A Promise at Sobibór
A Jewish Boy’s Story of Revolt and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland
Publication Year: 2010
A Promise at Sobibór is the story of Fiszel Bialowitz, a teenaged Polish Jew who escaped the Nazi gas chambers. Between April 1942 and October 1943, about 250,000 Jews from European countries and the Soviet Union were sent to the Nazi death camp at Sobibór in occupied Poland. Sobibór was not a transit camp or work camp: its sole purpose was efficient mass murder. On October 14, 1943, approximately half of the 650 or so prisoners still alive at Sobibór undertook a daring and precisely planned revolt, killing SS officers and fleeing through minefields and machine-gun fire into the surrounding forests, farms, and towns. Only about forty-two of them, including Fiszel, are known to have survived to the end of the war.
Philip (Fiszel) Bialowitz, now an American citizen, tells his eyewitness story here in the real-time perspective of his own boyhood, from his childhood before the war and his internment in the brutal Izbica ghetto to his harrowing six months at Sobibór—including his involvement in the revolt and desperate mass escape—and his rescue by courageous Polish farmers. He also recounts the challenges of life following the war as a teenaged displaced person, and his eventual efforts as a witness to the truth of the Holocaust.
In 1943 the heroic leaders of the revolt at Sobibór, Sasha Perchersky and Leon Feldhendler, implored fellow prisoners to promise that anyone who survived would tell the story of Sobibór: not just of the horrific atrocities committed there, but of the courage and humanity of those who fought back. Bialowitz has kept that promise.
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
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The memory of the Holocaust is, above all, the memory of murdered people. The terrible abyss of evil that destroyed millions of lives during the last world war provokes a sense of shock and disbelief that cannot be expressed in words. We must consider how such atrocities could have been possible. It is a most difficult task for Jews because they are still mourningâ and will indeed always mournâtheir millions of murdered relatives. ...
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I wrote this book with the humble hope that it will enable readers to imagine themselves in the situations that I faced as a teenager. This required using my boyhood voice to relive my teenage years in âreal time.â Through hundreds of hours of interviews, I worked with my son Joseph to recount my experiences and record them without the benefit of hindsight. If I seemed to be coloring a story with a perspective that I might have gained ...
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... I was thirteen years old when I first learned that my father was a survivor of a Nazi death camp named Sobib
1. Before War
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Our hour of religious study has just ended. I attend a small, Polish public school comprised of roughly equal numbers of Catholic and Jewish students. Along with my Jewish classmates, we share the same teachers and study the same subjects as the Catholic students, but in different classrooms. The only difference in the curriculum comes during the âreligious hour.â A revered priest teaches the Catholic schoolchildren ...
2. War Begins
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On September 1, 1939, the radio in our living room brings the news we have feared would come: the Germans have invaded western Poland. We guess it will be at least several days before the fighting can possibly reach our town in the eastern part of the country. Meanwhile, we worry most about the fates of Symcha and Brancha in Warsaw, whom we ...
3. The Rosenbergers
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Our newest houseguests turn out to be a wealthy Jewish family, very prominent in their native Germany. Before the war, the head of the family, Emil Rosenberger, had owned a large shop in the Black Forest city of Karlsruhe, selling iron products. He is to live with us, along with his wife, Erna, and their two daughters, Ilse and Herta. ...
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One June afternoon I am home alone studying when I hear the sound of a car approaching. I put my book down and look out the window. There, just down the street, is a Mercedes. The car stops. Out comes the driver, an officer dressed in a gray uniform. His collar bears the unmistakable insignia of the SS. He checks a slip of paper and walks toward ...
5. Summer 1942
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The summer goes by mercifully with only a few transports. But we still live in constant fear of Engels and Klemm, whose outbursts continue to take many lives. One day they gun down Uncle Szlomeâs two beautiful blonde daughters, Sara and Rachel, who are only nineteen and twenty-two. Alter witnesses the murders from his window. His sisters die in his arms. Now he has lost not just his parents but all three of his siblings. ...
6. Fall 1942
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... The only question is the timing. Every day brings new speculation about when the nextâand finalâroundup will occur.We talk about it obsessively. The entire town is rife with rumors, some of which turn out to be true, but just as often not. Daily life is an ordeal filled with dread of the beatings, murders, and deportations that we have already seen inflicted on others. People now ...
7. November 1942 to April 1943
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Just a few days later, I leave home to buy food for everyone. A large roundup abruptly begins while I am on the way to the store. I am too far from our hiding place, so I run into a Jewish neighborâs house and hide with a few other people in the closet for about an hour. With dozens of the black-uniformed Ukrainians conducting house-to-house searches on behalf of the Germans, I know we are in trouble. The Ukrainians find us ...
8. Life in Sobib
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We have heard from people who had fled the areas near SobibÃ³r and Belzec that the camps in these places are killing centers. Nevertheless, part of me has not wanted to believe their stories. Now I am here at SobibÃ³r. A tall barbed-wire fence stands before us. We are surrounded by black-uniformed Ukrainians, and beyond them stands the deep forest. Flowers, trees, grass, and a nicely paved road appear to mark the campâs ...
9. Planning Vengeance
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Many prisoners simply cannot stand the atrocities that they witness every day. Some commit suicide. This is itself a form of resistance because they die on their own terms and they deny their labor to the Germans. But many other prisoners, confident they will also be killed no matter what, feel compelled to do more than work for the Germans. Like me they sabotage the Germans whenever possible. And more important, ...
10. Escape from Sobib
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The day arrives cloudy and cold. I have never been so nervous or excited in all of my seventeen years. This may be the last day of my life and the end of my suffering. Or I will live. Only two things are certain: today we will take vengeance, and everything will change. I eat breakfast and go to work in the sorting shed as usual. I begin counting the hours until the revolt will begin. At around 10:30 a.m., however, my heart sinks: ...
11. New Dangers
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In the evening we gather some sugar beets from the fields to eat, and then take off through the woods. After about three hours of walking, we encounter a group of ten ragtag Polish partisans, two of whom are women. The group is armed with guns and ammunition. Right away we know this can be a very delicate situation. They can help us live, but they can also kill ...
12. Liberation and Victory
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I emerge from our hiding place along with Symcha and Lola. Finally after almost five years of life under the Germans, I have regained the sensation of freedom. And I appreciate it as never before. My first steps feel both light and determined. Even the familiar sight of the village around me, with its scattered farms surrounded by the forest in the distance, seems ...
13. Life as a Displaced Person
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Now that I am finally free, where am I to go? Back to Izbica? A sweet thought when I remember life before the war, but there is no going back, nothing to go back to. The living nightmare I had experienced in Izbica has left a traumatic impression on me. I know the town of my birth will always be a place of mourning to me. The Nazi war machine has been ...
14. Resettling in the United States
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I yearn to be a dentist, not a technician. So I ask the owner of the dental lab for advice on bettering my position. Thatâs when I discover that my German credentials are not valid in America. To do the same level of work here, I will need to pay for classes and certifications with money I do not have. This is a major setback for my dream of successful resettlement. ...
Epilogue: Life after Sobib
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I was nineteen years old when the war ended in 1945, and I already knew I was a transformed person going forward in this world, thanks to all that I had experienced at the hands of the Nazi murderers. My childhood innocence had long ago vanished with the murders of nearly all my beloved family members and friends. As an impressionable teenager, I had ...
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Page Count: 196
Publication Year: 2010