Matthew Nash

Ohrdruf Extended: Philip Bialowitz survives extermination


Philip Bialowitz, speaking in 2011 in Boston.

In the spring of 2011 I felt that I had done enough research to tentatively start shooting some footage for 16 Photographs at Ohrdruf. My first shoot, in late March, was an interview with the amazing William Gamson — and I’ll post more about him soon. On May 16 my wife sent me the following email:


This is happening tonight if you’re interested:

Philip Bialowitz, one of the eight living survivors of the Sobibor concentration camp, speaks tonight in Chestnut Hill


Rabbi Mendy Unimer introduces Mr. Bialowitz.

There was a link to a public announcement (no longer online) about a talk at a synagogue near my neighborhood. While I wasn’t sure I was ready to film Holocaust survivors, I decided to contact the Rabbi — Rabbi Mendy Uminer who makes a very brief appearance in 16 Photographs– and got permission to film the event.

That evening I dressed in my only suit, not knowing what to expect and wanting to respect the synagogue. Raised in the Methodist church I knew everyone wore suits on Sunday, and figured the worst I could do was be overdressed for the occasion. Once in the small theater and lecture hall on Chestnut Hill, I set up my camera in the corner and tried to be inconspicuous.

Of course, I was behind a large production camera and several microphones, and profoundly overdressed for the occasion. Yet, everyone was nice and asked what I was up to. The star of the evening, Mr. Bialowitz, talked with me a little while Rabbi Uminer flitted around with an abundance of energy.

When Philip Bialowitz took the podium, I knew I had made the right decision to film this event. He told of his time at the Sobibór extermination camp, and the strangely sadistic nature of the Nazi system for keeping the condemned quiet up to the moment of their death.

In 16 Photographs at Ohrdruf I show a bit of his lecture, less than I would like, but enough to get a sense of how powerful his story is.


A view of the Sobibór memorial. Click for more information.

In 1943 the handful of Jewish slaves kept at the camp to work for the Nazis rebelled and ran for the woods. A few of them survived, perhaps 60. Among them were Philip and his brother Symcha. With 2 years of war ahead of them, caught in the Russian advance, the Sobibór survivors had a long fight ahead of them to survive the war.

While listening to Mr. Bialowitz describe his experiences, I was struck by a powerful sense of how little I knew about the Holocaust. Sure, I’d seen Schindler’s List and read Night, but how had I never heard of Sobibór? Suddenly the door was thrown open to reveal my own lack of knowledge about the very topic I was trying to film… I knew nothing at all about the Holocaust. Of course, I was trying to find out everything I could about an obscure sub-camp of Büchenwald at Ohrdruf — but in May 2011 I hadn’t yet realized that I had opened my own Pandora’s box.

In the film, Geoff Megargee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum sums up his own research into the Holocaust camps by saying that his Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos will contain 30,000 sites. He says that among those, the Museum only recognizes 5 as extermination camps — Sobibór is one of those camps.

At the end of the evening I talked with Mr. Bialowitz and bought his book, A Promise At Sobibór. I’ve read it several times and each time I feel the shock, the horror, the helplessness and the rebellion of the victims of Sobibór.

Of course, why read when you can watch a movie? In 1987 there was a made-for-TV move starring Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer titled Escape From Sobibór. Here is the whole film, so you can see what Philip Bialowitz survived.

Note: this film was posted to YouTube by another user and I am only linking to their post. I make no claim of copyright or ownership over this video.

For more “Ohrdruf Extended” articles click here.

Categorised as: 16 Photographs At Ohrdruf

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