On April 30, 1942, 11-year-old Philip Lazowski was spotted by Nazis outside his family's hiding place in the Jewish ghetto of Zhetel, Poland. He was ordered to a market square to join thousands of other Jews.
There he watched in horror as a Nazi gleefully slaughtered an infant nursing at their mother's breast.
"He pierced his bayonet through the baby, spun it around over the people's heads and threw it like a football," Lazowski, now a 91-year-old longtime rabbi, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.
On a podium stood a Nazi officer splitting people into two groups. He either pointed his finger to the left — for those chosen to live, including nurses, doctors, tailors, "who could be of use" — or to the right, "those who were going to be shot," Lazowski explains. "I saw all the elderly and all the young children going in that direction."
courtesy Lazowski family Philip and Ruth Lazowski
With mere minutes separating Lazowski from life or death, he spotted a woman holding a nursing certificate and standing with her two little girls. He asked if she would take him as her son.
"She looked at me with such kindness and said, 'If they let me leave with two children, maybe they let me leave with three. Hold on to my dress.' And we went to the side of the living," he says, his voice quaking with emotion. "I saw the lady only for 15 to 18 minutes, but I never forgot her."
courtesy Lazowski family Philip Lazowski in 1945
Lazowski would safely return to his family, but in August 1942, the Nazis returned to massacre the remaining Jews in the ghetto. As his mother pushed him from a window to help him escape death, she told her son, "Tell the world what happened."
Those last words have guided Lazowski, who shares his chilling story not just to fulfill his mother's final wish, but also because he is "terribly, terribly upset" by the all-too-regular news of anti-Semitic violence in the U.S.
"This is the result of not educating people enough about the Holocaust," says Lazowski. "When people forget what happened, they are vulnerable to [the idea] that it never happened."
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"We have a choice to make this world better — or hate and destroy each other," he adds.
While Lazowski's mother, two of his brothers and a sister were tragically killed by the Nazis, he miraculously survived alongside his father and another brother, who would all end up living in a forest for two years before eventually making it to America in 1947.
Years later he would get the surprise of a lifetime. After settling in Brooklyn, Lazowski reluctantly attended the wedding of a college classmate in 1953.
"I didn't have the proper clothes, I didn't know how to dance," he says.
courtesy Lazowski family Ruth Lazowski (right) with her family
But he went and ending up talking to a young woman named Gloria.
"When she heard I was from Bielica [his family's town before banishment to the ghetto], she said, 'Oh my God! My best girlfriend Ruth's mother saved a boy from Bielica,'" he recalls. "And when she finished telling me the story, I said, 'I am the boy!'"
He found out that the woman who saved him, Mirian Rabinowitz, lived in Hartford, Connecticut, and gave her a call. "I'm so happy to hear that you are alive!" she told him over the phone.
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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 soon visited Miriam and saw her daughters. The two little girls who were in line with them during the Holocaust were now grown women, ages 18 and 19. He quickly became fond of one of them, Ruth. The feeling was mutual.
"I liked his looks, he was very friendly," Ruth tells PEOPLE, "and I fell in love."
courtesy Lazowski family Philip and Ruth Lazowski
Says Lazowski: "I felt in my heart that she is the one for me, because she went through so much that I did."
In the years since they married in 1955, Lazowski became the longtime rabbi of a Hartford synagogue; partnered with a Catholic priest on a mental health initiative at Hartford Hospital; and became the chaplain to the Connecticut state Senate — where he continues to serve today.
Meanwhile, he and Ruth had three sons and became grandparents seven times over.
Their son Alan — a 61-year-old board member of the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP — says Lazowski was a "model son-in-law" who often drove Ruth's parents, Miriam and Morris, around town and took care of them until the end of their lives.
Lazowski shrugs off any praise: "I always consider her a mother to me," he says.
Remembering the mother he lost to an evil he wants the world never to forget, lest it rise again, Lazowski adds: "God was good to me that I was saved, that I'm still alive. I tried my very best and I think I fulfilled what my mother asked of me."