Israel was raised in Kovno, Lithuania, and graduated from law school there in 1933. Because of anti-Jewish discrimination, he was unable to practice law. The Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, occupying Lithuania. The Kovno ghetto was established that August. By claiming to be a mechanic, Israel escaped several massacres. He was forced to work on a wooden airport runway outside the ghetto. After he escaped, Israel, his wife, and son hid in a potato pit for 9 months until liberation by Soviet forces in 1944.
The airport, the Lithuanian airport was a field. In summertime, when it was dry, the weather was good, it was good, you can land it with a plane. But in wintertime, in the fall, was mud, you couldn't get landed with a plane. Then the Germans decide they go[ing to] make a runway. What they going to do, they took wood, thirty-six inches, cut it in three, in twelve inches and put twelve inches straight in the ground, and over top, gravel. And with...uh...landing the planes it looks like it would be a runway. And that what they done. Then they put me--and there was hard to get to work. People didn't want to--it was the worst place was at the airport to work. First thing it is a field, they have nobody to surround it, and it is hard, hard work, and the Germans chasing you. That's why I lost the two fingers. You see my job was to take the thirty-six-inch wood and cut it in three pieces, was a, a saw, electric saw, but the saw run by gasoline. You know, like a jigsaw. And I was staying and cutting in three pieces the wood and threw it on the ground, and there was women taking it away and moving it away where they need it. And when I stand and cutting the wood, somebody hit me right over there with a, it was with a rifle butt, but so strong...and I looked around like this to see what's happened, who hit me. In that time I moved my hand and the finger got under the saw and cut my...my both fingers off. And it was the German guard, was staying there guarding us. Well, a woman say, "Look, take a piece of wire, stop your blood, because you could lose all your blood you be, you be dead in a minute." Then they find me a piece of wire to tie it up here my wrist as tight as I can to stop the blood to...to go through. And I...and I had to stay like that, working with one hand until seven o'clock at night when I got into the ghetto and the ghetto had a doctor and...and he start curing me.