Rabbi Philip Lazowski has been a longtime leader in the greater Hartford area. He was Rabbi of Beth Hillel Synagogue in Bloomfield for 45 years and he is currently Chaplain for the State Senate, Hartford Hospital, and the Hartford Police Department. But when he was 11 years old, Nazis invaded Poland and slaughtered Jewish residents in his hometown of Bielica, Poland.
Rabbi Lazowski spoke with Connecticut Public Radio’s Lucy Nalpathanchil about how he and his family were hunted and captured by Nazis and how he survived.
Listen to the entire interview with Rabbi Lazowski, which aired originally on January 3, 2019, on Where We Live.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
On his childhood
I had a wonderful childhood. We were four boys and one girl. I am the oldest of the family. My mother of blessed memory, she was in business and my father was a fisherman, also in business. When the war started, I was 11 years old. The place that I grew up was called Bielica which is not far away from a better known bigger city, called Vilnius. My story is a lesson to show how the Nazis brutalized, murdered, and oppressed the civilization and the world stood by and did not care.
On Nazis occupying Poland
Poland was divided among Germany and Russia. Our part was Russia. Well, when the Russians came in we were considered a bourgeoisie which means if somebody [was] in a business, like my mother or father, they [were] send to Siberia. So every night we were waiting [for] the Russians to come and send us to Siberia. I recalled my mother used to prepare two big sacks of fried bread because five kids to [travel] by train for months--we would starve. Fortunately, some of the workers spoke up for us and said, "They are very good people." And we [were] not sent out to Siberia.
In 1941 the Germans came to our town. And our town even though it was not very prominent, it was right next to our airport where the Russians were learning how to fly. And when they heard that the Germans came, they started to fight with the Germans. Three Germans were killed so the Germans decided to burn the whole town.
When the Nazis invaded
Well, it was unbelievable. The people start running from their homes and the Germans [were] looking for the Russians. Anybody that what did not have hair was considered [a] soldier. My father was bald therefore they wanted to shoot him. So he grabbed hold of our little baby to show that he's not a soldier, that he is a husband and father of a wife and a family. So they throw us out in the house and we left the house. We couldn't take anything with us.
We didn't have a place where to stay so we stayed [in] our grandfather's house. In the meantime, the Nazis came and they started to beat us up and to demand everything from gold from silver from pictures which we didn't have. So they took people and they said if we don't give enough of this gold we'll shoot him. All the ladies gave up all their jewelry, etc. In the meantime, they shot older people. Then they forced us to go together in Zhetel.
Living in the Zhetel (Ghetto)
They put us in one room all seven of us: five children, mother, and father. We slept on the floor. Very few rations food and fortunately we knew so many good Christians that were friends of ours. They used to bring us some food and that's what we were able to survive for a number of months in the ghetto. And lo and behold the Christian friends came to us and said you know, all the other ghettos are being murdered and you better do something. So we decided to build a hiding place and in the hiding place, all of us went in when the massacre started. Unfortunately, I was the one we had to close the entrance not to be noticed. And I told the family I will hide someplace else. As soon as I closed the entrance a Nazi spotted me and asked me where's your family. I said, “My family went to the marketplace.” They said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I forgot my coat”. And they said, “Where you go you don't need a coat. If you don't run I'll shoot you right now.” So I came to the marketplace and in the marketplace, what I saw is indescribable.
While at the marketplace
Words cannot describe the brutality and the acts that they performed. I saw a woman resting a child and a Nazi came with a bayonet and burst the baby through it like a football. I saw people standing there for no reason. They shoot [them] on this spot. They were drunk or something to this effect. But the acts were so unbelievable. And then I realize what they do. There is a Nazi that was standing in yellow clothes and with his finger, he pointed right or left and I noticed that the elderly and the children were always sent one side but the young people that are able to work were sent to the other side and especially whoever had a certificate like a doctor or a nurse a tailor, a cobbler, etc.
Then in my mind came, maybe I will ask somebody to take me as [their] son. A lady was standing with two daughters, one was five and one was seven, and the lady had a certificate that she is a nurse. So I went to her and I said, I don't have anybody here. Would you take me as your son? She looked at me. She said, “Listen if they let me live with two children--let's hold onto my dress.” She went to the Nazi, she showed the nurse certificate and said my husband is also over there on the side because the husband was strong and big and tall. So that's how she saved my life.
Reuniting with his family back at the house
Unfortunately, I saw six people in front of the house lying dead so I figured that [was] my family. I fainted. But my aunt knew where the cave was. She opened the cave and said, “Where is my son?” Meaning me. She said, “I didn't see your son my mother.” My mother went to look and she came out of the house. I was lying there fainted and that's the first time I saw my mother. Two and a half months [later] we went [hiding] again in the cave. This time I was with the family [in the] cave was six days and six nights. Then [the Nazis] found the cave. So mother said to us this is the end. Try to save yourself if you can. In the meantime, the Germans went into [our] house to look again for jewelry. But while he went in, mother said, “Now's the time to run.” One German saw my brother run and shot him in the back. My other brother went into the house and I went under a bush and I was watching what they did when they took my mother and two little siblings.
I went to look for my father but a dog spotted me and the dog started to bark. A Nazi heard the dog barking. He came out and he saw me. He said, “What is your name?” I told my name is Lazowski and he gave me such a slap in the face that I fell down on the floor. He said, “You're lying. You're a jew.” I said, “Yes I am. My name is Lazowski.” He took me into a movie house and in the movie house, I found my mother and two little children, the smallest of the family. One girl and one boy. The girl was 5 and the boy was 6.
But it didn't take long and the trucks again showed up and we were on the second floor and the window was locked. [My mother] took a chair and she broke the window and she said you have to jump from the second floor. I said, “I'm not jumping without you.” And she said, “I want you to jump to tell the world what was going on. I want you to survive and I want you to be somebody.”
And she pushed me out of the window. When she pushed me out of the window another mother saw what she did. She took her son which was nine years old, and she pushed them out a window too. And this boy was lying next to me. We waited for 15-20 minutes, [while Nazis took] all the people, and they took them to be slaughtered.
But [my] mother's word echoed in my mind in my heart constantly. I was trying my very best to survive.
Rabbi Lazowski would eventually reunite with his father and brother, and together they spent three years hiding in a forest in Lithuania with other survivors. They were relocated to Austria after the war and together they moved to the United States in 1947.