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A family helped a Holocaust survivor escape death. Then they became his real family

When Nazis invaded the Polish town of Bielica, Philip Lazowski and his family were among the Jewish residents who were sent to the Zhetel ghetto during Word War II.

One April morning in 1942, the Lazowski family caught wind that the Nazis were killing Jews in the ghetto, in what is now Belarus, and decided to go into hiding. Philip, then just 11 years old, helped his parents and siblings take shelter in a hideout they'd built in their apartment. He closed off the hiding spot so it wouldn't be discovered, telling his family he would find another place to hide.

But before he could, a German soldier spotted him.

Philip was then taken to the Zhetel marketplace, where German soldiers split people into two groups — those who could work and those who could not. As Nazis conducted the selection, Philip noticed that the killing squad members were sparing families with adults who had work papers.

About 1,000 Jews were killed in the massacre that day.

Philip, now a 91-year-old rabbi, came to StoryCorps with his wife, Ruth, last month to remember how quick thinking and a woman's kindness in that moment had saved his life.

Searching the crowds frantically, the young Philip saw a woman with the documentation in hand, a nurse who stood with her two girls.

"I went over to her and I asked her, 'Would you be kind enough to take me as your son?' " Philip recalled. "She said, 'If they let me live with two children, maybe they'll let me live with three. Hold on to my dress,' " as he tells it.

That woman, Miriam Rabinowitz, was the mother of his future wife, Ruth.

Philip and Ruth Lazowski are pictured on their wedding day in 1955.
/ The Lazowski family
The Lazowski family
Philip and Ruth Lazowski are pictured on their wedding day in 1955.

Years later, after Philip immigrated to the U.S., a strange happenstance would miraculously reconnect him with Ruth. Author Rebecca Frankel detailed their story in the book, Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival.

While attending a wedding, Philip struck up a conversation with a woman seated next to him.

"Sitting at the table I said, 'I come from the town of Bielica,' " he said. "She says, 'You know, a girlfriend told me a story, they saved a boy from Bielica. And we don't know if he's alive.' "

That's when Philip realized he was that boy. He then got in touch with Miriam and visited her and the rest of the family. In 1955, Philip and Ruth married.

"Your mother saved my life," Philip told Ruth, 86, at Storycorps. "That's how our family began."

The Lazowskis now have three children and seven grandchildren.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jo Corona.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.