Holocaust heroism remembered

Hadar Elya, 19, an emissary from Israel staying in New London, is comforted by Ruth Vogel, a Holocaust survivor from Norwich, after she became upset while listening to the address of Philip Bialowitz during a Holocaust commemoration service in Norwich on Sunday.

Norwich - Philip Bialowitz is one of only eight living survivors of the Nazi death camp Sobibór. In 1943, Bialowitz, his brother Simcha, his friend Sasca Peczerski and a small group of Jewish prisoners overpowered their Nazi captors, killing them with knives and axes and freeing nearly 300 of the camp's prisoners.

On Sunday, in front of nearly 200 people gathered at the Beth Jacob Synagogue to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, the 84-year-old Bialowitz cried when he spoke of his promise to Peczerski. He shed tears for his friend who no longer has the voice to tell their story.

"I and all the other prisoners lived for the chance to take revenge and to one day tell the world of the atrocities committed at Sobibór," said Bialowitz, who lives in Queens, N.Y.

Just before the revolt began, he made a promise to Peczerski that if he lived, he would tell the story of their revolt for the rest of his life.

Bialowitz travels the country telling the story of his capture by the Nazis, his time in the death camp in Poland, and his escape.

Bialowitz told the audience how he cut the hair of the women who thought they were heading to the showers but who were really headed to the gas chambers.

"Some of them asked me not to cut it too short. I am convinced that they did not realize the terrible truth until their first breath of poison gas," Bialowitz said.

"There were screams for the first few minutes, and after 15 minutes, silence. It went on like that day after day after day," Bialowitz said.

During his six months at Sobibór, Bialowitz was beaten and whipped, but his desire for freedom never ceased. Sobibór was deep in the forest, surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. It was the only death camp with underground mine fields, making any chance of escape impossible.

"A seed of resistance grew among a small group of prisoners including my brother and me," Bialowitz said. "We knew of the German plan to kill us and that our only chance to take revenge and tell the world about Sobibór was to risk our lives in the revolt. Even if we died, a death by bullets would be preferable to death by gas."

The uprising at Sobibór was the largest and most successful prisoner revolt of World War II.

Bialowitz said that he was grateful to see the faces of young children in the audience and that no child should ever have to endure what the children of the Holocaust did.

"It starts with education. We live in a world where so little has changed since the Holocaust, the world is still profoundly broken," Bialowitz said.

"We were hidden from the consciousness of the world; soon nobody will know our story. We have to tell the younger generations, we have to have them perpetuate and tell their children and grandchildren."

Kyah Gorin, 17, of Norwich, did a reading during a candle ceremony after Bialowitz spoke.

"I can't believe that they have the courage to talk to everyone tonight," she said. "To be able to talk about something like that, I couldn't imagine what they went through. I'm just in awe that they have the perseverance."

Philip Bialowitz  holds the Torah during the service.
Philip Bialowitz holds the Torah during the service.
Holocaust survivors Lola Fox, left, of Colchester and Ruth Vogel of Norwich listen to Philip Bialowitz’s address Sunday.
Holocaust survivors Lola Fox, left, of Colchester and Ruth Vogel of Norwich listen to Philip Bialowitz’s address Sunday.

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