Bernadette Sweetman meets a Holocaust survivor
I sat amidst a packed lecture hall at the start of a specially arranged lunch time talk in Mater Dei Institute of Education in Dublin on an October afternoon. Later that evening a formal public speaking event was scheduled and the demand for attendance was so great, that the speakers had graciously offered to provide a second time slot at lunch hour.
The atmosphere was fraught with anticipation because the occasion was to hear from a survivor of the Holocaust, who, accompanied by his son, has travelled extensively to lecture in Holocaust education. Therein lay my first lesson. I had neglected to think of the man as first of all, who he was, rather than what he had experienced. His name was Philip Bialowitz. From the outset, we were informed that Philip had been a prisoner at the infamous Sobibór death camp in Poland. From April 28 until October 14, 1943, he managed to survive long enough to participate in the revolt that allowed roughly 300 prisoners to escape. Today, Philip is one of only eight living survivors of the camp.
The haunting music of John Williams’ theme tune to Schindler’s List played over a short video clip of a recent trip by the Bialowitzs to the site of Sobibór, and the nearby town of Izbica, which had once been home to Philip. During this video clip, we watched Philip visit many places, including the site where his mother is believed to have been shot, and the tracks on which cattle carts transported hundreds of thousands (some sources place a conservative estimate of 250,000) of Jews to invariably certain death. Sobibór was a death camp, not a concentration camp. Its sole purpose was to facilitate the extermination of any and all Jews who were sent there. Only a small number, whose particular skills or stamina were abused so as to aid in the working of the camp, were allowed to live – for a short while.
Guilt and remorse
The silent footage, mixed with memories from history lessons created a sombre mood – a mood that fitted the accompanying overture. The music faded to allow the video sound take prevalence as we watched a brief conversation from this visit, between Philip Bialowitz and Klaus Vallaster, who was the son of one of the men responsible for operating the gas chambers at Sobibór. At this point, I am sure I was not the only one to feel more than a little uneasy. Though I was not alive at the time, nor had any direct family connections with the horrors of the Holocaust, I still could not shake a growing sense of guilt and remorse, purely on account of also being human.
And yet, at the same time, I was struck by the two men, Philip and his son Joseph, who chatted with a small number of staff and students as the video played. They smiled, even laughed, and were both talking and listening avidly. It was evident that they both exuded life, in a special way, possibly due to the Holocaust experience. I mused on what it was like for Joseph to see his father recount such horrific experiences, and for Philip to have no option but to hand on this heritage to his son. In the 70 years since Philip escaped from Sobibór, he has made it his mission to carry out the promise he made to the leaders of the revolt, Sasha Pechersky and Leon Feldhendler: “If anyone survives, bear witness to what happened here! Tell the world about this place!”
As Philip spoke to the audience, he had no hesitation in sharing the gruesome details. It seemed that not only was there a real drive in him to bear witness to what had happened, but also an incredible strength of character to relive those horrors, so that others could be educated. I could not believe that the evil to which Philip was exposed was the fuel for what became his mission. Instead, both from my personal encounter with the man, and later reading his memoirs, A Promise at Sobibór (published by the University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), I became convinced that a deep desire and respect for all life, a spirit of charity and faith, and the experience of love were the true motivating factors in sustaining this man throughout all his life. Philip’s ability to remain human despite such inhumane treatment is astounding. He always retained the ability to see goodness amidst the evil. To give just one example, in recognition of the enormous good played by the Catholic Mazurek family who sheltered him for a year after his escape, Philip honoured them as Righteous among the Nations at Yad Vashem, the highest honour bestowed upon non-Jews who aided Jews in their time of need.
In contrast to the ‘educator and witness’ persona that Philip portrayed during the lecture, as I chatted privately with him afterwards, I met someone who came across to me as a typical Grandad – if there is such a thing. In a short space of time, Philip shared stories of his youth, tales of his family’s daily life and his pride in them, and a conversation about parenthood that I will always treasure. Parenthood and the experience of family became the hook that linked me to Philip’s life story.
As an oft-described ‘homebird’, I am lucky to still live in the locality in which generations of my family lived. Bringing this dimension of myself to Philip and Joseph brought with it a tinge of sadness, because I was so aware that these men were robbed of their families, displaced from their home and forced to live in a present that should never have been their future. And yet, both men radiated hope. Instead of trying to block out the atrocities of their history, they were educating others to retain the goodness, heritage and traditions of the hundreds of thousands who were murdered in the Holocaust. This hope was tangible in the moving interlude when Philip sang one of his favourite songs for the audience – a Yiddish love song.
I pointedly asked him how he felt when he became a parent. Knowing how my comparatively ordinary life was transformed by motherhood, I wondered how the experience would have affected someone who witnessed so much death and destruction. Philip described it as his “vengeance”. He brought new life into the world, through his children, and later grandchildren. He, as did his parents before him, strived to provide his children with a good education. He takes pride and comfort knowing that life goes on, that his name and his family will endure.
Philip taught me that a survivor does much more than evade death – he truly lives, in every sense of the word. I am convinced that the seeds of Philip’s survival were sown in the firm and loving foundations of his family. This finds further expression in the lives of Philip’s children who, with others, fight to highlight the continuing horrors of genocide being allowed to happen in our world even today, and to bring an end to such injustice. The closing line of Philip Bialowitz’s memoirs speaks volumes: “We must remember not to forget.”
Sobibór extermination camp
Sobibór was a Nazi German extermination camp located on the outskirts of the village of Sobibór, in the Lublin district of occupied Poland. The camp was part of Operation Reinhard and the official German name was SS-Sonderkommando Sobibór.
Jews from Poland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union, possibly as well as some non-Jewish Soviet POWs, were transported to Sobibór by rail and suffocated in gas chambers fed by the exhaust of large petrol engines. It is estimated 250,000 people were murdered at Sobibór.
After a successful revolt on October 14, 1943 about 300 Jews escaped, but dozens were killed in the mine field around the camp and dozens more were hunted down over subsequent days.
Shortly after the revolt, the Nazis closed the camp, bulldozed the earth, and planted it over with pine trees to conceal its location. The site is now occupied by the Sobibór Museum.