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by Janice Stensrude
published in Uptown Express July 1989

In July of 1942, Anne Frank and her family went into hiding. Although Anne Frank's story has been told, there are many other tales of the endurance of the human spirit. Ben Philossof's story is reflective of what happened when this planet played out one of the darkest scenes in its history.

"It is a miracle to stay alive. I believe in destiny. There must be a purpose for my remaining alive. I do not know what it is, but there is a purpose!" These are the words of Benzion David Philossof, a Master Survivor.

A soft-spoken man, impeccably groomed, with an air of gentility, Ben Philossof's appearance is an improbable mask for the man who, in his words, "died three times."

At the age of 5, Philossof tangled with a horse's hooves, and, a few years later, suffered a life-threatening illness. Ben survived, but his mother guarded him closely as he grew up, fearful that some accident or illness would again strike and, perhaps this time, succeed in taking him from their lives. But these are not the brushes with death of which Philossof speaks.

When he was 15, Ben Philossof's comfortable middle-class existence was startlingly interrupted. Without warning, men in uniforms appeared at the door of his home at four o'clock in the morning on a bitter-cold day in February. The entire family was herded to the railroad station where they were crowded into box cars with others like them—ordinary people who went to work, came home, took care of their families. It was Sofia, Bulgaria in 1943.

The story of the two years that followed is a tale of subhuman existence in a constant state of fear and terror, the story of all who survived Auschwitz and the other Jewish death camps. Ben's 21-year-old brother was exterminated, and his 16-year-old sister was used for medical experiments. In an attempt to save Ben, the family capitalized on his small stature and lied about his age. As a ten-year-old, he was assigned as officers' boot black. He attempted escape, fleeing into the mountains, only to be tracked down by dogs and brought back. The punishment was 36 hours curled in the fetal position in a refrigerated box that allowed no movement. Upon release, he was "thawed," and the doctors examined him to determine the effects of the refrigeration and return to normal temperature. It didn't make any difference to the young teenager. Death was better than this existence, and he attempted escape again . . . and again. Each time he was caught and suffered the same punishment. The day the Americans came into Auschwitz, he was in the gas chamber, but there was no more gas.

This is not the end of Philossof's story. After being sent to Switzerland and then to Paris for recuperation, the Philossof family was returned to Bulgaria to resume their lives. Ben, who speaks nine languages, finished his education in 1948 with a degree in arts and languages.That year he attempted to enter Israel on a small Italian boat. The vessel was packed with Jewish refugees seeking a homeland. The 30-day trip was undertaken with little food and less water. When they were intercepted by the British and sent to a camp in Cypress, Ben was near death from starvation and thirst. He was reunited with his family in Israel the next year.

Philossof trained as a fighter pilot with the Israeli Air Force. He experienced the confusion and deprivation of the early years of the Israeli state in which there was not enough housing, food or medicine for the sudden influx of European Jews searching for a homeland; the frustration at knowing that the idealistic vision was tarnished by the inevitable "carpet baggers" who sucked at the struggling young country's resources like a host of ticks on a hound dog; the confusing panache of different nationalities, different languages, different cultures trying to become a unified whole with Judaism as their common ground. Can a poor country Baptist from the wilds of Kentucky find happiness in the Third Baptist Church in New York City? Many could not.

Philossof moved to the United States in 1959, but returned to Israel in 1967 to fight in the 6-Day War. "I felt like a hero," he related. "I was the first to arrive with a fighter plane from America, and when I stepped from the cockpit, there was a great crowd of people, and they were all cheering. I can't explain how it felt."

In 1963, after training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Philossof again fought for Israel, flying a Phantom 4F4 against Russian MIGs. His plane was hit, and he barely made it back to base.

For the past year Philossof has been trying to find a writer who would collaborate in telling his story. "Three times I have died," he says, "and now I want to tell my story."

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