Israel was born to a religious Jewish family living in the town of Slonim. He was called Yisroel by his Yiddish-speaking parents. Israel's father, Lazar Milkow, was a baker who supported his family on a meager income.
1937-39: Israel's grandparents and many of his mother's relatives lived in a nearby village called Kaslovchina. Each summer one of the Milkow boys was invited to stay in Kaslovchina with their Uncle Herschel who worked as a farmer and horse trader. In September 1939 Slonim became part of the Soviet Union. Even though the government changed, the Milkows' daily life continued much as before.
1940-44: In the summer of 1941, 4-year-old Israel was enjoying his turn visiting Uncle Herschel in Kaslovchina when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union. It was too dangerous to bring Israel back to Slonim, so Herschel took Israel with him when he led his family across the Soviet Union to safety in the city of Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. They lived in a hut with no running water. Malaria and typhus spread; within a year both Uncle Herschel and his wife died, and Israel was placed in an orphanage.
After the war, Israel was returned to Poland, and after many travels ended up in Rome. He was located by American relatives in 1949, and emigrated to the United States in 1950.