Coincidence, karma or miracle? This story will make you wonder. It begins in a small village near present-day Ukraine amid war crimes committed by the German Nazis. A time in history that does not feel so long ago given the current news of war crimes in the region.
Near that village lies the dark primeval Białowieża Forest, straddling the borders of Poland and Belarus. Though it's described as “hauntingly beautiful” its tall trees and seemly endless marshlands have witnessed the harshest of evils.
At the outbreak of WWII, Miriam Rabinowitz lived in the small Polish town of Zhetel, (sometimes called Zdzięcioł) with her husband Morris and two daughters, Tania and Rochel.
Christians and Jews had lived peacefully in Zhetel for nearly 400 years, while the town was variously under the control of Belarus, Russia and Poland. In 1939, the population was roughly 4,600 and 75 percent were Jewish.
The Nazis arrived in the fall of 1939. They shipped skilled workers to workcamps and eventually to death camps. With the help of local police, they slaughtered most of the remaining Jewish residents, men women and children, in two consecutive mass shootings in the spring and summer of 1942.
Today a memorial stands on the remnants of the old Jewish cemetery, a fenced collective grave, in which the bodies of about two thousand people are buried, shot in this place by the Nazis on August 6, 1942.
One of the Nazis' first orders of business was to mark off a section of Zhetel and construct a ghetto. The small neighborhood was partly fenced by wood and barbed wire and eventually guarded by soldiers. In late February of 1942 the German occupiers ordered the Jewish population into a ghetto.
The true terror began for the Rabinowitz family, two months later on April 30,1942. They woke to the sound of gunfire, barking dogs and shouts calls to evacuate.
Morris and Miriam Rabinowitz threw on their clothes and then quickly dressed their young daughters. They crowded into the street and were told to report to the Marketplace in the center of town. Jewish police officers whom the Nazi's had charged to keep order assured the frightened people the Nazis just planned to check papers.
But as the Rabinowitzs progressed with the crowd nearer to the Marketplace, Miriam saw the towering SS officer in his black, leather trench coat and a "giant dog leashed at his side," she understood this the situation was desperate.
"It was a selection: Those who were sent to the right would be killed and those to the left would live. The dawning understanding incited a fresh wave of terror, turning the scene into barely contained pandemonium. Anyone who hesitated or intervened was shot on the spot.
As [the SS officer] made this decisive motion with his finger—to the right, to the left—the contrast of his steady demeanor against the human hysteria unfurling around him seemed almost irrational. His immaculate black boots, shining with polish, were the height of disregard."
All quotes in today's article are from the book INTO THE FOREST: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love by Rebecca Frankel.
Miriam had been a healer in Zhetel, with a small shop selling natural remedies. Considered a nurse, she had work papers which she carried to the Marketsquare that morning. Her husband Morris, a former lumber worker, also had a coveted yellow certificate. In the crush of the crowd Miriam and her girls became separated from him.
"All around the Marketplace, families with and without working certificates were being ripped apart. One man was sent to the left, but when his wife was pushed to the right, he ran after her and was shot in the head. Bodies began to pile up; blood colored the ground."
In the mayhem an eleven-year-old boy, Philip Lazowski, approached Miriam. “Please,” he begged. “I don’t have anyone here. Will you take me as your son?”
"Miriam looked at the young boy, taking in his thick shock of hair and desperate eyes. It took her but a moment to decide.
“If the Nazis let me live with two children,” she told him, “they’ll let me live with three.” She offered the boy her free hand and Philip, relieved, gripped it tight."
When Miriam and the children reached the SS officer, it was with great relief that she spied her husband standing safely to the left.
“Das ist mein Mann!” [she said] pointing to Morris who shouted back, “Das ist meine Frau!”
The officer inspected Miriam's work certificate and pointed left. She rushed into her husband's arms, all three children in tow. The boy, Philip Lazowski could hardly believe he'd escaped death and ran from the Marketplace, not even pausing to thank Miriam or ask her name.
A world war and nearly a decade would pass before an extraordinary coincidence would bring the Morris family and Philip together again.
The second Zhetel massacre started on August 6, 1942, and lasted for three days, the ghetto was liquidated, 2,000 to 3,000 Jews were shot and buried in three mass graves in the Jewish cemetery.
The Rabinowitz family hid with 20 others in a shelter dug below a garage at the edge of the ghetto, hearing Nazi boot steps above. Undiscovered, they were able to crawl out and flee for their lives into the ancient Białowieża Forest. But Philip and his family were trapped in the ghetto when the Nazis returned to massacre Zhetel's remaining Jews.
"As his mother pushed him from a window to help him escape death, she told her son, "Tell the world what happened."
Philip escaped to join hundreds of Jewish civilian refugees scattered in the Białowieża Forest, along with a force of more than one hundred Jews partisan fighters. Soviet partisans also operated out of the huge forest.
It's difficult to imagine, but the Rabinowitz family survived two years hiding in the forest. They suffered freezing winters with waist-high snowdrifts, outbreaks of typhus, struggled to find food, shelter and medical care. All while avoiding Nazi raids into the woods and coping with a combination of boredom and anxiety.
In July 1944, the Red Army marched in and liberated the Bialowieza forest and its nearby towns and villages. Miriam, Morris and their girls were among the few survivors. The Rabinowitz's went back to Zhetel, but the home and community they had known was gone. The town had become Soviet territory and today, called Dziatlava, it is within the borders of Belarus.
Hoping to emigrate to Palestine, the family made an arduous crossing over the Alps into Italy, joining Jewish refugees waiting in coastal cities for visas. They began to recuperate, but not until 1948 did a way open for them to move forward.
Sponsored by Morris' relatives in the US, the Rabinowitz family obtained visas and moved to Connecticut to build a new life. The girls Americanized their names to Ruth and Toby.
But what of Philip Lazowski?
He, too, had been one of the fortunate ones to survive the war hiding in the forest, and also moved to the US to start anew in Brooklyn, NY. He'd been in the US five years, studying at Brooklyn College and Yeshiva University when he was invited to a friend's wedding.
At the reception, Philip started talking to a young woman who had spent time in a refugee camp in Italy.
"She told him the story of how her friend’s mother had risked her own life and the safety of her two young daughters to keep the boy from death during the first ghetto massacre in Zhetel.
"As he listened, Philip’s heart began to pound—he already knew this story. “That was me,” he told her. “I am that boy.”
He got Miriam Rabinowitz phone number and immediately called her.
"I'm so happy to hear that you are alive!" she told him over the phone.
Lazowski wrote to her the next day: "I didn't and couldn't forget you...I was looking all over to find you, but as the Talmud says, 'The day will come,' and the day did come."
He visited the family and
He told PEOPLE magazine in February 2022,"I felt in my heart that she is the one for me, because she went through so much that I did."
In the same interview, Ruth said, "I liked his looks, he was very friendly and I fell in love."
The couple married in 1955. They raised three sons and now have seven grandchildren.
Coincidence, Karma or Miracle? Maybe it's simply love. The inexplicable power of love.
You can read the whole story in INTO THE FOREST: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love by Rebecca Frankel, called one of The Ten Best History Books of 2021 by Smithsonian Magazine.
Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph and Love, by Rebecca Frankel. (St. Martin's Press, 2021) https://www.thehistoryreader.com/world-history/a-great-love-story-of-a-terrible-time/
A Detailed History and Memorial to the Jewish Community of Zhetl (Dzyatlava, Belarus)
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