When a prisoner uprising freed hundreds of Jews from the Nazi death camp at Sobibór, Poland, in 1943, Bialowitz heard the leader call out, “If you survive, bear witness to what happened here! Tell the world about this place!” In this harrowing first-person account, the author fulfills the promise he made then.
Bialowitz, now one of only a few dozen survivors of Sobibór, where some 250,000 Jews were exterminated in 1942 and 1943, begins his story in Izbica, a small Polish village where Catholic schoolboys taunted him and the other Jewish boys as Christ killers. When the Nazis arrived, Jews were hunted down and killed, sometimes randomly, sometimes methodically. Quick-witted and determined to live, the teenaged Bialowitz had numerous narrow escapes from death—once he survived a mass graveside shooting by jumping into the pit as the shots were fired and hiding under the dead bodies for hours. In April 1943, however, he was loaded onto a truck by the SS and sent to Sobibór. At the camp, the strong and healthy Bialowitz was selected as a slave laborer, made to unload cattle cars of arriving victims, cut off women’s hair before their gassing and search though piles of clothing for valuables. Escape seemed impossible, for the camp was surrounded by heavily armed guards, barbed wire and a mine field. Nevertheless, in October 1943, in the largest and most successful prisoner uprising of the war, some 600 slave laborers revolted. About half managed to break out, the author among them. He hid in the forest, had perilous encounters with armed partisans, was hidden by farmers out of good will or in exchange for money, and eventually found his way home, only to discover that anti-Semitism had not ended with the war. Bialowitz left Poland and spent years in European displaced-persons camps before moving to the United States in 1950. He has made it his mission to keep the memory of the horrors of the Holocaust alive through lectures, testifying at the trials of war criminals and writing.
First published in Poland in 2008, this matter-of-fact account is chilling, sobering and memorable.