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Philip Bialowitz: The Witness of Sobibor

by Bill Holston 14 Oct 2011 4:01 PM

In this guest blog, Bill Holston offers us a recap of last evening’s latest lecture sponsored by the Embry Human Rights program.


Guest blogger Bill Holston  is a business lawyer with the Dallas law firm Sullivan & Holston. He and his wife Jill have lived in Dallas for over 25 years, and have two adult sons. Bill became active in the local music and arts community through his son Fred, who is a local photographer and musician. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Art Conspiracy, a local non-profit, that promotes local artists and raises money for charity, and he is is a frequent commentator on 90.1 FM, KERA. Bill is privileged to provide pro bono legal services to political and religious refugees to our country through local non-profit Human Rights Initiative, and writes a nature column called Law Man Walking for DMagazine’s blog, Front Burner.

Philip Bialowitz. Photo: BBC

Quick, what was Bełżec? Yeah, I didn’t know either. Bełżec was one of the Nazi Extermination camps located in Poland. According to Rick Halperin, director of the Embry Human Rights program,  over 650,000 Jews were murdered there by the Nazis during a 6 month period in 1942. According to Dr Halperin,  Bełżec was one of five extermination camps. These were different from Concentration Camps, as the sole purpose of the Extermination Camps was killing. And, they were quite efficient at it. The total estimates are:

Auschwitz–Birkenau: 1.1 million; Treblinka: about 900,000; Bełżec: about 650,000; Sobibor: about  250,000; and Chełmno: about 360.000. The statistics almost lose power because they are so overwhelming. Most of us immediately recognize the name Aushwitz, but the fact that I’d never heard of Bełżec is a reminder of why hearing the stories is so critical. Yesterday the Embry Human Rights program at SMU hosted Philip Bialowitz, one of 8 living survivors of Sobibor Death Camp.  Sobibor is relatively well known as the site of a rebellion by the Jews.

Philip Bialowitz is a spry 86-year-old man, dressed impeccably. He told us that he was born in Izbica Poland. He said at the age of 14, his childhood ended. By 1943 his parents had already been murdered by the Nazis, when he and his brother and two sisters were taken in a roundup and taken by truck to Sobibor. His life was spared because the quick thinking of his older brother Symcha, who told the guards he was a pharmacist and his little brother was his helper. His sisters died in the camp. His job in the camp was cutting the hair of the arriving captive women. Mr Bialowitz told us that the Poles knew they were sent there to die, but the arriving Jews from Holland did not, The guards convinced them Sobibor was a labor camp. He recounted that some of the women asked not to cut their hair too short. They were unaware that they were to be  immediately shuttled to gas chambers. He related the terrible circumstances of the camps where people were routinely beaten and executed for minor offences.

This all changed sixty eight years ago today, when the prisoners fought back.  They were assisted by the arrival of Russian prisoners of war. The Jewish soldiers were separated from their comrades and sent to Sobibor. Now the prisoners had people who had military training. The plan consisted of telling the Nazi officers that they had leather coats and boots that had been seized from the other prisoners. As they showed up to take the booty, they were killed with knives and axes. The prisoners then seized some of their guards’ weapons. They rushed the gates and climbed over the barb wire fences. Mr. Bialowitz still has the scars from that effort. As they fled, the prisoners told each other that they had little chance to survive, but those who did must vow to ‘tell what happened at Sobibor.’ The camps were surrounded by mine fields and many of the prisoners died. They were shot by guards, killed by mines and hunted down by guards.. Of the 300 Jews that escaped from the camp, only 50 survived to the end of the war. Originally Mr. Bialowitz joined the Polish partisans in the forests. Eventually he was hidden by ‘a heroic Catholic farmer.’ He called them heroes because if they had been caught, the entire family would have been executed.  Mr. Bialowitz survived and eventually immigrated to America. His older brother will turn 100 in Israel this year. He has dedicated his life to fulfilling the sacred promise he made to the other prisoners that the survivors would bear witness. He fulfilled that promise again last night.

Mr. Bialowitz took questions from the audience. He had difficulty hearing, so Dr. Halperin listened to the questions and then repeated them. He was asked how this impacted his faith, as he grew up in a religious family. He replied, G-d didn’t create the holocaust, Man did that. He said he had no bitterness towards German people. He had travelled to Germany to testify at war crimes trials, and was treated with courtesy and honor by Germans. He said he only had malice for those who were murderers. Poles had a history of anti-semitism, and a very small percentage of Polish Jews survived the holocaust, much lower than say Denmark. Still, Poles make up a large percentage of people honored as Righteous Among the Nations, Gentiles who helped save Jews and honored at  Yad Vashem. These individuals were on the right side of history, where so many bi-standers must live with the knowledge of guilty silence.

Dr. Halperin ended the evening calling on those attending to be witnesses. These survivors of the holocaust are now very old. They are aware of their mortality. In the face of the monstrous reality that there are still people who doubt that that Holocaust, feel an enormous responsibility to recount that these things occurred. And worse, they could happen again. Mr. Bialowitz referred to Armenians, Darfurians and others where genocide has occurred. George Satayana once wrote, that those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it. By listening to these stories and passing them on, each of us does a part in the global pledge that ‘this will not happen again.’