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Nazi death camp survivor tells his story

In his sports jacket, lavender shirt and tie and Sinatra-style snap-brim straw fedora, Philip Bialowitz looks like a dapper man about town, not a war-hardened Nazi killer.

Bialowitz, 82, one of only eight remaining survivors of the Nazi death camp Sobibor, will speak at 7:15 p.m. on Monday at the Chabad of Lake Worth.

In 1942 and 1943, more than 250,000 people, mostly Jews, were exterminated at Sobibor, an extermination camp set in a densely wooded, isolated area of eastern Poland.

Bialowitz was a boy of 17, a slave laborer at Sobibor, when he joined a cadre of prisoners who planned an uprising, considered the largest and most successful prisoner revolt of World War II.

"We were untrained and ill-fed and we were successful," he said.

Beyond their own survival, the prisoners had a greater goal.

Their rallying cry was, "If anyone survives, bear witness to what happened here. Tell the world about this place!"

Bialowitz took that pledge to heart. He is a lecturer and the author, with his son Joseph, of A Promise at Sobibór: A Jewish Boy's Story of Revolt and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland.

Bialowitz and several family members were transported to Sobibor in April 1943.

His sisters and his niece were gassed, he later found out from another prisoner who cut his niece's hair before she entered the gas chamber.

Later, Bialowitz was cutting hair of women who thought they were merely being deloused, not exterminated.

"The women asked me not to cut their hair too short," he recalled.

His tasks became progressively more grisly. One day he was ordered to help empty piles of bloated corpses from a boxcar.

"I try to pull a dead woman from the train, but her skin comes away in my hands," he said.

Laughing, a Nazi officer stuck a cigarette in Bialowitz's mouth to reduce the stench, took a snapshot of the ghoulish scene and walked away.

The revolt was conceived in 1943, when the slave workers realized that the Nazi killing machine at Sobibor was slowing down. Soon, their work would be done and they would be forced into the gas chamber.

"They said to us, 'Brothers, our destiny has come. Let's rise up and destroy this place,' " said Bialowitz.

On Oct. 14, 1943, after killing 11 Nazi guards with axes and knives they secretly fashioned in the camp workshop, about 300 slave laborers pushed down a section of fence and scrambled into the forest.

About half of the escapees were either captured or killed by mines outside the camp, dying to save their comrades.

And of those who escaped, only about 50 survived until the end of the war.

Bialowitz reunited with a few members of his family and was trained in a displaced persons camp as a dental assistant by a former Nazi doctor. In 1950 he emigrated to Columbus, Ohio, married and started a family.

Today he lives in Queens, N.Y.

Every year he meets thousands of teens who come to Poland for the March of the Living.

"They didn't destroy my personality and my will to live. I tell them my story and we sing, the nation of Israel is alive."

Bialowitz smiles, a mischievous smile. You might say it is his last laugh on Adolf Hitler.

"I have five children, 15 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren," he says, beaming. "My biggest victory over the Nazis is that I created a new family."