Holocaust stories get real for Washington U. students

Phillip Bialowitz speaks at Washington University about his experiences during the rebellion at the Sobibor death camp. Photo: Kristi  Foster 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Last October, when Rabbi Hershey Novack posted a note on Facebook marking the 70th anniversary of a  rebellion at the Sobibor death camp, he was surprised by a comment left by Washington University student Bennett Kelberman.

The young man said his grandmother had been a survivor.

“I was blown away,” said Novack, executive director of Chabad on Campus. “It is such a tiny subgroup of survivors. To have someone [with a connection] not just in St. Louis, not just at Washington U, but 20 yards from my office where I’d posted the story was pretty amazing.”

It was a coincidence that eventually led to an opportunity last week for Washington University students to meet one of a handful of survivors who made it through Sobibor. Philip Bialowitz, 84,spoke to the campus community Thursday detailing his horrifying experiences during his World War II internment, as well as his role in the prisoner revolt that ultimately shut down the infamous camp where a quarter of a million Jews were killed.

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“I hope that my story will serve as both a warning and an inspiration for all of you,” Bialowitz told the crowd. “I hope that after hearing my story, everyone here, but especially the younger generation, will be inspired to do all they can to prevent other children from suffering anywhere in the world.”

Bialowitz’s appearance was due to the work of Kelberman, a member of the Chabad Student Association Board, who began speaking with Novack after that initial social-media post about the possibility of bringing a Sobibor survivor to campus.

“In recent years, I started thinking that this is a pretty significant part of my past,” said Kelberman, who heard the story from his father growing up. “It is really why I’m alive today. If the revolt hadn’t happened, my grandmother definitely would have been murdered at the concentration camp.”

Kelberman, 19, never met his grandmother, Zelda Metz, who passed away before he was born. But the story moved him. A few phone calls led him to Bialowitz, who was a teenager at the time of the 1943 uprisingand later published “A Promise at Sobibor” in which he detailed the revolt. 

Bialowitz knew Metz during their time at the camp and kept in contact with her later when she lived in New Jersey.

“She was a wonderful person,” he recalled. “She was young like me and wanted to live and tell the story.”

Kelberman, a native of Philadelphia, worked with the university’s Student Government Association, which helped sponsor the program along with Kelberman’s group.

“It is really important to get this message out, especially to students, people who might not know about the details and extent of what happened so that people don’t forget about it,” said Kelberman, a sophomore business major. “These are the last few years we will hear firsthand from Holocaust survivors and talk to people who actually witnessed this so we can keep passing it down and hope it will never happen again.”

Bialowitz traveled from his home in Florida to speak in St. Louis and he stayed for most of last weekend, during which he was a special guest at a Chabad Shabbat dinner and paid a visit to the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.

“He’s the nicest man, just very sweet and warm,” said Rose Shapiro, a linguistics and psychology major and Chabad Student Association board member. “It has been a pleasure meeting him.”

Shapiro, 18, visited death-camp sites in Poland last year but said not everyone gets that opportunity, which makes personal testimony so much more important.

“I was lucky to see [the camps], but I then I came here and met people who don’t know anything about it,” she said.

Novack said he enjoyed talking with Bialowitz, not just regarding Sobibor but also about Jewish life in his Polish village before the Nazis took over.

“While many people focus on the way that the Jews died, I think it is also important to focus on the way that they lived,” he said.

Novack’s wife, Chana, co-director of Chabad on Campus, said, “What is most inspiring about this event is that the students were really the ones who took the initiative.”

Last Thursday’s presentation opened with 45 minutes of scenes from a 1987 movie dramatizing the Sobibor revolt in which about 600 prisoners tried to escape into the forest. About half survived the attempt, only about 50 lived through the war.

Bialowitz then took the stage and said that the events he would describe were so horrifying, they might seem like fiction.

“Most people only dream their nightmares,” he said. “But I and my fellow prisoners actually lived that experience.”

Bialowitz recounted seeing doomed prisoners being shipped to the camp, where most were quickly put to death in gas chambers designed to look like showers. He recalled the detailed procedure the Nazis developed to make new arrivals think they were being resettled rather than killed. The doomed men, women and children were even invited to fill out postcards to let loved ones know they were well and safe.

Bialowitz was saved by the quick thinking of his brother, Symcha, a pharmacist, who claimed that his younger sibling was his assistant. Symcha would survive the camp as well — he just recently died, on Feb. 14, two days shy of his 102nd birthday.

Even before his time at Sobibor, Philip Bialowitz had experienced horror at the hands of the Nazis. At one point, he found himself with others in front of a German firing squad. He survived only by dropping to the ground when the shooting started and lying still as the dead piled up on top of him. Hours later, he climbed out of the uncovered mass grave coated in the blood of the other victims. By the time he was sent to Sobibor, he had suffered enough horrors that the prospect of death seemed almost a relief.

“I thought, ‘At least if they kill me, it can be my end and I can have some peace,’ ” he said. “At the same time, I was only a teenager, and I wanted to live.”

Bialowitz’s story was uplifting as well. He identified Sobibor, along with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as examples of places where Jews fought for their lives and their dignity. He played a role by luring a German officer into an ambush at the camp where other prisoners killed him.

As the rebellion got underway, its leaders announced to the camp that if anyone should survive, it was their duty to be a witness to what happened and to tell others. It was a command that Bialowitz is still trying to fulfill. He believes education is the key.

Unfortunately, he also fears the message hasn’t yet gotten, given tragedies such as the massacres at Darfur fresh in his memory.

“The world is still profoundly broken,” he told the Jewish Light after his talk. “The world did not learn the lessons of Sobibor. Everything repeats itself.”

It is a larger thought that he hopes everyone will take to heart.

“In Sobibor, we didn’t fight only for ourselves,” he said. “We fought for a better world, for a better tomorrow, a day without hatred and a day without genocide.”