others as Philip Bialowitz shared that story, which includes horrific experiences as a prisoner at the Sobibor death camp, his dramatic escape, and life afterwards.

This year marks the 67th anniversary of the largest successful prisoner revolt of the Holocaust, and the 85-year-old survivor of that revolt spoke to an appreciative audience at Chabad Jewish Center in Corona del Mar.

“When I heard Philip was coming to Southern California, I knew I wanted him to speak here,” Rabbi Reuven Mintz said. “It is so important that these living survivors tell their story and for people to hear from a living witness. This is especially true for the younger generation. Having Mr. Bialowitz is a great privilege and honor. He is a man with great courage, hope and such an important message to share.”

I spoke with Philip briefly and said how honored I was to hear him. He calmly replied, “It’s not a pleasant story, but it needs to be told.”

Philip was welcomed to the podium with a standing ovation.

“Thank you for coming to hear about a topic that holds so much emotion for me personally,” he said. “I am grateful to see many young people here. I hope my story will serve as a warning and an inspiration.”

In April 1943 Philip and his siblings were taken to the Sobibor camp in eastern Poland. Sobibor’s one purpose was to kill as many Jews as quickly as possible. During its 18-month operation, at least 250,000 men, women and children were murdered. (Those who weren’t sent to the gas chambers lived in constant terror; at any minute they could be subjected to sadistic games, whipped, shot, or torn to pieces by dogs.)

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the Jews who entered Sobibor were sent to gas chamber immediately,” Philip said. “When we entered, SS officers asked if there were any professionals, and my brother Symcha told them he was a pharmacist and I was his assistant. That’s the reason I survived. We said good-bye for the last time to our two sisters and other family and friends. My 7-year-old niece cried when she hugged me, knowing she would be killed.”

“During the six months there I was beaten, whipped and I watched my family and friends perish, but some of us lived to take vengeance and tell the world the truth.”

Philip explained: “A seed of resistance grew among a small number, including my brother and me. The conspiracy was led by a rabbi’s son named Leon Feldhendler, but we needed military knowledge. A miracle happened when a group of Russian Jews arrived who were trained in warfare, including a young lieutenant named Sasha Perchersky. Within a few weeks they had a plan for everyone to escape, because anybody left behind would pay for our escape.”

Philip explained that seconds before the prisoner uprising began on October 14, 1943 Leon and Sasha called out to their fellow prisoners: “Brothers! The moment of destiny has come. Let us rise and destroy this place. We have little chance of surviving, but at least we will die fighting with honor. If anyone survives, bear witness to what happened here! Tell the world about this place!”

“I am here bearing witness.” Philip calmly said to us. “I owe my gratitude to Sasha and Leon. They inspired me with the will to live and led us to freedom. I will continue to tell the story. We must stop hatred and genocide. “

Of the 300 prisoners involved, only 48 survived. Philip and Symcha spent sox weeks with partisans and a year at a small farm where the Mazureks, a heroic Polish family, allowed them to hide. After the war Philip eventually settled in New York, working as a jeweler. He has five children and fifteen grandchildren. Philip has also delivered testimony at trials of different Sobibor’s SS staff and Ukrainian guards.

You can read his experiences in “A Promise at Sobibor: A Jewish Boy’s Story of Revolt and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland.” It is a book I couldn’t put down about a life I can’t imagine.

Philip received another standing ovation when he finished speaking, and again after answering questions. The standing ovations were very fitting for a man who lives to stand up for justice.

“We must stand as a reminder of the power we all have to stand up against evil in the world,” he said. “We owe this to ourselves and to our children. No matter how difficult life gets, never give up.”

Cindy can be reached at [email protected].

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