Many Jews fleeing Nazi rule spent years hiding in forests. A new book tells their stories

During the early Nazi occupation of Europe, they forced more than a million Jews to live and work in ghettos. Most were killed in a brutal process called liquidation, or sent to concentration camps. Some 25,000 Jews escaped the ghettos and hid in Eastern European forests. The members of one family that survived years in the woods tell their story in Rebecca Frankel's new book, “Into the Forest.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the 1930s, when the Nazis began their occupation of Europe, they set up ghettos for more than one million Jews, forcing them to live and work in fenced-off communities. Once the Nazis arrived at the Final Solution, the mass murder of Jews, most ghetto residents were killed.

    Some 25,000 of them, though, escaped the ghettos to hide in the woods, but few survived. The members of one family who spent years in the forest are now telling their story.

    Author Rebecca Frankel writes about them in her new book, "Into the Forest."

    She recently sat down with "NewsHour" producer Ali Rogin.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Rebecca Frankel, thank you so much for being here.

    Your new book, "Into the Forest," is first and foremost a story of survival, and at the heart of it is the Rabinowitz family.

    So, can you tell me a little bit about them and what they endured?

    Rebecca Frankel, Author, "Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love": Sure.

    So, the Rabinowitz family was a normal family in 1930s Poland. They lived in a very small town called Zhetel. It was Morris and Miriam were married, and they had two young, very sweet, adorable daughters, Rochel and Tania. And they were basically just going about their lives.

    Morris was a lumber dealer. Miriam owned a small shop. And they were, of course, a Jewish family, which, ultimately, as the 1930s would continue and as Germany's influence in Poland and the politics started having a meddling influence, certainly, that changed for the worse.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Their fortunes change. They are sent into the ghetto. And tell us about what their experience was like in the ghetto.

  • Rebecca Frankel:

    So, when the Germans invaded and they broke their pact with Russia in 1941, that's when things for Zhetel started to get really bad.

    All of the Jews of the small town in Zhetel, they were interned in a ghetto. And then the selection started. And what this meant, of course, was that the Germans were separating out the Jews that could provide some sort of service, were of some value in terms of labor, or they were doctors or craftsmen or architects or engineers.

    And the people who suffered most then, of course, were small children without parents, the elderly, the infirm, and even just women who didn't have working certificates.

    But one thing for these small communities in these more forest-adjacent towns in Poland and Belarussia and other countries closer to Russia, one thing started to give them hope. And that was this idea that they could run away to the forest.

    And what was happening then was that the Soviet fighters who had been sort of behind enemy lines at this point were regrouping into guerrilla fighting units, and they were slowly mounting this outside fight against Germany.

    And so these Jews in the ghetto, not many of them were able to do it, but some of them did escape their ghettos, and they did run to the forest. And, of course, this is what happened with the Rabinowitz family. They were able to escape in August of 1942, right during the most terrible thing that happened to the Jews of Zhetel, which, of course, was the liquidation of the ghetto, when the Nazis basically killed all of the remaining Jews, except for a very small number.

  • Ali Rogin:

    They end up in the forest. And then tell us about what life was like there. It was incredibly difficult for a number of years.

  • Rebecca Frankel:

    So, they went into the forest in the summer of 1942, and that — the summertime was actually probably the most benevolent season of this area, because the winters are absolutely brutal. The temperatures drop to about negative-20 degrees.

    And I think, during these winters that they were there — and the family was there for two years — it was even colder. And, of course, they weren't safe in the woods, as I think that they imagined they would be, because there were still people, local groups, Poles, and Lithuanians and others, who had aligned with the Germans and the Nazis, and were looking for partisan fighters, but also Jewish family camps, which is what the Rabinowitz family did.

    They formed a family camp. And so they were constantly on the move. They built these small, little communities in the woods, these underground bunkers, that are called zemlyanka. And they basically made as much of a life in the woods as they could. But, really, it was just a day-to-day struggle to survive.

  • Ali Rogin:

    And the fact that they did so, and they made it through, they spent several years, as you recount in the book, traveling through Europe as refugees.

    But then, of course, when they get to America, in the midst of all of this, there's a love story.

  • Rebecca Frankel:

    There is, and it's a really wonderful part of this family story.

    Of course, there's the love story between Morris and Miriam and how they kept their family going. But the other love story that you're talking about is the one between Morris and Miriam's daughter Ruth, and this young boy, Philip Lazowski, who is from another small Polish town called Belitza.

    And this boy met the Rabinowitz family earlier, before they escaped the ghetto, in 1942 in April, when there was a selection, as I mentioned before. And during the selection, he was separated from his family. So, 11-year-old Philip is in the midst of this brutality, and people are being killed all around him.

    And he sees this woman with her two young daughters, and she has a kind-looking face, and so he thinks, I can approach her. He walks up to her and he says: "Will you please pretend that I'm your son?"

    And she takes one look at him and she says: "If the Nazis will let me live with two children, they will let me live with three." And so they make it through the selection, and he's safe, and they're safe, and he runs off and they don't see him again until after the war.

    Philip Lazowski also emigrated to the United States, just like the Rabinowitz family did. And in 1953, he's at a wedding in Brooklyn, and he sits next to this young woman. And it turns out that she knows this family that once saved a boy from Belitza.

    And he's sitting there. And he thinks, OK, well, what's the story? You know, tell me. How did it happen? And she tells him. and he says, that was me. I'm the boy.

    And so, minutes later, he runs to a pay phone. He makes the phone call. And then so begins this reunion between the two families, Miriam Rabinowitz, who saved Philip Lazowski. And on a visit to Hartford, where they were living, he meets Miriam's oldest daughter, Ruth, who's no longer a little girl. She is a teenager.

  • Ali Rogin:

    And she had changed her name from what it was back in Poland.

  • Rebecca Frankel:

    Yes, thank you. Yes.

    So, Rochel was now Ruth. And he started writing her letters, and it took two years, but, eventually, they fell madly in love, and that started a whole 'nother family and romance and marriage.

  • Ali Rogin:

    And, of course, you got to know them because you have a very personal connection to this family.

    Rebecca Frankel I did.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Tell us about that.

  • Rebecca Frankel:

    In addition to meeting Miriam's daughter Ruth and falling in love with her, Philip Lazowski became a rabbi. And my family, from the time I was 5 years old, attended the synagogue where Philip Lazowski was the rabbi.

    And so I have known — I can barely call him Philip, but Rabbi and Ruth, as I call them, I have known them since I was about 5 years old. So this story of how they met and their love story has always been sort of in the background of this community that I grew up with in West Hartford, Connecticut, and was just something I have known about for a very long time.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The book is "Into the Forest."

    Rebecca Frankel, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Rebecca Frankel:

    Thank you. Thank you so much.

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