Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Friday, 27 November 2009

Nightmarish memories of Nazis' Sobibor death camp


Steve Rosenberg visits the site of the Sobibor death camp

John Demjanjuk is due to stand trial in Germany accused of helping to murder more than 27,000 Jews at the Nazi death camp of Sobibor in occupied Poland. The BBC's Steve Rosenberg returns to the site of the camp with one man who survived its horrors.

In the Jewish cemetery in the town of Izbica, 84-year-old Philip Bialowitz shows me a battered gravestone among a tangle of bushes.

Philip Bialowitz
In Sobibor life was hell. But we took revenge. We escaped to tell the world what had happened
Philip Bialowitz

"This is the place where I was shot," he tells me. "I was brought here with a group of people and we were shot with machine-guns."

The Nazis murdered 4,000 Jews in the cemetery. Philip's mother was killed here. But her son had a remarkable escape. Lined up with other Jewish prisoners by the side of a freshly dug grave, he jumped in as soon as the bullets started to fly.

"I fell down and pretended I was dead. I made myself room to breathe. Many people were screaming. They were injured. I couldn't help them. I lay there a few hours covered in blood. Then I managed to get out."

A few months later, Philip was rearrested, together with his brother, his two sisters and his niece. This time they were not taken to the cemetery. They were transported to Sobibor.

"We knew that Sobibor was a death camp," Philip recalls. "We'd heard. So when they took us on the road to Sobibor we knew that this is the end of our life."

Sobibor was one of three secret killing factories built by the Nazis in eastern Poland. In 18 months, a quarter of a million Jews were transported here and murdered in the gas chambers. Their bodies were incinerated, their ashes buried in pits.

It is here that John Demjanjuk is accused of being a guard and of helping to kill 27,900 Jews. His trial begins next week in Munich. John Demjanjuk denies the charges.

Slave labourers

I go with Philip to Sobibor.

"Every inch of this ground is holy," he tells me. We're standing on waste ground; little remains of the camp.

Model of Sobibor extermination camp
1. Officers' compound
2. Accommodation and workshops for Jewish slave labourers
3. Selection area where new arrivals had their belongings and clothing taken and new slave labourers were chosen
4. The majority of arrivals were led naked at gunpoint down a path known as the Tube
5. At the end of the Tube were the gas chambers, where they were killed
Source: Holocaust Research Project

"This is where the people perished, where they were gassed, where they were burned."

When Philip Bialowitz was transported here, an SS officer selected him and his brother Simcha to be slave labourers. It would delay their death sentence. The brothers were then separated from their relatives.

"We said goodbye to them. Even my seven-year-old niece knew she was going to die."

As a Jewish slave labourer, Philip had to help unload the transports of Jews arriving at Sobibor and remove the bodies of dead passengers.

"One Sunday, a German guard took 10 of us to help unload a transport. The smell was terrible. He told me to take people out of the wagon. When I pulled out a woman, her skin remained in my hands. I still have nightmares about that episode," he says.

While Polish Jews like Philip knew Sobibor was a death camp when they got here, Jews arriving from other countries had little idea what lay in store.

"Jews from Holland were deceived by the Nazis into thinking they were going to be resettled," says Philip.

"I helped them out of the trains with all their baggage. My heart was bleeding knowing that in half an hour they would be reduced to ashes. I couldn't tell them. I wasn't allowed to speak. Even if I told them, they would not believe they were going to die.

Sobibor sign
There are little physical remains of the camp at Sobibor

"The Gestapo man welcomed them and apologised for the inconvenience of travel. He said that because of typhus they had to take a disinfection. They must undress. 'But before you undress,' he said, 'I would strongly recommend you send home postcards to your dear ones that you are here in a nice place.' So people were clapping. Some even cheered 'Bravo!'."

Naked, at gunpoint, the Jews were herded down a path through the forest. It led not to the shower rooms, but to the gas chambers.

"A few minutes later the whole camp heard screams. First loud and strong. And later subsiding, until we didn't hear anything. This went on every day."

'Biggest victory'

But one remarkable day the Jews of Sobibor fought back.

On 14 October 1943, the slave labourers launched an uprising. It was led by a Polish Jew, Leon Feldhendler, and a Russian Jewish POW, Sasha Pechersky.

We took revenge. We escaped to tell the world what had happened
Philip Bialowitz

Their escape plan exploited the Nazis' greed. Slave labourers, whose job it was to sort the clothes of murdered Jews, put aside the best items. These were then used to lure the SS guards into traps one by one.

"I was one of the messengers," remembers Philip. "I went up to a Gestapo and told him, 'I've been sent to tell you they found a very beautiful leather coat and boots for you. Come to the warehouse to try it on'. When they went in, they were killed with knives and axes."

The Jews killed 12 SS men before the plot was discovered.

In the chaos which followed, more than 300 of the 600 Jewish slave workers broke out of the camp. Many were killed by mines or shot dead. Around 50 escapees survived till the end of the war.

After the uprising, the Nazis murdered the Jews who had stayed behind. Then, to try to conceal the systematic slaughter they had carried out here, they pulled down the death camp.

After escaping from Sobibor, Philip and his brother Simcha took refuge on a farm near their home town of Izbica. A Polish farmer risked his life by hiding them under his barn. They remained there for a year. Once the war was over, Philip began a new life in America, his brother Simcha in Israel.

"In Sobibor life was hell," Philip says. "But we took revenge. We escaped to tell the world what had happened. And I made a victory over the Germans. I created a new family of five children and 14 grandchildren. This is my biggest victory."

Sobibor in easter Poland
Sobibor was a Nazi extermination camp in the Lublin region of occupied Poland

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