ST. LOUIS – Philip Bialowitz, a Holocaust survivor, pulled his black rolling suitcase through the airport terminal. He had arrived in St. Louis on an early-morning flight from Florida. He wore a black winter jacket, purple tie, tan fedora. Getting around is not so easy for him anymore. He is 84. He knows his time is getting shorter. Two weeks ago, his brother Symca Bialowitz died. Together they had survived the same Nazi death camp in modern-day Poland where an estimated 250,000 people were killed.
But Bialowitz pushed on, motivated by a need to share his story. In a few hours, he was to give a talk at Washington University.
“I have a mission to perform,” Bialowitz explained before the talk. “So here I am, bearing witness.”
Nearly 70 years after World War II, the number of people like Bialowitz with firsthand memories of the Holocaust is rapidly dwindling. Headlines were made last month when Alice Herz-Sommer, believed to have been the oldest living survivor, died in London at age 110. About 500,000 Jewish survivors are still alive, according to the Claims Conference, which negotiates survivor payments with Germany. In the U.S., the number of survivors is roughly 127,000, according to one congressional estimate. The St. Louis Holocaust Museum estimates fewer than 100 are left in the St. Louis region.
And only a fraction of survivors ever share their stories with a wider audience.
“Living memory is now about to come to an end,” said Deborah Dwork, director of Holocaust and genocide studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “And when memory ends, history kicks in.”
Historians have been preparing with a rush to document stories and interview survivors. In one twist, the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California has taken the step of creating three-dimensional holograms of survivors recounting their experiences. But nothing compares to the force of seeing and hearing directly from the people who survived the Nazis’ genocidal campaign against Jews in Europe, which claimed an estimated 6 million lives.
Rabbi Hershey Novack, who joined two students in meeting Bialowitz at the St. Louis airport, said he realizes this opportunity will not be available to the next generation of students.
“Soon there will be no survivors left,” said Novack, director of Chabad on Campus at Washington University.
Bialowitz was 14 when he arrived at the Sobibor death camp. Jews rounded up by Nazis arrived by train. The trip to the gas chamber was so quick that there was no need to bother tattooing identification numbers on prisoners’ forearms. Bialowitz managed to stay alive by becoming a slave laborer.
Sobibor was the scene of a famous prisoners’ revolt, one of the rare successful concentration camp uprisings. In October 1943, about 600 prisoners, including Bialowitz, overran Nazi staff and guards and fanned out into the woods. Just before the revolt, one prisoner told the group that their odds were slim and anyone who made it out alive must tell others about what had happened at Sobibor.
About 300 people escaped the camp. About 50 of them made it to the end of the war. Today, seven Sobibor survivors are alive. And many of them are in poor health now, Bialowitz said.
After the airport, Bialowitz was taken to Kohn’s Kosher Deli in Creve Coeur, Mo. Between bites of hamburger and sips of sugar-free Sprite, Bialowitz talked about how he lived and worked in New York as a jeweler after the war. He and his wife, who has since died, had five children. He did not publicly share his memories of the Holocaust for many years. It was too much, even as the scenes continued to play out in his dreams. But about 20 years ago, he realized he needed to talk.
“Time is running out. There are so many deniers. I am a witness,” he said.
He gives talks across the country. In 2010, he wrote a book recalling his concentration camp experience, with help from one of his sons, called “A Promise at Sobibor.” Last year, on the 70th anniversary of the Sobibor revolt, he and the few other survivors returned to the site of the death camp for a remembrance ceremony. They were awarded a medal of merit by Poland’s president.
At the deli, Bialowitz dug through his suitcase until he found the red case holding his medal. He held it out for the students and rabbi to see. Then, the deli’s owner, Lenny Kohn, walked over. Kohn’s father, Simon Kohn, who founded the deli, was a Holocaust survivor. Simon Kohn died last year at age 88.
“You’re shaking hands with history,” Rabbi Novack said by way of introducing the deli owner to Bialowitz.
Kohn offered to bring over some sweets. Bialowitz said he had to watch his sugar. Kohn brought him a cup of cut fruit instead.
At Washington University, Bialowitz met Bennett Kelberman, a student from Philadelphia whose grandmother also was a Sobibor survivor. She died before Kelberman was born. Bialowitz remembered Kelberman’s grandmother. Kelberman, along with the Chabad Student Association, had invited Bialowitz to give his talk on campus.
Then it was time for an interview with KTVI-2. Anchor Dan Gray and a cameraman positioned two chairs by a window. The afternoon light was perfect. Gray sat in one chair, Bialowitz in another.
“I have a mission to perform,” Bialowitz told his interviewer. “I’ll tell you why. And I’ll tell you on television, no?”
And Bialowitz launched into his story, bearing witness one more time.