Sobibor survivor recalls his escape and a decades-old vow

Fiszel “Phillip” Bialowitz was in Solano County on March 6 fulfilling a 70-year-old promise.

The 85-year-old New York resident is among eight living survivors of the infamous Sobibor death camp, and the only one willing to publicly tell the tale, he told an audience of around 250 people at Vacaville’s Hampton Inn and Suites.

The retired jeweler also has testified at several war crimes trials, most recently last year at the German trial of John Demjanjuk. He also is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 13, at the Concord Hilton; space is limited and RSVPs are required (for more information, visit www.jewishcontracosta.com).

Sobibor survivor Phillip Bialowitz and Auschwitz survivor Helen Freibrun of Vacaville photo/rachel raskin-zrihen

The revolt at Sobibor was led by prisoners Leon Feldhendler and Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky, who made the prisoners — Bialowitz among them — promise to tell their story if they made it out alive.

“At the roll call, Feldhendler and Sasha stood on a table and said, ‘Brothers! The moment of destiny has arrived!’ ” Bialowitz said. “He said that if any should happen to survive, we should bear witness to what had happened there.”

Rabbi Chaim Zaklos of Chabad of Solano County, which hosted the event, said the story of Sobibor is an important one.

Built by the Nazis deep in the Polish forest and surrounded by barbed wire and land mines, Sobibor is the final resting place of some 250,000 Jews, including Bialowitz’s two sisters and a 7-year-old niece.

Unlike many of the other Nazi camps, Sobibor was strictly a death camp and arrivals ordinarily lived about a half hour.

The then-16-year-old Bialowitz and his older brother survived to help plan and carry out what wound up being the Holocaust’s most successful concentration camp revolt.

“They asked for professionals and tradesmen to replace 40 they’d killed the day before,” Bialowitz recalled. “My brother grabbed my hand and we went to the SS man and he said, ‘I’m a pharmacist and this is my helper.’ ”

During his six months in captivity, Bialowitz said he was made to “help” new arrivals with their luggage, cut their hair and sort through their belongings, all the while knowing their fate and unable to warn or help them.

Feldhendler, a camp inmate, became determined to find a way to free all 600 of the prisoners kept alive to maintain camp functions, said Bialowitz, who, along with his son, Joe, has published a book, “The Promise at Sobibor: A Jewish Boy’s Story of Revolt and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland,” which is being made into a movie.

But the inmates had been tailors and teachers and pharmacists, with no military or tactical training. The Nazis supplied the solution to that problem with the capture of several Jewish Russian soldiers.

“They were in Russian uniforms, and we had no idea who they were, until we realized they spoke Yiddish,” he said.

Pechersky, one of the Russian soldiers, teamed with Feldhendler to hatch the plot that resulted in the escape of some 200 prisoners, though only 48 survived to the end of the war, Bialowitz said.

Bialowitz and his brother, who is now 100, spent a year in the Polish forests until they were liberated by the Russians. Feldhendler was murdered in 1945, but Pechersky lived until 1990.

A survivor of the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, Helen Freibrun, 84, of Vacaville said she attended the talk to acknowledge a fellow traveler.

“I came because there are not that many left,” she said.

Bialowitz said he recounts his experience for three reasons: to fulfill his promise, to illustrate the “fighting spirit of the Jewish people” and to try to help prevent similar atrocities.

But his revenge is in living well.

“I have five children and 15 grandchildren, and they are my victory over the Nazis,” he said.

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."