Canadian Jewish News | 22Apr2010 | Janice Arnold

‘Demjanjuk deserves no mercy’  

MONTREAL — One of the handful of survivors of the Sobibor extermination camp says he doesn’t buy John Demjanjuk’s defence that he was a victim of the Nazis, just like the prisoners he guarded.

In January, 2010, Philip Bialowitz, a retired jeweller in New York, testified at Demjanjuk’s war-crimes trial being held in Munich, Germany. Although he could not identify the retired American autoworker, Bialowitz spoke about the brutality of the guards, many of whom were Ukrainian, as Demjanjuk is.

Last week, the 90-year-old Demjanjuk, in his first major statement since his trial began in November 2009, said he was a prisoner of war of the Germans and was used as a slave labourer. The prosecution maintains that after he was captured by the Germans in 1942, Demjanjuk, a Soviet Red Army soldier, volunteered to serve as a camp guard and trained at the SS camp Trawniki before going to Sobibor. Demjanjuk denies ever being at the camp.

“Some people say that the Trawniki men cannot be guilty because they were prisoners themselves, and would have been killed for not following orders,” said Bialowitz, 84, in a telephone interview. He will speak in Montreal on April 27, 2010, at the Chabad of the Town centre, in co-operation with the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.

“I believe no one, not even prisoners have a right to commit murder of innocent people. Maybe the Trawniki men felt that they and their families had a better chance to survive if they fought for Hitler instead of Stalin, and maybe that this gave them the right to join a German battle unit and to fight on a field of war against other soldiers. But they had no right to perform guard duty at a death camp.

“If they served at Sobibor, it was for the purpose of murdering thousands of innocent men, women and children. All of the Sobibor guards had a moral obligation to either lay down their weapons or resist in some way. If they did not, they should be treated as war criminals. I wish to see them punished appropriately for their actions.”

Bialowitz said his not recognizing Demjanjuk is not evidence of his innocence because he does not remember the faces of most of his Sobibor guards.

“I do remember the guards watched over us, beat us and sometimes shot us. I witnessed several Jews shot to death by a firing squad of guards.”

He also saw that guards had the opportunity to escape, such as when they escorted him on a work detail outside the camp. He heard stories that some did, in fact, flee.

Bialowitz, who spent six months in the camp, took part in the uprising on Oct. 14, 1943, at Sobibor, which was located in occupied Poland near Lublin. He is one of eight living survivors of the camp, where an estimated 250,000 people, mostly Jews, died, mainly by extermination in gas chambers, between 1942 and 1943. Bialowitz, a native of Izbica, near Lublin, lost his father, two sisters and a niece at Sobibor.

Bialowitz could have spent a quiet retirement in relative obscurity, but he has spent the past 20 years speaking to whoever will listen, in schools, at museums and to church groups around the United States and in Poland and elsewhere in Europe, painfully reliving the horrors he witnessed and his own narrow escape from death, more than once. His efforts have only intensified in the past five years because he knows time is running out.

Bialowitz was among the prisoners forced to meet trainloads of unsuspecting Jews coming from western Europe, forbidden by the guards to even hint at their fate. Bialowitz often had to cut the women’s hair before they went to the gas chamber.

[W.Z.  In his Blurb Biography of John Demjanjuk, Lubomyr Prytulak quotes Hannah Arendt as follows:

Describing not just a single camp, but the many camps covered in the Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt reinforces and broadens the above impression, concluding that Jewish leadership provided indispensable cogs in the Nazi killing machine, not the least of which cogs were the terminal ones at the scene of death:

The well-known fact that the actual work of killing in the extermination centers was usually in the hands of Jewish commandos had been fairly and squarely established by witnesses for the prosecution — how they had worked in the gas chambers and the crematories, how they had pulled the gold teeth and cut the hair of the corpses, how they had dug the graves and, later, dug them up again to extinguish the traces of mass murder; how Jewish technicians had built gas chambers in Theresienstadt, where the Jewish "autonomy" had been carried so far that even the hangman was a Jew.  (p. 109)

Two years ago, Bialowitz wrote his memoir in Polish, Revolt at Sobibor, which was published by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. In October, an English version, A Promise at Sobibor: A Jewish Boy’s Story of Revolt and Survival in Nazi-occupied Poland, written with his son, Joseph, is to be released by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Just 16 at the time, Bialowitz was among a small group of prisoners who killed some of the SS officers and guards, with knives and axes, and freed roughly 200 of the nearly 600 inmates.

They had to run for their lives under machine-gun fire and avoid the mines that were buried around the camp. Many were killed or later executed, and historians estimate that only 50 to 70 escapees made it to freedom.

Bialowitz’s older brother, a pharmacist, gave him cyanide and a compass before the outbreak, telling him it would be better to commit suicide than be recaptured. If he made it, the compass would point him to the east and, hopefully, life.

Despite the heavy casualties, Bialowitz is proud that the revolt was “the largest and most successful prisoner rebellion during World War II,” and proof that Jews did fight back, even though the odds were overwhelmingly against them. The Germans closed the camp after the revolt.

Bialowitz said he is motivated to keep talking about the Holocaust by the words of Aleksandr Pechersky, the leader of the revolt, who exhorted anyone who survived to tell the world what happened at Sobibor.

Bialowitz immigrated to the United States in 1950, and first lived in Columbus, Ohio -- Demjanjuk’s home state -- before moving to New York. His greatest accomplishment, Bialowitz feels, is raising five children, who have produced 15 grandchildren. “This is my biggest victory over the Nazis,” he said. Bialowitz will be coming to Montreal with his son, who also lectures frequently on Holocaust remembrance.

If Demjanjuk is found guilty, Bialowitz feels he does not deserve mercy because of old age and poor health. None, he points out, was shown to the innocent victims at Sobibor. Demjanjuk is facing 27,900 counts of being an accessory to murder committed at Sobibor, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.