CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Philip Bialowitz was a teenage boy in 1942 when his world was turned upside-down.
Ripped from his home in Izbica, Poland, during World War II, he was one of more than 250,000 European Jews and Soviet prisoners of war transported in trucks and cattle cars over the railways to Sobibor, Poland, an extermination camp where unwitting victims were killed with carbon monoxide gas.
One of only seven remaining Sobibor survivors, he will speak as part of the “Holocaust Remembered: Witness and Legacy” lecture series at 7 p.m. Monday at the Baptist Temple.
Bialowitz and his elder brother Simcha, who relocated to Israel after the war and died at the age of 102, escaped the gas chamber by claiming to be “a pharmacist and apprentice,” he said in a telephone interview.
The Germans wanted to staff the camp with professionals, Bialowitz explained.
Their two sisters and a niece were taken to the gas chamber.
Being one of the camp’s youngest slave laborers, Bialowitz was forced to complete a variety of tasks at the death camp.
He remembers having to shear women’s hair before execution.
“They asked me not to cut it too short,” he said.
In his memoir “A Promise at Sobibór: A Polish Jew’s Story of Revolt and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland,” Bialowitz, now 88, describes his ordeal, the prisoner revolt of Oct. 14, 1943, and subsequent escape, and his participation in war-crimes trials beginning 20 years later.
“Most survivors don’t want to speak about the Holocaust,” Bialowitz said. “It was just too traumatic.
“But I came to a conclusion 20 to 25 years ago that my time was running out and I had promised to tell the story of Sobibor to a younger generation.”
He has lectured to young and old alike from New Zealand to Holland and from Africa to The Hague. He also has been instrumental in the development of educational materials and documentary films.
“I have a mission to, on some small scale, build a better world,” he said. “The young people I talk to have a mission too. They need to tell their children and grandchildren they met me, and I survived Sobibor.”
He credits Jewish Soviet prisoners of war with the strategic know-how to plan and execute the uprising of 600 slave laborers there. A rabbi’s son came up with the idea but had no military experience, he explained.
Bialowitz’s contribution to the successful uprising was that of a messenger.
“I would call guards into a room to look at valuable items like leather coats; three men at a time,” he said. “We killed 11 of them in 60 minutes.”
The call to action that day was announced with the words, “Destiny has come,” he said.
“At the time of the uprising, we hoped only a few would escape and tell the world,” he said. “We made a promise to die fighting with honor, and for those who survived to bear witness.”
Nearly 200 escaped that day, but only 42 survived until the end of the war, he said.
The Bialowitz brothers were hidden underground in a barn by a Catholic family near the camp.
“I was only a teenager and keep thinking about the miracles it took to survive,” he said. “I will always be grateful that they risked their lives to save us.”
In 1950, Bialowitz settled in America because his brother, already serving in the Israeli army after creation of the Jewish state, warned him the family name could cease to exist if they both died in military service there, he explained.
Although he had trained to be a dentist, Bialowitz retained a position as a jeweler in New York City and opened his own business shortly thereafter.
He will be accompanied Monday evening by his son, Michael. Copies of the book co-authored by another son, Joseph, will be available for purchase and autograph.
The Bialowitz name lives on and the family mission to keep the promise made at Sobibor 70 years ago does too.
For more information on the free lecture series and the performance of the Appalachian Children’s Chorus which precedes this event, contact Helen Lodge at 304-925-8828.
Want to go?
WHAT: Lecture: “Holocaust Remembered”
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday
WHERE: Charleston Baptist Temple, 209 Morris St.